BY DOUG JENNESS
ST. PAUL, Minnesota - A wide-ranging discussion has opened here attempting to explain why Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party candidate, is now governor-elect of Minnesota. Most people were not expecting that he would win against Hubert Horatio Humphrey III and Norman Coleman, the Democratic-Farmer Labor and Republican contenders respectively. Right up to the eve of the elections, three out of four of the state's main polling outfits were predicting that Humphrey would carry the state. And none predicted Ventura's victory, the first nationally for the Reform Party in any statewide contest.
In a voter turnout of more than 60 percent, well above the national average in this November's elections, Ventura scored 37 percent of the vote against Coleman's 34 percent and Humphrey's 28 percent. He carried all of the counties in the state's major metropolitan area of Minneapolis-St. Paul, running particularly strong in the northern suburbs.
No matter how much people seem surprised, the fact is Ventura's election didn't come out of the blue. The Reform Party is the continuation of the party established in Minnesota six years ago to support Texas billionaire Ross Perot for president. Perot won 19 percent of the vote nationally and 24 percent in Minnesota.
Since 1992 the Reform Party has been running campaigns for statewide office, and in 1994 and 1996, its standard-bearer for U.S. Senate, Dean Barkley, scored more than 5 percent of the vote, sufficient to meet the legal requirement for "major party" status. A major party in Minnesota receives media advantages not afforded "minor parties," such as inclusion in the main TV and radio debates, and is eligible for considerable sums of money from the state for campaigning.
Ventura, who was the honorary chairperson of Barkley's 1996 campaign, was selected to run for governor partly because of his popularity as talk-show host on a local radio station and for his earlier career as a professional wrestler. His radio broadcasts projected him as a hard-hitting radical "shock jock," taking swipes at big party politics and corruption. Ventura had also served a short term as mayor in the suburban town of Brooklyn Park.
Ventura's campaign was marked by two characteristics. Rather than concentrating on issues or programs that he would implement, he presented himself as someone who stands above partisan politics and will sign or veto legislation on the basis of whether he thinks it is good for Minnesotans rather than for a particular party. Thus, he tries to present himself as a champion of the "people."
"Serving the people, not the parties" is the title of his Internet web page.
Secondly, like Perot, he portrayed himself as someone who is strong enough to break through legislative logjams and get things done. He cultivated the image of a tough, ordinary sort of guy by playing on his reputation as a wrestler known as Jesse "the Body" Ventura, as a Navy SEAL, and a former motorcycle gang member. When asked how he would deal with a state legislature dominated by the DFL and the Republicans, he simply flexed his biceps, and said, "This is how."
Insofar as he expresses himself on issues, Ventura is clearly anti-working class. He calls for ending public funding for child care for women on welfare, instituting the death penalty in Minnesota, and backing the recent erosion of workmen's' compensation.
He says he opposes any additional taxes and using tax money to build a new athletic stadium. His Lieutenant Governor, Mae Schunk, is a longtime schoolteacher who calls for reducing class size without providing additional funds to local school districts. Ventura stated his support for keeping abortion legal and also called for decriminalizing of drugs and prostitution.
Ventura's vote came from people with a wide-range of backgrounds - from middle classes, professionals, farmers, and sections of the working class. Underlying his large vote is growing discontent with the Democratic and Republican parties, resentment over worsening conditions and reduced opportunities, and mounting insecurity in a capitalist system plagued by growing crisis. Many workers, lauding his victory, said that "he's different and that's what we need. Something different." Others responded favorably to his campaign slogan, "Retaliate in '98."
Tom Fiske, who ran for governor on the Socialist Workers Party ticket, explained that Ventura's victory "demonstrates the depth of alienation and distrust of the current two-party setup. It illustrates the growing political polarization taking place in the country. It is not a fluke," he said. "On the other hand," he added, Ventura's victory "will not help working people one tiny bit. Being radical or different or setting up a third, fourth, or fifth party isn't a sufficient answer for working people. Ventura and the Reform party are procapitalist," Fiske stated. "They attempt to cover up the sharp line between workers and bosses based on exploitation.
"We need organizations and perspectives that are based on struggle and recognize this unbridgeable gulf. We need organizations that raise demands that point the way forward for working people in our worldwide life and death fight against the employers and their government."
As governor Ventura will preside over a state government where the Republicans have a majority in the state House of Representatives and the DFL, the Minnesota affiliate of the Democratic Party, controls the state Senate. The Reform Party has no members in the state legislature. The 12 candidates it ran for the House polled from 3 to 15 percent of the vote. This situation has aroused questions about whether Ventura is going to be able to implement the tough line he preached in his campaign speeches or whether he will end up accommodating himself to the DFL/ Republican framework.
The main voices of big business are pressing him to take the latter course. Two days after the election the editors of the Minneapolis-Star Tribune, for example, stated, "Before he can hope to succeed, Ventura must remake himself once again. His only chance of accomplishing his goal lies in winning the cooperation of the very government establishment he lambasted during the campaign. He can no longer be the clever critic. He must become an informed, conciliatory leader."
In his first personnel move, Ventura appears to be taking this course. He appointed as his transition chief of state, an aide to former DFL Congressman Timothy Penny and executive director of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.
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