Six months into Gov. Jesse Ventura's quixotic, sometimes bizarre tenure as governor of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, a few things are becoming apparent: It is possible to be an unscripted, politically incorrect politician and still be popular. It is possible to party with the Rolling Stones, promise to reform politics, sell action figures of yourself and donate the money to charity, and still govern like a mainstream politician.
In fact, when it comes to the business of governing, partisans on both sides say that Ventura is about as mainstream as it gets: In this year's legislative session, he pushed a fiscally conservative, socially moderate agenda and for the most part governed deftly over the nation's only trilateral government: Reform Party governor, Democratic majority Senate, Republican majority House.
Ventura, like a number of popular Republican and Democratic governors around the country, has pushed policies that have drawn bipartisan support. And, like many of the governors, he has benefited from a flush economy that has allowed him to simultaneously pursue tax cuts and some service increases.
The highlights of Ventura's first legislative session include a historic tax cut, a $1.3 billion tax rebate, a $1.1 billion increase in public education spending, a $968 million health and medical education foundation financed with the proceeds of the state's tobacco settlement and vetoes of a record $160 million in legislative projects, some that he disagreed with, others that he simply considered pork.
Outside Minnesota, the straight-talking former pro wrestler/talk-show host/small-town mayor became a national fixation the day he was elected, and the fascination with him shows no signs of abating. Consider that in just a two-day swing through New York and Washington last month to promote his new book, Ventura appeared live on or taped "Hardball" with Chris Matthews, Tim Russert's CNBC show, "Larry King Live," "Today," "Montel Williams," CNN's "Inside Politics," "Live: Regis and Kathie Lee" and the "Oliver North" show.
His book tour had the line-forming, celebrity-tinged feel of a rock concert, matched in the political world in recent years only by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, more than one bookstore owner said. In an age when many people cannot name their own governor, much less the governor of another state, more than 80 percent of Californians, for example, can name Ventura as governor of Minnesota, according to pollster Paul Maslin.
Ventura, 47, has trumpeted the fact that one national poll showed him the likely presidential choice of 20 percent of the electorate. His name comes up more these days than that of Reform Party founder Ross Perot when speculation turns to the party's nominee for president, but Ventura has vowed to finish his four-year term, which ends in 2003.
"With the exception of people like [Ronald] Reagan in California or [Mario M.] Cuomo in New York, I can't think of another governor in recent memory who has been this well known out of his own state, particularly this early in his term," Maslin said, adding that Ventura is more popular among Californians that the state's governor, Gray Davis (D), who has a 3-1 positive rating.
But how many people actually know anything about what Ventura has done in office? How many care? Even Reform Party officials acknowledge he is more famous for what he symbolizes than what he's done. "I think what he represents to people is the ability of the average person to fight back and make a difference," said national Reform Party spokeswoman Donna Donovan.
But if you strip away the gaffes about teachers carrying guns, drunken Irishmen designing the streets of St. Paul and his wife earning a salary for being first lady, and forget about the celebrity book tour, the next thing you know, the ex-pink boa-wearing, chrome-domed wrestler is a moderate Republican. Or maybe a centrist Democrat. A politician who, at least in the minds of many voters, has brought sensible, middle-of-the road policies to government.
"There's this very odd contrast between the public persona of the rebel and the reality of a kind of normal governor," said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. "What's most striking about all of his policies is how often they don't sound all that different. His policies are from the center."
That, Ventura insists, is exactly the point. "I'm not an extremist," he said in a recent interview. "I'm a centrist. My positions will be very mainstream."
Many of Ventura's supporters and detractors alike say that the domination of two ideologically extreme political parties is what created the vacuum that created Jesse "The Mind" Ventura in the first place. And they frequently note that Minnesota has elected among the most liberal, Paul D. Wellstone (D), and most conservative, Rod Grams (R), members of the Senate.
Although Ventura surrounded himself with Republicans and Democrats from previous administrations or other bureaucracies, his relationship with both parties teetered between decent to poor. Relations were more tense with Republicans, who accused him of being a lackey for Democrats. Ventura, they said, had to be forced to implement the permanent tax cut.
"From my vantage point, he was letting the House Democrats advance their proposals and letting the Republicans advance theirs and in the end he was kind of the arbiter between the two," said incoming GOP state chairman Ron Eibensteiner, who has referred to Ventura as "nothing more than [state Senate Democratic leader] Roger Moe on steroids."
