ST. PAUL -- Jesse Ventura, the iconoclastic independent who shocked the political world nearly four years ago by winning the Minnesota governor's office and posting stratospheric approval ratings, is on the ropes.
State legislators have repeatedly ignored Ventura's proposed budget fixes, passing their own bills, easily overriding his vetoes and making deep cuts in his departments and personal staff. His approval rating is at a low of 43 percent, and he has been coy about whether he will seek re-election this fall.
Whether he does or not, it's clear that the man known as "the Body" during his professional wrestling days has been taking a beating lately.
"People have tired of his shtick," said Steve Sviggum, the Republican speaker of the House. "It's his attitude as much as anything else."
Upon his election in 1998, Ventura brought a brash, unbuttoned style to what were typically staid and low-key state politics. He was like a rock star in the governor's mansion, saying what came to his mind, bashing Democrats and Republicans alike and calling the accepted system of collecting campaign contributions legalized "bribery."
"I'm not owned by any special interest," he said in a recent interview in his office in Minnesota's Capitol.
It's part of his bravado, the warrior politician come to save the day for the common man. But that image aside, Ventura has received high grades from some for pushing through a major rewrite of the property tax code and assembling a capable cabinet. And though he's a jock at heart, the governor is among a chorus of voices nationwide who say it's bad policy for sports teams, such as his beloved Minnesota Twins, to threaten to leave a city unless they get new publicly financed stadiums. Ventura calls it "extortion."
His politics are all over the ideological spectrum. He pushed through tax cuts that endeared him to the right and embraced same-sex partner benefits and education spending increases that won over those on the left. His approval rating during his first year in office soared to more than 70 percent as he paired off with one party and then the other on various issues to press his agenda.
"The governor was able to hold the middle," said Peter Hutchinson, president of Public Strategies Group Inc., a Minnesota consulting group that works with government agencies to improve the delivery of services. "He could get things done that (Democrats and Republicans) would have a hard time doing on their own. He demonstrated that when you have tripartisanship as opposed to bipartisanship, you get different results."
But times have changed. Surpluses that allowed for spending increases and tax reductions in the first three years have turned into deficits. In January, Ventura found himself at odds with those on the right and the left when he proposed deep budget cuts and permanent tax increases, which were flatly rejected by lawmakers. Leaders in the House, headed by Republicans, and the Senate, run by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), hammered out agreements on their own, leaving Ventura out in the cold.
Ventura charged that rejection of his proposals amounted to "election-year politics." After all, he said, his actions were what any responsible executive would do when faced with a budget shortfall. He made the "hard choices" to keep the state solvent.
"With his notoriety nationally, he could have done a lot more to lure businesses here and call attention to the state of Minnesota and not just himself," said state auditor Judi Dutcher, a recent convert from the GOP, who is seeking the DFL nomination for governor. "The governor has been standing on the sides for far too long hurling insults at people and not rolling up his sleeves."
And that's why, his critics contend, a Minneapolis Star Tribune poll in early March found that 43 percent of residents approved of Ventura's job performance and 49 disapproved. For the first time in a decade in the poll, the state's governor received a lower approval rating than the legislature.
"I had hoped that he would shine the light on how government could work," Minneapolis resident Carolyn Carr said after a recent community meeting in Minneapolis. "I feel he's been one of the people whipping out the one-liners that cloud the issues."
Still, no one is counting Ventura out. He won in 1998 with 37 percent of the vote, and everyone believes that in a three-way race, he would be a formidable candidate, partly because he is universally recognizable and can get free media at a moment's notice.
Ventura said the current budget debate is proof of his prudence. He proposed balancing the state budget through 2005 by cutting state spending by $700 million and imposing immediate gasoline and cigarette tax increases. Schools were set to lose $428 million over four years as well as a sales tax exemption worth an additional $1.2 billion.
His ideas, however, were rebuffed as "extreme" by legislators. After weeks of debate, they settled on, among other things, $374 million in permanent cuts and the use of $1.3 billion in reserves -- resolving all but $400 million of the budget deficit. It was a policy disagreement, to be sure, but it was a bit of sweet revenge from lawmakers who are upset that Ventura shows them little respect.
But the process isn't over. For the past several weeks, Ventura has watched with glee as legislators have fought among themselves. Although they balanced the current budget, Democrats and Republicans continue to haggle over a remaining $403 million projected deficit for the 2002-2003 budget that begins in July.
"If they fail to resolve it, then I will beat them up all summer politically," he said. "I will politically tell the public why do you elect these people that have no courage, that can't make a hard vote, that can't solve the problem."
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