Copyright (c) 1998, Duluth News-Tribune
Monday, December 28, 1998
By Daniel Bernard/News-Tribune staff writer
ONE WEEK BEFORE HIS INAUGURATION, IT'S BECOMING CLEAR MINNESOTANS EXPECT JESSE VENTURA TO BE MORE THAN THEIR GOVERNOR
CELEBRITY IN CHIEF
ST. PAUL -- Jesse Ventura is not even officially governor yet. But during the frenetic weeks of his transition to power, it's already clear that people in Minnesota and outside of it want him to be much more than a chief executive of state government.
National news figure, for instance. The networks and news magazines that swooped in after Ventura's election Nov. 3 seem to have acquired an appetite for the populist's uncommonly blunt talk.
International dignitary, for another. Hundreds of media representatives have asked to attend his inauguration from as far away as Brunei in the South Pacific. Army reservists from Minnesota stationed in Bosnia have asked Ventura to visit the troops to boost morale.
Savior of democracy. Ventura's win as a Reform Party candidate has emboldened people who felt disappointed or excluded by the two-party system. Many are sending him their resumes.
''Most of their lead paragraphs say something about the great faith they have in this person to bring about change in state government,'' said Deb Tomczyk, who's in charge of sorting job applications for the transition team. ''There is an incredible outpouring of people being interested from all three parties, Democrat, Republican and Reform.''
Even hero. That was the tone of an invitation Ventura received to visit a fourth-grade class in suburban Minneapolis next month. ''Room 305 voted for you to come over Randy Moss!'' wrote one of the Richfield Intermediate School students.
The expectations being heaped on this entertainment celebrity turned political independent are unlike those faced by any of his predecessors in the governor's office. Meanwhile, Ventura is hurrying to meet the most basic expectations of the job.
''We have been fairly steely in adhering to a transiton plan that gets him grounded in Minnesota state government,'' said Ventura's chief of staff Steven Bosacker. ''On some level, it (the attention) is quite flattering. But it's not our focus.''
It's 142 feet from the floor to the domed ceiling of the Capitol rotunda. But the area where Ventura will be sworn in on Jan. 4 started to seem cramped as Rob Smith walked through the inaugural plans last week.
Smith pointed to the spots where local TV camera operators will stand on boxes. Many reporters will have to jostle with spectators on the second-floor balcony for a view, or else watch the ceremony on television in an overflow room with Minnesota Reform Party officials who won't fit on the floor.
Before and during the swearing-in ceremony, members of the public will be kept out of the center of the first floor, queuing up in a receiving line if they want a chance to shake the new governor's hand. Security will be tight. But the Capitol is, after all, a public place. Managing the masses will be difficult.
''Those things become self-regulating at some point. It depends how cold it is,'' Smith said. ''We're sending out messages that are meant to be, not discouraging, but -- 'Bring your hat and gloves.' ''
Organizers considered setting up TV monitors at the corners of the Capitol to give the crowds an alternative to crushing for a line of sight. But they decided that might actually encourage more people to jam into the building, Smith said.
Smith planned inaugurals for the late Gov. Rudy Perpich in 1987 and Gov. Arne Carlson in 1991 as well as celebrity appearances at Target Stores. But Smith compares Ventura's inaugural to another event he organized in 1987: the Capitol stop on the Minnesota Twins' World Series victory parade route. That was considered the largest gathering of people in a single spot in state history.
One of Ventura's post swearing-in celebrations is a group workout at the National Sports Center in Blaine. Smith said the venue is barely big enough.
''Some venues you have to eliminate because they just can't accommodate it -- the route, the highways, the security patrols,'' Smith said. ''I don't want to sound overdramatic, but it's more like planning for a presidential appearance.''
Despite the challenges, a mood of excitement pervades the team of staffers that is helping prepare Ventura to assume command of state government next month. The transition team's base of operations -- a windowless suite of offices in the Capitol basement -- buzzes with about 25 people mostly volunteering or on loan from their employers, plus some 20 advisers dropping in.
Many have connections to former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny of southeastern Minnesota, the independent-minded Democrat now serving as an adviser to Ventura. But top aides say the staff crosses the spectrum of political experience and party affiliation. Transition communications director Teresa McFarland, a Grand Rapids native, previously worked for Democrats Penny and the late Gov. Rudy Perpich; one of her deputies, Mike Zipko, just finished stints with the Republican who preceded Ventura, Gov. Arne Carlson, and the one who opposed him in the November election, Norm Coleman.
Ventura's scheduler, Billie Ball, has worked in state government for 27 years including as an aide to Perpich. She said she was drawn to Ventura because of qualities she had seen in Perpich.
''He (Ventura) is like a combination of Braveheart and Forrest Gump,'' Ball said, laughing. ''He'll probably hate that, but it's true: He's down-to-earth, and courageous.''
In four weeks, Ball has accumulated a bulging folder of invitations for the governor-elect she's had to turn down.
McFarland's communications staff fields calls from three or four disc jockeys a day from around the country trying to get Ventura on the air, not to mention calls from Sweden, Argentina, Wolf Blitzer and the Australian ''Today Show.'' ABC News flew out an executive to propose that Ventura appear periodically on their shows (Ventura's people were noncommittal).
But McFarland said she's keeping Ventura's time focused on Minnesota.
''They want him on because they know that he'll come back with this really common-sense thing,'' McFarland said. ''But national issues are not something that's a priority for us. The Datelines and the 60 Minutes, they probably called 20 times before they even got a return phone call.''
Ventura's policy aides say they're keeping him focused on the core duties of the job -- notably, naming a cabinet and drafting the state budget. Aides say they're turning away lobbyists who want one-on-one meetings. Ventura has spent most of December in briefings designed to give him a crash course in key areas of state spending.
And Ventura is getting down to business. The barnstorming, boisterous personality that the former professional wrestler displayed as a Twin Cities talk-radio host and as a candidate has been toned down. In recent appearances, he has been more soft-spoken, sometimes appearing burdened.
But the all-American charm returned when he posed for thank-you photos with staffers and handed out presents to children at a crisis nursery near the Capitol on Wednesday. Fielding reporters' questions afterward, he growled and winked, teasing that he might resume a talk-radio gig if only to counter the misquotes and inaccuracies in media reports on his administration.
''I'm doing fine,'' Ventura told a reporter. ''I'm sleeping well. I haven't lost a night's sleep. I get so physically and mentally exhausted that I have no problem relaxing and going to sleep. In fact, my body welcomes it.
''It is overwhelming, the amount of things you have to absorb in a short time,'' Ventura continued. ''But it's nothing I can't handle. Like I said in the campaign, I would do things in the (Navy) SEALS that were a lot more dangerous than this. It's like one of my (state) troopers told me the other day: Everyday you get up, it'll always be something.''