Copyright (c) 1998, Duluth News-Tribune
Thursday, November 5, 1998
By Daniel Bernard/News-Tribune staff writer
AFTER THE VICTORY, REALITY
JESSE VENTURA DEFEATED TWO ESTABLISHED POLITICAL FIGURES IN THE GOVERNOR'S RACE; NOW HE FACES ANOTHER CHALLENGE: GAINING THE COOPERATION OF TWO ESTABLISHED PARTIES.
Jesse Ventura vaulted to a historic position in American politics on Tuesday: the only candidate from the young Reform Party ever elected to a governor's office, or to any state office. Party founder Ross Perot said Ventura's election has ''given hope back to the American people that they can take their country back.''
But in St. Paul, Ventura is simply the only Reform Party officeholder.
Though the former professional wrestler and broadcaster was elected as an agent of change, he will enter office next year with no guaranteed allies in the state Legislature, which will rule on most of the initiatives he may undertake.
With a Senate controlled by the DFL Party and a House newly controlled by Republicans, Ventura could feel pretty lonely.
''To get your program through the Legislature, you need some people who are willing to go to bat for you,'' said Robert Behn, a professor at Duke University's Governors Center.
When the governor comes from neither major party, ''Now, instead of just the opposite party wanting to take your job, both of them want you out,'' Behn said. ''The majority party doesn't care about you, and neither does the minority party. Nobody feels obligated to carry your bills, and in fact, they would prefer not to carry.''
Someone in Maine was trying to contact Ventura on Wednesday to let him know that he's not in an impossible situation. It was Maine Gov. Angus King, elected as an independent in 1994 and re-elected in a landslide on Tuesday.
''My advice is that if you want to get anything done, you've got to play the hand that's dealt you,'' King said in a telephone interview. ''That means that working within the system, finding allies, developing a program and making it work.
''If you come at them in a combative way -- 'It's me against you guys' -- it's going to be a hard session.''
Fighting won't work
Working within the system would seem a stretch for Candidate Ventura. He scorched his opponents by contending any long-elected Democrat or Republican was a prisoner to party leaders, special-interest contributors and their own political self-preservation.
But that approach won't work after Inauguration Day if Maine's experience is a guide. And personal popularity outside the Capitol, by itself, cannot guarantee success.
Maine has elected two independent governors in the past 25 years. Their records in office offer sharp lessons in how to succeed outside the two-party system -- and in how to fail.
Gov. James Longley Sr. had renounced the Democratic Party before being elected as an independent in 1974. Well-liked by Mainers, Longley maintained an anti-government stance in office, clashing with lawmakers and once deriding them as ''pimps.''
''He basically took on everybody -- the press, the Legislature, the whole political establishment,'' said Paul Carrier, statehouse reporter for the Portland Press-Herald.
Longley killed a record number of bills with hundreds of vetoes. The Legislature overrode all but a handful of them, and Longley didn't win a second term.
Angus King knew that. King, the longtime host of a public-affairs television show, had worked for a Democratic U.S. senator and contemplated running as a Democrat for Congress.
But saying the party no longer matched his fiscal conservatism, King entered the 1994 governor's race as an independent.
King beat a Democrat and a Republican by margins similar to Ventura's. Unofficial returns indicated Ventura took 37 percent of the vote; Republican Norm Coleman, 34 percent; Hubert ''Skip'' Humphrey III, 28 percent. Like Ventura, King entered office with one chamber controlled by Republicans, the other by Democrats.
But King was less a stranger among the suits than Ventura.
''If you style yourself a complete outsider and say, all politicians are crooks, you're not going to get much done,'' King said. ''I came into the process as an outsider but without any animosity toward the legislators.''
Ventura's temperament will be critical. When he served as mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minn., from 1991 to 1994, he clashed repeatedly with a City Council controlled by allies of the man he ousted. His campaign style this year shows he relishes a good argument.
Initial signs are good. In a joint press conference with outgoing Gov. Arne Carlson on Wednesday, Ventura praised the moderate Republican and said the two had much in common.
''It'll be easier for him to build a consensus than a member of one of the other two parties because he won't have an adversarial position,'' Ventura's spokeswoman, Gerry Drewry, said Wednesday. ''He can sign or veto a bill based on its merit and whether it's good for the state of Minnesota.''
Ventura has an inescapable handicap. A governor from either major party often comes to the bargaining table armed with committed votes from the members of his party's legislative bloc. A minor-party governor has no such leverage.
In Maine, Longley drove the major parties into each other's arms. But King has been able to serve as a moderator between the two and sometimes to play one against the other.
''As an independent, you can't pick up the phone and say, 'I need 20 votes on this.' We have to form coalitions issue by issue,'' said King's spokesman, Dennis Bailey.
GOP ready to deal
The new Republican majority of the Minnesota House is ready to carry Ventura's legislative agenda, said the presumptive leader of the GOP bloc, Rep. Steve Sviggum of Kenyon. Or at least, the fiscally conservative part of his agenda, not necessarily the socially liberal part.
''Jesse's positions were less government, more individual freedom, less regulation, and a tax cut,'' Sviggum said. ''In that case, the House Republican majority is more than willing and ready and able to carry his initiatives.''
Based on Ventura's libertarian philosophy, DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe said Ventura may see eye-to-eye with the Republican House on cutting government programs while agreeing with the DFL Senate on social issues.
Ventura faces more urgent challenges, Moe noted.
Even as he assembles the leadership of the executive branch from scratch, Ventura assumes the gubernatorial responsibility of drafting the next two-year state budget. Legislators expect to start work on the $20 billion document when they convene in January.
''This is an overwhelming process even if you know it well,'' Moe said. ''I just hope it all falls together.''