Ventura protests suggestions that he does not have his own ideas, pointing out among other things that the tax rebate was a centerpiece of his campaign last year.
Yet as the most high-profile figure of the Reform Party these days, he has had little to say about the party's agenda, including favorite issues such as term limits and campaign finance reform. He often sounds defeatist when asked about whether he will push for good-government reforms.
"Remember, both of them could meet the same fate," he said of term limits and campaign finance reform. "You've got career politicians that don't want either. Term limits are extremely popular, but they never get out of committee, do they? They always seem to get bogged down and locked up in there and never put out to the public."
The closest he comes to committing to a government reform is his vow to push for a unicameral legislature, like Nebraska's, which could save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year.
Yet Ventura insists he is a different kind of politician. For one thing, he took no money from political action committees or interest groups. Also, he said, he has not met with a lobbyist since he took office.
Duane Benson, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents chief executive officers of the state's 100 largest corporations, said Ventura is serious about that policy. "While there's a message that he doesn't want to talk to lobbyists, you can talk to the cabinet members," Benson said. "It's just another way of doing things."
On a recent visit to Washington, the governor met with Washington Post reporters and editors and discussed the agriculture crisis facing his state. Near the end of the meeting, the topic turned to his book, "The Autobiography of Jesse Ventura: I Ain't Got Time to Bleed." When Ventura was asked to explain why he felt compelled to include his visit to a Nevada bordello when he was 19, he not only defended the tale but repeated it with apparent delight.
As a young man on a few days leave from Navy SEAL training on his way to Southeast Asia, Ventura acknowledged, "church wasn't first on my mind." He continued: "It happened in the state of Nevada. So it was legal. It still is today. So I broke no law, right? Second of all, I only told the story because I'm probably one of the only people on the planet who's gone to one of these places and been paid to do it."
Ventura had made a belt of spent shell casings from his Navy-issued machine gun. When he walked into the bordello, a woman asked him for the belt. "I said, `Make me an offer.' And she did."
He continued: "I thought that it was a funny story. If I write a dry political book, who's going to buy it other than you all?"
Completely at ease with who he is, Ventura has perhaps insulated himself by being open about his frailties from the start.
"He is the most honest man in the world," said Eileen Curry, an 80-year-old retiree from St. Paul who voted for Ventura. "It doesn't bother me. You know why? Because if he hadn't done it, somebody would have gone out there and dug it up anyway."
That is not a unanimous opinion in Minnesota. In recent interviews, opinions on Ventura ranged from: He is a refreshing political oddity -- a politician who tells the truth, even when it's not politically correct, to: He's a cretin who has embarrassed Minnesota one too many times.
"He just keeps sticking his foot in his mouth," said Andrea Leonard, 22, of St. Paul. Leonard, who works for a mortgage company and voted for St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman (R) in last year's gubernatorial election. "I mean, once is one thing, but my God."
Don Kackman, a 30-year-old computer programmer from Minneapolis who said he voted for a Little Richard impersonator named Fancy Ray McCloney because the choices were so abysmal, said Ventura has proved to be more talk than action. "I just think he should be providing some sort of philosophical leadership, not just going with whatever the Democrats and Republicans throw across his desk," said Kackman.
Another source or irritation and eye-rolling among many Minnesota voters was Ventura's book tour. The government watchdog group Common Cause has accused him of using his office for personal gain.
Ventura's approval rating is down from the stratospherically high 80 percent he had as he entered office earlier in the year. But it continues to hover in the upper 50s or low 60s -- still quite solid -- according to recent polls.
Kelly Kiem is a 22-year-old collections officer from Minneapolis and one of the legion of young people who turned out in surprising numbers at the polls to give Ventura his victory over Coleman and Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III last year.
She said: "I like him because I'd rather have someone in there who's honest. He's not worried about what people think all of the time. And a lot of people were skeptical that he would know what he was doing, but I think he's done a good job."
CAPTION: The governor of Minnesota remains popular six months into his term.
CAPTION: The governor of Minnesota takes a look at a national magazine story about the early days of his tenure.
CAPTION: Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota speaks to reporters after a White House meeting last month with presidential economic adviser Gene Sperling.