ST. PAUL -- Midway through his stint as Minnesota's top official, Gov. Jesse Ventura reflects on three-party government, its future and his.
State lawmakers surprisingly earned mostly praise from the governor, who makes a frequent point of flinging criticism their way.
"I think essentially, well, for the most part, there's great legislators over there," he says during an interview with The Associated Press.
Who, for instance?
"As a Navy SEAL, I don't reveal my intelligence," he said, his eyes narrowing. "That would be detrimental to that person."
The problem with lawmakers, he said, is that they belong to party caucuses -- that they are expected to think and vote along party lines. Because Ventura has only one member of his Independence Party in the Legislature, those party lines don't typically include him.
But that's OK. Ventura clearly enjoys being a one-man show -- complete with all the glitz and glamour of book deals, sports commentating, even a broadway play.
"All I ask of legislators is to judge me on my policy -- not on me personally, as I will do the same for them," he said. "I think Ron Abrams said it best one day. He said, 'Governor, I'll make a deal with you. You don't ask me what I do on my weekends and I won't ask you what you do on yours."'
Other lawmakers have taken a more hands-on approach, sponsoring bills that would require the governor to disclose his outside earnings or limit his paid extracurricular activities.
Despite their differences, most legislators have been surprised and pleased by the governor's rounds of one-on-one meetings with them to promote his budget this year.
"I really appreciate his being engaged," said Rep. Andy Dawkins, DFL-St. Paul. "The only thing I don't like this year is his budget. I think it's just a disaster budget."
That $27.3 billion document is the single most important thing Ventura has done as governor, and he hopes lawmakers won't unravel it.
The tightly woven two-year plan would revamp the state's property tax system, cut income taxes and extend the state sales tax to services to help the state lift most K-12 education costs from local property tax rolls.
Many say the budget is too lean and shortchanges important programs such as higher education in favor of tax cuts.
But Ventura says he is "real firm" about the bottom line and if the past two years are any indication, he is likely to veto any spending above the figure he set. He knows some of his vetoes might be overridden. No matter.
"I'm the most veto-overridden governor in state history," he growled. "I wear it like a badge of honor."
Even if his record number of veto overrides doubles in the next few months, he said he will move on believing he did his best.
"I know that me and my commissioners, we've given it our all," he said. "It's no different than when I coach a high school football team. I always tell them 'Guys, I will never punish you for losing, but if you quit, you will feel my wrath beyond belief.'
"But I never punish my football team if we lose a game," he said. "Someone's going to lose. The ball isn't round. It bounces funny. The referees, you can't control them."
Putting together the budget may be the biggest project Ventura has taken on, but he concedes it is not what the average citizen will remember.
He leans back in his sturdy leather chair and thinks for a moment. A grin forms at the corners of his mouth.
"I guess I would say out of all of it, rebate checks, 'cause everyone calls them 'Jesse Checks,"' he said, chuckling.
They'll also remember him for something else, he said.
"I won when nobody said I could."
Fred Slocum, a political scientist at Minnesota State University, Mankato, said Ventura's legacy is likely to be that he brought "a touch of the unconventional" to the governor's office.
A recent poll indicated that half of Minnesotans think Ventura's role as a color commentator for a new, smashmouth football league is inappropriate, but most of those same people believe he is doing a good job in office.
That sentiment, Slocum said, is similar to what happened after the scandal between President Clinton and intern Monica Lewinski -- people showed they could separate a politician's private life from public work.
"The governor can still enjoy high job approval ratings while the approval of his outside activities is less."
If an election were held today, Slocum believes Ventura would have a good chance of being re-elected.
"I think he has burned some bridges, but it maybe has not hurt him as much as it might have if he were a governor from one of the two major parties," he said.
The long-term survival of Ventura's fledgling Reform-turned-Independence Party is anything but certain.
During the 2000 election cycle, the party raised only $29,000, about one-third less than in 1999. And the party has unpaid bills of about $24,000. That compares with about $8 million apiece raised by the major parties.
Is it possible for IP candidates to compete without accepting money from political action committees -- one of the most important beliefs of the party?
"No, not unless you're me. I mean that not bragging," Ventura said. "But you gotta be a person like me. You gotta be a dynamic personality who has name recognition. You can call it star power -- whatever it is."
What does that say for the future of the party?
"It means we've got to go get more high-profile people, I guess," Ventura said. "Or break down and accept the dirty money.
"And I don't think we're going to do that because I think the majority of the people in my party are people of principle -- people who would rather stand on their principle and fail than they would compromise their principles."
Having acknowledged that he might be the only one who could save the IP, Ventura hasn't made up his mind what's next.
The only thing he has ruled out so far is lobbyist.
"I understand speakers get a lot of money," he said, laughing. "President Clinton's doing pretty good right now."
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