Memories of a Previous Election Stunner: Minnesota and Jesse “the Body” Ventura
This 2016 election year cannot help but bring back memories of Minnesota’s election of professional wrestler-turned-politician Jesse “the Body” Ventura governor in 1998—for anyone who lived there then.
The race for governor included three main candidates: St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman (Republican), Minnesota attorney general Hubert H. Humphrey III (Democrat-Farmer-Labor) and Brooklyn Park mayor Jesse Ventura (Reform Party).
Throughout the campaign most Minnesotans expected either Coleman or Humphrey (son of the former Minnesota governor and Vice President of the United States Hubert Humphrey) to win. Both were highly respected veteran politicians.
Although Ventura campaigned hard and spoke harshly about professional politicians, insiders to the political scene, and state government’s tendency to tax heavily (many people called Minnesota then “the land of ten thousand taxes”), he mostly kept his campaign civil and respectful of others.
The comparison with this 2016 national presidential election is the candidacy of someone previously widely viewed as not “governor material,” lacking in the gravitas and experience needed to lead a state (now nation), someone most pundits clearly considered a “novelty candidate.” After Ventura’s stunning election the pundits posited that the electorate bought into Ventura’s promise to return to them the state’s “rainy day fund”—which he did. (Even after we moved to another state in 1999 we received several tax refund checks from Minnesota.)
I once personally observed Ventura campaigning. I attended with my church a neighborhood parade in Northeast Minneapolis—a mostly blue color neighborhood. I didn’t expect to see Ventura there, but there he was—striding boldly along in the middle of the parade, alone as I recall, wearing what my male students (and others) often called a “wife beater shirt”—a skimpy undershirt. His very hairy upper body was displayed in all its glory and, as he waved to the crowds along the street, his extremely hairy underarms appeared. Almost everyone along the parade route laughed out loud when they saw him. You could hear the laughter and sprinkles of applause along the parade route. He was smiling hugely and occasionally shaking hands with people.
As I said, most people I knew considered him a novelty candidate—not to be taken seriously. They/we were not sure what he was up to, what he hoped to accomplish. There seemed to be no possibility that he would be elected governor of the great state of Minnesota populated mostly by grandsons and granddaughters of German and Scandinavian immigrants—Lutheran and Catholic to the core.
And yet. I will never forget watching the local news shows the evening of the election. As I recall, the polls curing the campaign, even a week before the election, did not show Ventura winning. As I recall, Humphrey and Coleman were generally deemed to be in a neck-and-neck race to the finish line with Ventura far behind. The evening of the election day the talking heads, news readers reporting and commenting on the election results county-by-county, could not hide their shock and possibly even dismay at Ventura’s success. I don’t think I have ever observed television news readers showing similar wide-eyed shock on air—except the day President Kennedy was assassinated.
The next day I asked all my students at a Christian liberal arts college (approximately fifty mostly eighteen to twenty-two year olds) how many of them would volunteer to admit publicly that they voted for Ventura the previous day. I was not surprised to see that almost all the male students proudly and even excitedly raised their hands. So did many of the female students. Within weeks of Ventura’s election some pundits were saying that he won because of the unexpected turnout of students throughout the state (and some voting by absentee ballots from other states). I asked my students if any would volunteer to explain why they voted for Ventura. Most of those who spoke said they voted for him as a joke or because he’s flamboyant or they were “tired” of Minnesota politics-as-usual.
There was an avalanche of letters to the editor in both local newspapers—The St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune—some expressing dismay at Ventura’s election and some, many, expressing their hope that somehow Ventura, as an outsider to state government, could reduce taxes, return tax money to the taxpayers, pay attention to the “little people” (“working people”), and generally bring a new ethos of non-professionalism into government. The populist overtones of Ventura’s campaign and speeches as governor were observed and commented on by many pundits.
Ventura went on to be a pretty good governor and leave office as promised after one term. Many pundits claimed that his success in office was due to his dependence on professional politicians to inform him and do his work.
I lived in Minnesota for fifteen years (1984-1999) and before that I lived much of my life in two “suburbs” of Minnesota—Iowa and South Dakota. (Especially eastern South Dakota where I grew up and northern Iowa where I lived some years were and still are heavily influenced by the powerhouse cultures of the Twin Cities in Minnesota.) Once Ventura was surprisingly elected governor I could understand something of why it happened.Many Minnesotans, myself included, felt alienated from state government which seemed to roll on without much interest in or accountability to the working class people. Taxes were numerous and onerous. The quality of life was, in my opinion, very high, but overly-taxed middle class people could hardly afford to enjoy it. My starting salary at the Christian liberal arts college—as a full time assistant professor—was only $20K—a paltry sum even in 1984. We had one child and one on the way. The cost of child care caused us to dig into savings (a small inheritance from my grandfather) frequently. By the time I left Minnesota in 1999, not long after Ventura’s election, my salary had increased to about $50K—by then also not enough for a family of four to live on comfortably largely because of taxes. Our savings kept dwindling and I had almost no retirement funds. The decision to leave was easy even though we loved living in Minnesota (except in the “dead of winter” when I suffered from SAD—seasonal affective disorder).
My attempts to talk to my state representatives, legislators, were unsuccessful. They showed no interest in hearing my complaints. They barreled on packing the state’s “rainy day fund” with tax dollars mostly taken from struggling middle class people. At the same time, however, suburban mansions continued to grow and sell quickly. While I did not vote for Ventura I could sense his populist appeal. However, in my opinion, he was not a serious leader. Leaders need to have some degree of gravitas.
On the other hand, I could understand Ventura’s appeal to many Minnesotans. State and local governments were increasingly obsessed with what many grassroots Minnesotans considered trivialities, distractions from the “tasks at hand”—reform of bloated government that over regulated everything. Especially the DFL (the state affiliate of the Democratic Party) was led largely by people with “inclusive” agendas aimed at forcing people to follow their vision of justice for all (“busing” public school children to far away schools had been an enormous project and failure). People had lost trust in the major political parties and their leaders. The capital building and all the state government offices surrounding it seemed far away, out of touch with the grassroots, unaccountable except to a minority of mostly Twin Cities based radicals with a vision of enforced inclusion. At the same time, however, that there was much welcome talk about lifting up minorities (e.g., the much neglected Native American/American Indian population), the rich seemed to be getting richer while the middle class and poor continued to struggle under the onerous burdens of state and local taxes.
Many Minnesotans believed that the DFL’s leaders were more compassionate toward minorities and their needs than toward the working poor and middle class. They were by 1998 over ripe for a strong outsider, even a demagogue, to go into the halls of state government and overturn the tables. That election began a revolution in Minnesota marked by a strong “come back” by the Republican Party that had for a long time barely existed—at least in the Twin Cities where state politics was largely determined.
What lesson did I take away from the 1998 election in Minnesota?
First, politicians should not underestimate the populist impulse especially among the broad working classes. Many of them believe government does not care about them and has a tendency to blame “professional politicians” in government for unemployment, wage stagnation, over regulation of everyday life, and burdensome tax increases. Many of them are quick to believe that, for example, “globalization” is detrimental to their interests and are not anxious to wait for its benefits, if any, to “trickle down” to them.
Second, politicians (and others) should not underestimate the seething resentments and even anger at government that is perceived as caring little to nothing about white males who, increasingly, cannot support their families or even themselves with “work-a-day wages.”
Third, politicians (and others) should not underestimate the appeal of demagogues in difficult times. There is a wide and deep belief, whether justified or not, that America is in trouble. When traditional, professional politicians in government do not offer clear and distinct solutions and work together toward them, many voters lose trust and want a “revolution” (at the ballot boxes).