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Published on April 22nd, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews

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Strange Bedfellows: Politics, a Playground for Ex-Wrestlers

Jesse Ventura, professional wrestler and 38th Governor of Minnesota, seen here presenting his first State of the State address in March, 1999. [Photo courtesy of nydailynews.com]

The Body Politic

Ventura, of course, knows what he’s talking about. Well before Donald J. Trump would parlay voter dissatisfaction and a sense of shameless self-promotion into an Electoral College victory, there was Jesse Ventura. During the 1998 Minnesota governor’s election, Ventura capitalized on his fame as a wrestler and actor, riding to an improbable win as a third-party candidate.

Ventura took 37 percent of the vote as the Reform Party candidate, besting Hubert Humphrey III and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.

Ventura’s close advisers say that Trump’s victory map was much like the Minnesota election, slightly changed due to the burst of technology and connectivity that has happened here in the second decade of the new century.

“Jesse’s success is the perfect case history to show this can happen,” Bill Hillsman told PBS Newshour during the 2016 presidential election. Hillsman is a Minneapolis ad man and close Ventura adviser who came up with several memorable campaign ads, including one that depicted Ventura as an action figure who tells special interests: “I don’t want your stupid money.”

“Donald Trump’s campaign is just Jesse’s campaign writ very large, with more money and some hugely advantageous communications tools” such as social media and online organizing, Hillsman said.

But there was an element of Bernie Sanders’s optimism and hope in Ventura’s campaign, as well. After initially funding his campaign with $250,000, most of Ventura’s funding came through small donations of $50 or less, and selling $22 T-shirts.

Ask people in Minnesota about Ventura, and the results are a mixed bag. After campaigning partially on a tax cut, he did refund part of Minnesota’s budget surplus to taxpayers. But even in that, the former governor’s ego got in the way. He referred to those refunds as “Jesse Checks.” And those checks kept coming to Minnesotans for three straight years until the state ran into financial trouble. While Ventura did oversee the installation of a light-rail system in the Twin Cities and allocated more money for schools, many observers noted that as an outsider, he tired quickly of the day-to-day grind of governing, and he clashed frequently with other elected officials and NPR radio personality Garrison Keillor.

Toward the end of his first term as governor, Ventura announced that he would not seek another term.

Still, Ventura is the most successful American wrestler-turned-politician since Abraham Lincoln. Most of the time, wrestlers who go into politics end up doing the J-O-B.


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