Copyright (c) 1998, Duluth News-Tribune
Wednesday, November 4, 1998
By Daniel Bernard/News-Tribune staff writer 


   Minnesota voters not only made history Tuesday by electing Jesse Ventura the first Reform Party governor anywhere. They also delivered a stinging slap to Minnesota's two major parties.
   ''What they're saying is, a plague on both the parties' houses,'' said Hy Berman, a University of Minnesota history professor. ''What people want is not to be looked on condescendingly by the major-party candidates. They want someone who will speak their language.''
   Ventura cast himself as a political outsider and urged Minnesotans to send a message nationwide about disgust with major parties. They did it.
   It's not like the majors had fielded pushovers. In fact, each major party had united behind strong candidates. Hubert ''Skip'' Humphrey III, DFL son of a Minnesota political legend, had built his own statewide popularity as an attorney general elected four times. Norm Coleman, mayor during St. Paul's economic renaissance, had won re-election as a Republican despite traditional DFL dominance.
   Voters deserted both for a former professional wrestler and one-term suburban mayor who was unashamed to be uninformed about the working of state government and proud to have spent little time in elected office. Ventura backers bypassed two men with law degrees for a man who didn't go beyond a year of community college.
   Ventura turned their experience and command of issues into disadvantages by labeling them ''career politicians.''
   Russ Stover, a lifelong Democrat and frequent campaign worker for the Duluth DFL, interpreted Ventura's showing as a sign that voters are impatient with the pace of government as usual.
   But Sarah Lewerenz, a Duluth lawyer who sits on the Democratic National Committee, said Ventura's support wasn't a rebuke of the two-party system. Rather, it followed Minnesotans' tradition of electing outspoken, honest individuals who are firm in their beliefs, including DFLers such as ex-Gov. Rudy Perpich and U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, she said.
   ''I think people have a similar feeling about Jesse Ventura -- 'Though I disagree, I always know where he stands,' '' Lewerenz said.
   Northeastern Minnesotans said the turning point was Ventura's inclusion in debates. Voters knew he was different. Seeing him extemporize showed them he was bright.
   Coleman and Humphrey ran down each question with statements well-phrased and on-message. Ventura cast their practiced statements as phony and passed on questions he admitted he couldn't answer.
   Todd Radosevich, 30, a small businessman from Two Harbors comes from a Democratic family. This week, he was prepared to vote for a non-Democrat for the first time.
   ''I'm gonna catch a lot of hell for it,'' Radosevich said, grimacing. ''He tends to be a little generic in his thoughts. But he said, 'I don't have all the answers. I'll be the manager. What you do is get people who are experts in their fields, and you look to them.' ''
   Minnesota's major parties have been jolted before -- but by angry farmers, not jaded voters. Protest candidates rose in the late 1800s, when economically hard-pressed German and Scandinavian immigrants who tended liberal felt shut out by the Democratic Party. In the 1890 and 1894 governor's races, third-party candidate Sidney Owen placed third with 24 percent, then second with 30 percent.
   The majors dominated until the Farmer-Labor Party was formed after World War I by Lutherans and Socialists estranged from the Catholic-led Democratic Party. The new party immediately bumped the Democrat to third in the governor's race and won in 1930, electing Gov. Floyd Olson. By late World War II, and Hubert H. Humphrey II was able to merge the Farmer-Laborites into the Democratic Party.
   But Minnesota historian Steve Keillor draws a contrast. In past third-party movements, demographically similar people put up candidates on issues; with Ventura, people from different walks seem drawn to a candidate because of his engaging personality and clean political record.