On November 3, 1998, former professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura is elected governor of Minnesota with 37 percent of the vote. His opponents, seasoned politicians Hubert Humphrey III (son of Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president and the attorney general of Minnesota) and St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, spent a total of $4.3 million on their campaigns. Ventura, the Reform-Party candidate, spent $250,000—money he raised by selling $22 t-shirts and accepting $50 donations from his supporters. His only political experience had been his years as mayor of Brooklyn Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, but his laid-back, straight-talking, libertarian approach to politics resonated with many Minnesotans—especially young men who had never voted before. “I voted for Jesse because he was the most honest,” one young constituent told a reporter for Newsweek. “If he doesn’t know something, he says he doesn’t know.”
During his pro wrestling career, Ventura had always been the bad guy: He wore tie-dyed outfits, feather boas and garish sunglasses, and he loudly and profanely heckled his opponents. “The Body” was shamelessly dishonest—his motto was “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat.” Ventura used some of his character’s familiar flamboyance in his gubernatorial campaign. In one ad, he wore only a pair of gym shorts and sat contemplatively, emulating Rodin’s The Thinker, while opera played in the background. In another, a Jesse Ventura action figure (cobbled together from existing dolls that a staffer found in a store, it had the body of Batman and the head of World War II General Omar Bradley) trounced Evil Special Interest Man. But when he got elected, he promised to take the job seriously. “I don’t want to cheapen the office,” he said. “I’m not about to turn it into some dog-and-pony show.”
Some of his accomplishments as governor were popular: He managed to pass a light-rail plan for the Twin Cities, drafted a novel property-tax reform package and sent tax rebates, called “Jesse Checks,” to voters every year for three years. Then the state ran into economic problems. His legislative support evaporated and he seemed to spend more time whining and lashing out at his critics (most notably—and unwisely—the droll and good-natured Garrison Keillor, who, thanks to his public-radio show The Prairie Home Companion, was a beloved Minnesota folk hero). In 2002, Ventura decided that he would not run for office again.
After leaving the governor’s mansion, Ventura hosted a short-lived TV talk show, taught a class at Harvard, and stumped for John Kerry in 2004. Two years later, he moved to Mexico. Nonetheless, some people still hope that he will change his mind and return to politics.