Last November, Jesse Ventura ran on the Reform Party ticket and won a three-way race for governor of Minnesota with 37 percent of the vote, soundly defeating Democratic Attorney General Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III and Republican candidate Norm Coleman. It says something about the 47-year-old former mayor of Minneapolis suburb Brooklyn Park that his colorful past as a Spandex-clad, boa-wearing professional wrestler is far from the most interesting thing about him.
Indeed, Ventura, known as "The Body" during his wrestling days, brings much more than a pair of bulging biceps to the Gopher State governor's mansion. He brings a slew of unconventional ideas–including drug decriminalization, sessions devoted to repealing existing laws, and scrapping one house of the state legislature–and a blunt, in-your-face style rarely seen in politics ("You can't legislate stupidity" was one of his campaign slogans). Ventura, a self-described libertarian, also brings along a demonstrably potent political strategy that blends radical views about reducing government with an appreciation for incremental change.
While that strategy has brought him to high office, it remains to be seen how Ventura will fare as he wrestles his toughest opponent to date, Minnesota's state legislature. As he begins his tenure, only this much seems certain: Whoever wins the match, the 6-foot, 4-inch former Navy SEAL will be interesting to watch.
National Journal's Jonathan Rauch talked with Ventura in Minnesota last December. Portions of the following interview originally appeared, in different form, in Rauch's January 9 National Journal column.
Reason: Are you still surprised that you won the governor's race?
Jesse Ventura: I was never surprised. I expected to win. I wouldn't have entered otherwise. I don't go into things expecting to lose. It just all fell into place, and on the night of the election I felt very onfident. A year before this happened, [my team] felt that if we could be polling in the mid-20s, we had a shot–and I was placing in the high-to-low 30s in the final polls. I knew that the difference would be the newly registered voters. They showed up in Brooklyn Park when I ran for mayor. They're the ones pollsters don't count on.
Reason: You ran as a Reform Party candidate. Did you ever consider being a Republican or a Democrat?
Ventura: No. They turned against me when I ran for mayor in 1990. The Democrats and Republicans banded together. The whole race was supposed to be nonpartisan. But leaders of both parties co-signed letters to all the people of Brooklyn Park, telling them that they were dropping party differences and uniting behind the 20-year incumbent mayor. They called me the most dangerous man in the city.
Ventura: Because I wasn't one of them. And I ended up winning 65 percent to 35 percent. That's one reason I knew I could win the governor's race. I beat both parties when they were united. So why couldn't I beat them when they were separated?
Here's the best part: Within weeks of [my] becoming mayor, leaders from both parties courted me to join their parties. That showed me that they think the ends justify the means. It also showed me that they have no integrity. After calling me the most dangerous man in the city, they now welcomed me with open arms. Never once would I consider being either a Democrat or a Republican. I don't fit into their scope. I'm fiscally conservative and socially moderate to liberal. How can you be that and fit into either one of their parties?
Reason: That's right. You're pro-choice, so on the abortion issue alone, you'd be drummed out of the GOP on the national level.
Ventura: And with the Democrats you can't be fiscally conservative. You've got to think that the way to solve everyone's problem is to tax and spend and grow money.
Reason: You've been called a libertarian. Is that an accurate characterization of your politics?
Ventura: Sure. I am a libertarian. I've taken the libertarian exam and scored perfect on it. There's this 10-question quiz that the Libertarian Party puts out. They give you 30, 20, or 10 points, depending on how you answer the questions. I've gotten all 30s.
Reason: Doesn't that include a question about legalizing drugs?
Reason: Are you for legalizing drugs?
Ventura: Personally, not politically. When you say "legalizing," I would use a better term of "decriminalizing." I'm for giving the addict a way to get it so he doesn't have to go out and hold up the 7-Eleven store to get enough money to go buy it at these inflated, ridiculous prices that prohibition causes. I'll tell you why I think the war on drugs is a failure: I believe it because my mom told me so.
Reason: Your mother told you so?
Ventura: She lived through liquor prohibition. She told me that the war on drugs today is identical to that. All it does is create a way for criminals to make money, which is exactly what alcohol prohibition did in the 1920s. It created a source for Al Capone and other organized crime figures to become extremely wealthy. They had a popular commodity they could sell on the black market, the same as you have today. If you want to put the gangs out of business, then you have to do something with their trade. You have to hit them economically.
Reason: You made a distinction between a personal view and a political view. What do you mean by that?
Ventura: My feeling about drugs is not a political view because most Minnesotans probably disagree with me. Because they disagree with me, I'm not going to push it. But I certainly will speak my opinion of it and try to change minds. But the voters can disagree with my opinion, you know.
During the campaign, I got into a lot of trouble over prostitution and drugs. The media asked me, "Do you support legalizing drugs and prostitution?" and my answer was, "Absolutely not." But then I went on to state that I was open-minded enough that I would certainly look at other alternatives to what we're doing.
