Gov. Jesse Ventura is disengaging from his job. He's making the rounds of state offices, thanking state workers for their efforts. On Friday he broadcast his final "Lunch with the Governor" radio program. In Sunday's Star Tribune Ventura wrote an opinion piece summing up his four years in office by stating, "We had a blast."
It certainly was a blast. News coverage of Minnesota's normally staid state government had to be treated as a completely different beast once "Jesse the Body" entered the governor's office. Cynical journalists who were used to dismissing gubernatorial news conferences or radio broadcasts as terminally dull were forced to keep one ear cocked to the governor's weekly radio show. The media was afraid to turn their attention away from Ventura for even a minute because, unlike other politicians, we never knew what he was going to say. And he just might say something outrageous when your reporter wasn't there and some other newspaper's was. In that respect, Ventura played the news media as if it were a fiddle. He knew he was big news and wasn't afraid to be outrageous if he needed more attention.
Unfortunately, Ventura's refreshing candor could also be offensive, abrasive and ill-timed. For example, when you're trying to sell a sensible position on the benefits of a unicameral legislature to lawmakers it's not very smart to call your opponents "gutless cowards."
The frustrating aspect of Ventura's tenure is that his overly confrontational style prevented him from advancing some of the Independence Party movement's best common sense ideas.
This newspaper and others have taken Ventura to task on numerous occasions for specific outlandish statements or actions. There's no need to recap all the missteps. Here are some of the things Ventura did right:
-- Ventura knew how to communicate. His plainspoken speaking skills and sense of humor were probably what won him the election. He was a breath of fresh air for voters who had grown weary of politicians who were always waffling and speaking in double-talk.
-- Making good use of the state budget surplus that existed at that time, the governor played a role in successfully revamping the state's property tax system.
-- He was absolutely right to chide the 2002 Legislature for not fixing the budget deficit during that session. The Democrats and Republicans put it off with accounting shuffles because neither side had the political courage to make difficult decisions heading into an election. It might have been good politics but it wasn't good fiscal management.
-- Gov. Ventura nobly pushed the idea of a unicameral or one-body legislature but found that there was very little public support for it and few legislators were about to vote to eliminate legislative jobs. The fact that the proposal made sense wasn't enough to ensure its success.
-- Name brand recognition. When you told a stranger that your governor could beat up their governor they knew you were from Minnesota.
-- By "shocking the world" with his surprise victory at the polls he opened up the political process. There's nothing like a startling political upset to inspire the dreamers and the politically disadvantaged to work within the political system.
Ventura kept us all on edge. His accomplishments were mixed but he managed to shake up politics as usual and proved that an electorate that was often distracted and disinterested could be stirred into action by a compelling and original candidate.
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