Spending Limits Helped Ventura Win
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 1998; Page A41
MINNEAPOLIS, Nov. 4—The first time James George Janos reinvented himself was 23 years ago, when he broke into professional wrestling and needed a catchy stage name to put fans in the seats. The name "Jesse" appealed to the outlaw in him. He plucked Ventura from a map of California.
Jesse "The Body" Ventura has been reinventing himself ever since. As a professional wrestler, a bit actor in action movies and a radio shock jock, he has always managed to put fans in the seats. But he clearly outdid himself in Tuesday's gubernatorial election.
With little more than a gift for gab, $400,000 in cash and a throw-the-bums-out populism, Ventura electrified Minnesota's electorate and ambushed two major party politicians to become the nation's first Reform Party governor.
"We shocked the world," a downtown billboard read here today. "New Governor?" another asked. "Ventura a Guess." An eatery added a "The Body" sandwich to its menu. Ventura was the talk of the town, here and elsewhere, someone who has remade himself into one of America's preeminent political iconoclasts.
"I guess a lot more politicians are going to start going to the gym now," President Clinton said today in reference to the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Ventura.
"In 1964," Ventura himself said, "Muhammad Ali beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. In 1980, the United States Olympic hockey team beat the Russians. Dreams do come true in America."
Ventura's celebrity, tough-guy image and shoot-from-the-hip theatrics played a big role in his success. Nearly 63 percent of the voters in this state went to the polls, rivaling turnout in a presidential election year. But Ventura's surprising win was more than folkloric. It offered real lessons on campaign finance reform and demonstrated the possibilities that come with decoupling money from politics.
That is what Minnesota sought to do nearly a decade ago when it enacted reforms to limit campaign spending while providing third-party candidates with a public subsidy if they receive at least 5 percent of the vote in the state's September primary. That, as much as anything, got Ventura's cash-poor campaign into the game once he received 10 percent of the vote in the primary, political scientists, pollsters and party officials said.
And, by limiting both major party nominees -- St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman (R) and political scion Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III (D) -- to $2.1 million in campaign spending, the rules prevented them from running away with the campaign with a blitzkrieg of television ads.
That essentially leveled the playing field for a third-party candidate and, by creating a three-way race, allowed Ventura to win with less than a majority. Unable to saturate the airwaves with political ads, the three candidates were forced to rely more on televised debates to define themselves and their opponents to the voters. In that forum, Ventura clearly shined, appealing to blue-collar workers and young people with his candor, compassion and anti-establishment pronouncements that gradually chipped away at his opponents' poll numbers.
Because of the state finance laws, the three gubernatorial candidates here spent less than $5 million combined. Minnesota is a relatively small state of about 4.5 million people, but that figure still pales in comparison with the estimated $13 million spent by Gov.-elect George Ryan of Illinois.
"There's no doubt that this couldn't have happened without Minnesota's campaign finance laws," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield. "By qualifying for the public subsidy, Jesse got just enough money to keep pace with Humphrey and Coleman."
In addition, when Ventura was finally able to buy radio and television spots, he hit home runs with comical, irreverent ads that used the theme from "Shaft" as his campaign song; portrayed Ventura as an action figure battling Evil Special Interest Man; and featured Ventura posing as Rodin's "The Thinker."
To produce his television ads, Ventura hired William G. Hillsman, who was a consultant in the 1991 campaign of Minnesota Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D), a college professor at the time whose comical commercials helped unseat the Republican incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz.
Those ads helped Ventura upend the notion that he would be a fringe candidate, a spoiler whose down-with-government, libertarian views would largely siphon votes away from Coleman. Initially, Humphrey, the son of the late vice president and revered U.S. senator, insisted on Ventura's attendance at all debates, apparently convinced that Ventura's candidacy hurt Coleman.
In the end, however, that ploy hurt Humphrey more than Coleman. Thirty-three percent of all Democrats voted for Ventura; a quarter of the Republicans voted for him.
"He was able to energize a lot of people," said Tony Sutton, executive director for the state GOP. "A lot of young people who typically don't turn out to vote came out to vote just for him. "
A high school graduate, Ventura seemed to capture the imagination of people who consider themselves "Average Joes," said political scientist Schier. That, he said, is the fundamental flaw with both Republicans and Democrats here, who seem out of touch with the electorate. Neither party has sent an endorsed candidate to the governor's mansion in 12 years.
"The mainstream voter was able to connect with Jesse in a way that the Republicans and Democrats just don't seem to be able to anymore," Schier said. "When a guy named Humphrey only gets 28 percent of the vote in a statewide election, the Democrats in Minnesota have truly reached a new low."
It remains to be seen how Ventura can work with a state Senate controlled by the Democrats and a state House controlled by Republicans. There is not a single Reform Party elected official in either chamber, and some party officials speculate that without any political allies, Ventura may be limited in building legislative consensus.
Still, many hope that his election will represent a turning point in American politics.
"I hope that this will show people what can be achieved when you can pare down the influence of money on the political system," said Todd Paulson, executive director for Minnesota's Common Cause. "It's the closest thing I've ever seen to a revolution."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company