Reason: I've interviewed a lot of politicians, and they don't talk about personal views quite so freely.
Ventura: I'm different. My view was that if I didn't get elected, I'd go back to my old talk radio job and do what I always did in the private sector. When the press covered my views on drugs and prostitution, they said that I destroyed myself, that my campaign was over. But people didn't care a bit. They felt that I was a guy who's got guts enough to bring things up. They like someone who's not afraid, who doesn't cower in the corner and go, "Oh, if I bring this up I'll never get elected."
That's one reason I fired back at Hillary Clinton. She came out here the Saturday before the election to campaign for [Democratic candidate] Skip Humphrey. She made a big speech and appeared all over the state, stumping for Skip. She made a statement to the people of Minnesota that it was time to end the side-show carnival act, which was me. The press came to me and said, "How do you feel about the first lady saying that it was time for Minnesotans to put aside the side-show carnival act?" I said, "I think it would be more appropriate if the first lady worried more about leaving Bill home alone. Because it seems whenever she leaves, Bill gets into mischief."
Reason: How did that go over?
Ventura: Ask her. It didn't hurt me, though. I guess I'll find out how she felt about it in February, when I go to Washington for the big governors' meeting.
Reason: One of your most memorable campaign slogans was, "You can't legislate stupidity." What did you mean by that?
Ventura: Let me explain with an example: Here in Minnesota, we have more than 10,000 lakes. Every year when springtime comes, we'll get seven days of beautiful 80-degree weather, but there will still be ice on the lakes. Somebody will decide that they have to take a snowmobile out on the lake. And that person will fall through the ice and drown. Right away, you'll hear an outcry: "We have to make it against the law to ride on lakes after the temperature has been over 75 degrees for seven days in a row." That's what I'm talking about. You can't legislate stupidity, because people do stupid things, always will, and government should get out of the business of passing laws to stop them. Every one of us has done stupid things. Sometimes a stupid thing can become fatal. But it doesn't mean that, all of the sudden, you have to go out and pass laws to protect people from doing stupid things. The drug issue falls under this, too: If people are stupid enough to do drugs–if they're stupid enough to get hooked on crack or cocaine or whatever else–how are you going to legislate that away?
There's too many laws altogether. If they tell you ignorance of the law is no excuse, then we should all be running around with backpacks. Because you need so many backpacks with those law books so you wouldn't be ignorant. Here's an example of a stupid law from when I was doing talk radio. I was talking about prostitution, and I brought up the fact that it's only illegal because money is exchanged. It's only a sex act, and if two consenting adults do it and there's no exchange of money, then it's OK, right? Well, lo and behold, in Minnesota, that's not OK. A cop faxed me a copy of a fornication law that's still on the books here. It states unequivocally that if you're two adults and you're unmarried, you can be arrested for having sex. They've never taken it off the books. Technically a police officer could arrest you, just for having sex.
Reason: Are you planning on trying to change that?
Ventura: I don't know about that one in particular. But I've suggested that every fourth year, the legislature would not make any laws. Instead, it would go back and repeal old and outdated ones that don't apply anymore. I'm a believer that there should be a sunset provision on anything that's passed. After a certain length of time, it would require you to go back and review the law or the program or whatever you passed. We should have to review it and figure out if it's working.
Reason: Do you see that as a practical proposal or a thought experiment?
Ventura: I see it as a practical proposal.
Reason: So you may actually push something like that?
Ventura: Yeah. I may. All they can say is no. I've gotten great results in saying it to the general public.
Reason: You've talked about taxes being too high, but as near as I can tell you haven't talked much about the size of government per se.
Ventura: Sure I have. It's too big.
Reason: Do you see yourself as a governor with a cutting-government agenda? Do you want to go through and scrub the books and get rid of stuff?
Ventura: Somewhat. I'm going to scrub the books, but I'm going to do it very carefully, very prudently. I'm not going to just rush in. I'm not going to have any knee-jerk reaction in any manner.
Reason: Are there any specific things you want to get rid of?
Ventura: Yeah. One house of the legislature. I'm a big supporter of unicameral legislatures. What do we need two houses at the state level for? If you don't have dual houses in the federal government, then states like California, New York, and Texas would have all the power. That's why you've got to have the Senate, where every state gets two votes, regardless of population or size. But at the state level, there's no reason whatsoever to have the senate.
I'd also like to get rid of all state-level two-year terms and make them four. As it is, you get rookie legislators who have never done their jobs before. They spend their first year getting acclimated and their second year running for re-election. What do they get done? Nothing. And then if they get beat–what a waste of two years. Make all terms four years. And get rid of one house.
I'd also like to raise their salaries. Cutting one house would save about $25 million a year, so you could afford to make legislators full-time and less dependent on special interests.
Reason: Minnesota state legislators are not full-time?
