Copyright (c) 1998, Duluth News-Tribune
Wednesday, October 28, 1998
By Daniel Bernard/News-Tribune staff writer
HOPING TO PUT COMMON SENSE INTO PRACTICE
VENTURA USING CELEBRITY SMARTS
Jesse Ventura was driving home point after point, and the audience was warming, when from the other side of the room, a challenge was issued.
Ventura looked up from the lectern and located his antagonist. Seated in the middle of the Mound Rotary Club, local Police Chief Len Harrell was shaking his head and saying ''No.'' Ventura had just declared that state law allows police chiefs to pass out concealed-handgun permits based on favoritism.
''That's not how it works,'' Harrell corrected.
Another candidate for governor might try to make peace if he were so interrupted in public. He might say he'd been misunderstood.
Not Jesse Ventura.
''No?'' Ventura intoned into the microphone, playful and ornery. ''Why no?''
''That doesn't happen,'' Harrell said.
''But it could,'' Ventura parried.
''But it doesn't,'' Harrell said.
''I'm saying that it could,'' Ventura said with serene certainty, his shaved scalp as shiny as his green and blue running suit. ''I'm saying that's why there's a problem with the law. I'm not saying you do it. I'm saying you should take the subjectivity out the system, so that if I or anybody else meet these qualifications, that it's automatic and you get the permit.''
Ventura launched into an anecdote. Harrell ended up smiling. So did Janie Skinner, a personal banker at the next table, who had expected that the professional wrestler-turned-populist candidate would be ''corny.''
''He makes a lot of sense,'' Skinner said. ''I think I will vote for him.''
But car dealer John Tackaberry said a Reform Party candidate has no chance in a system dominated by the DFL and Republican parties.
''There are a lot of things he said that I agree with. I don't think he can get it accomplished,'' Tackaberry said. ''How do you fight City Hall?''
If Ventura had overheard it, he would have said that Tackaberry had played into his hand. Because Ventura did beat City Hall. So goes the self-told legend of this proud nonpolitician's only political experience, as mayor of a Minneapolis suburb from 1991 through 1994.
The same competitive drive that Jesse ''The Body'' Ventura carried into the choreographed morality plays of the World Wrestling Federation also impelled him to charge into the Brooklyn Park mayor's office.
His single-minded struggle to impose common-sense solutions in a bureaucratic world made him a polarizing figure, admired by many residents but dismissed as a show boater by his political opponents. It's the same spirit that Ventura would surely bring to the Minnesota governor's office if he were able to pull off his longshot bid.
Ventura stayed out of the public life of Brooklyn Park, a mostly working class city of 60,000, until City Hall tried to construct curbs and gutters in a wooded section where he lived with his wife and two teen-age children. The five-bedroom, two-garage spread abuts a shallow stretch of the Mississippi River.
Ventura said he was goaded into running for mayor by an ally of the 20-year incumbent.
As he has this year, Ventura cast himself as an outsider running against an entrenched political system.
After an upset victory, he wrangled with the former mayor's loyalists who remained on the City Council and vetoed many of his appointments.
One of his sparring partners on the council, Sharon Feess, said Ventura had an ego and was prone to grandstanding. She noted that when the other councilors bucked tradition and refused to name the new mayor as chairman of the city's economic development authority, Ventura refused to attend meetings.
''His celebrity brought a lot of attention to Brooklyn Park. I think that -- had it been well-used -- he could have accomplished a lot,'' said Feess, a Hennepin County health-care administrator. ''But my personal opinion is that he's pretty egotistical.''
Feess added that Ventura lent no ''dignity'' to the office by showing up to events in blue jeans.
Ventura laughed off that criticism. Ventura said he boycotted the meetings to alert residents that City Hall remained a closed ''old-boy network.''
Who gets the credit?
Ventura points proudly to the progress that coincided with his tour as mayor. Crime fell. Housing improved. Civic pride increased.
Other observers of the suburban political scene say Ventura presided from a distance over trends that were initiated before he arrived and were overseen by city administrators.
Brooklyn Park has a so-called ''weak mayor'' system. Day-to-day operations of the city are overseen by a professional administrator. The mayor serves part time as one of seven members of the city council and has an equal vote, albeit with an occasional procedural advantage by running the meetings as the council chairman.
Ventura is most proud of the decrease in the crime rate and implementation of a community policing program, part of a national trend aimed at strengthening relationships between beat cops and neighborhood residents. Community organizers made National Night Out into a festive event that received national recognition.
But former Brooklyn Park Police Chief Don Davis said those programs were set in motion in the earliest months of Ventura's tenure or before he took office in early 1991.
Residents formed neighborhood watches, while the department inaugurated foot patrols and established a unit dedicated to preventing crime. The efforts caught the attention of Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, who mentioned the suburb's anti-crime efforts in a 1991 speech and named Davis his commissioner of public safety in 1995.
''It was the community first, the police employees second, and the council was very supportive,'' Davis said.
But Davis said Ventura's pugnacious presence raised residents' spirits -- or, in some cases, made them get with the program.
Ventura joined the city's effort to form an apartment-owners' coalition so that property managers could compare notes on their most troublemaking tenants. Ventura and the council passed ordinances to pressure evictions for renters who draw excessive visits by police.
But some apartment owners didn't want to come down hard on their tenants. One afternoon, Ventura joined Davis and two patrolmen as he visited a pair of reluctant owners. The owners said everything was under control in their properties.
Then, according to Davis, ''This humongous hand slams on the table'' and Ventura glowered at the pair, saying, '' 'This is a bunch of b---s---. I know what's going on here. You've got problems.' ''
But many locals say his performance as the city's loudest cheerleader was right on time. The spirits of this suburb had been dampened by falling property values and a string of high-profile murders.
At Benchwarmer Bob's Sports Cafe, salesman Don Johnson manned a Michelob Light and said even Ventura's critics were impressed with his quick grasp of city issues.
''That guy is smart,'' Johnson said. ''He's honest as the day is long, and just a nice guy.''
Bar manager Dean Paschke said residents give Ventura credit for pushing the city to chase criminals from low-income apartment complexes and redevelop them.
''That was his big thing. He got the issue taken care of,'' Paschke said.
Ventura said he always has been humble about his role.
''The things that happened there were the result of all of us. We're a council where everyone has an equal vote,'' Ventura said. ''It wasn't my own doing, and it wasn't their own doing.''
Three on one? That's not a fair fight; it's an ambush.
Ventura came to tape a public-affairs show at KQRS-FM expecting a one-on-one with host Clinton Collins Jr., who is a lawyer. Walking into the Golden Valley, Minn., studio, he found he also faced questioning from the chairman of the Minneapolis DFL Party (a lawyer) and a designated Republican (a lawyer).
Jesse wasn't well-rested. The morning's paper reported that a bottle bomb had exploded outside his campaign headquarters, and he'd been up late talking to police and reporters. The 47-year-old hadn't shaved yet.
Collins jabbed Ventura, saying he'd heard that he was ''combative'' as a mayor.
''I beat an old-boy network, entrenched. What are they going to do, embrace me?'' Ventura said. ''I had to be a little combative. They set the tone. Jesse Ventura ain't gonna run from no one.''
Ventura rallied. Where he lacked specifics about state government operations or the practical problems in his own, he compensated with humor, candor and bluntness. He ended up dominating the taping.
In the parking lot, Ventura padded to his faded blue 1990 Porsche Carrera with the ''Mess with the best / Die like the rest'' license plate holder. A reporter asked if he found the campaign schedule tiring.
Ventura's eyes flared.
''They won't wear me down, if that's what you mean,'' he said defiantly, and headed back onto the highway.