Ventura: No. If I call a special session, they have to come here and we have to put them back on the payroll, with all these per diems and this and that. If you get a decent salary, then it would instill a better-qualified person to want to seek out public service. And it would also make it possible for representatives to go back to their districts and spend down time visiting constituents and looking over their district, rather than taking care of their own business.
Reason: Tell me about your feelings on education. The standard libertarian view leans toward vouchers, as did your predecessor, Gov. Arne Carlson.
Ventura: When vouchers were first introduced, I couldn't get them [for my kids]. There were limits–if you made over so much money, you couldn't qualify. That means I had to either pay full rate or get stuck with a public school. I think if you're going to come out with something like that it should be available to all.
Reason: I asked Governor Carlson about that and he said, "Well it's a first step, you know, you can't get everything at once. But it's a step in the right direction."
Ventura: I don't think so. My point is this: What happens to all the people who can't use the vouchers and go to private school? What do they get stuck with then, a sub-standard public school system? I'm a product of public schools and I challenge people: Rather than running from public schools, let's band together and make them better. I believe in fighting the fight, not retreating. And what you have today is people retreating from public schools. The good people are running away instead of fighting the fight. Sure there's improvements that have to be made. There's a lot of stuff in public schools that have to be fixed. But you don't fix them by running away from them.
Reason: One of your high priorities is to reduce class size. Was that an idea you had from the start?
Ventura: No. That came on when I brought Mae Schunk on board as my lieutenant governor. When I started my run, I was polling four times better with men than women, which told me I needed a female running mate. Also, since I was a mayor and mayors don't deal much with education, I knew I needed someone strong in that. So I knew I needed a woman from education to solidify my run. Mae's been a teacher for 36 years. If you want to find out what's going on in school, ask a teacher. And she said the key is getting our class sizes down, where teachers can teach 17 kids, especially in kindergarten through third grade.
Reason: So the class reduction measure will be an early legislative item?
Reason: What's your thinking on Minnesota's budget surplus? Some observers say that you're hedging on giving it back to taxpayers.
Ventura: A budget surplus is easy to deal with: It means they've overcharged you. It's no different than the electric company. Let's say you get a bill where they charge you $200, using an estimated reading. Then the actual reading gets done and you only owe $100. Don't you think you should be given credit back immediately? Or do you allow the electric company to say, "Well, we overcharged you $100, but we need to do it to explore alternative energy sources. So we're going to keep your $200." The government would never allow a company to do that. And it shouldn't be allowed to overcharge you, either.
My point is that I want to balance the books at the end of the fiscal year [June 30] before we give money back. I don't want to do it on speculation because I don't deal with speculation. All of these experts that did speculation and statistics and all that–well, they speculated that I wouldn't be sitting here, and I am. So I don't deal with speculation. I deal with real money in the bank. When the real money's there and the books have been balanced, if there's extra money there, it goes back to the taxpayers.
Right now, I've got the Republicans haranguing me that it needs to go back to taxpayers immediately.
Reason: I assume they're afraid it will get spent in the meantime.
Ventura: Not if they don't spend it. The legislature must have a control problem. The last time they were in session they had that problem. I can control the spending. They're telling me they can't. They're telling me, "You better get it out of our hands because we have no self-control." It reminds me of children. They don't have the self-control.
Reason: Now that you've been elected, do you find you have to tone down your style? Or do you still show your biceps when someone asks how you're going to handle the legislature?
Ventura: No, I haven't toned down. But I don't show my biceps now because I wasn't able to work out for months because of the campaigning. Someone wanted me to take my shirt off today for a photo shoot and I said, "Absolutely not." I have my personal body pride. Wait till I get back in shape, and I'll be happy to. I've already said, "Wait till summer time, when I take the lawn chair out there [on the deck off the capitol building] to get some rays."
Reason: Would there be security concerns if you did that?
Ventura: Security? I already go out there to have a stogie now and then, 'cause you can't smoke inside any of Minnesota's public buildings.
Reason: I was going to ask you what you thought of the tobacco settlement.
Ventura: The tobacco settlement was handled the exact opposite way that it should have been. It should have been the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that went to the tobacco companies and said, "You're falling under our jurisdiction, nicotine's a drug. We're going to control how you operate." That would have been better, because then you know what would have happened? The tobacco companies would have sued the government instead of the other way around.
The dangerous precedent that was set by the tobacco settlement is that the government has now found a way to raise taxes using the court system rather than the legislature. I don't like that. I mean, I'm glad the money's here. It gives me more to work with, but…
Reason: …but you would oppose that sort of policy?
Ventura: What's next–suing Bill Gates?
Reason: Gun makers are already getting sued by cities.
Ventura: There you go. Government has now found a way to go out there and impose their will and their taxes upon legal, private businesses. Government has now found a way to go out and get money where they don't have to do it in the legislative forum.