Emulating 'The Body'

This well-known politician is a fiscal conservative, a fighter for the little guy, and he's bullish on education. Oh yeah, he also has his own action figure.

As that last bit might have indicated, we're talking about Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, former-pro-wrestler-turned-politico. Doug Friedline, manager of the Ventura campaign, was in Seattle recently at the request of the Reform Party, telling the story behind Jesse's shocking electoral victory.

As the local Perotistas learned, Gary Locke won't be losing any sleep. Ventura's 1998 victory stemmed from a combination of inclusive state campaign finance laws, a tradition of public candidate debates, innovative campaign targeting, and sheer personal popularity. About 95 percent of the last, to be exact.

But the other factors deserve a look. Minnesota candidates who agree to spending limits (most do) get a double boost from the state treasury. State income tax forms include a check-off box to transfer $5 of your payment into a fund benefiting your political party of choice. Primary-winning candidates also split almost $1 million in direct state subsidies. What's more, the state also refunds the first $50 of a citizen's contribution to any campaign. Ventura got $16,000 through the check-off box and another $310,000 from the general subsidy. As the campaign spent a total of $625,000, state funds represented more than half of the Body's election kitty.

The debate factor also made a big difference. In 1998, our incumbent US Sen. Patty Murray and challenger Linda Smith only shared a podium twice. Minnesota gubernatorial candidates do six televised statewide debates, plus several other joint appearances. Minnesota campaign finance regulator Gary Goldsmith says the state plays no role in arranging these face-offs. "But Minnesota has always had both televised and radio debates and others that aren't televised," he says. "It's kind of a tradition here." By all accounts, the telegenic and media-savvy Ventura easily outdistanced his white-bread opponents, Republican St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and state Attorney General Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III. "Every time Skip spoke, he got worse and worse," reports Friedline.

But the Ventura campaign also ignored the political maxim that you focus your resources on habitual voters. As a third-party campaign, "we had to go out and get the unmotivated people who were used to sitting on their barstools and complaining about politicians," Friedline says. Thus, the Ventura campaign was built around the debates, free media coverage, and, of course, television ads. The Ventura campaign ads were short, clever, and humorous. The two best: a pair of kids playing with a leftover action figure from Ventura's wrestling days (the future governor battled "Special Interest Man") and the granite-bodied candidate himself posing as Rodin's The Thinker.

All in all, an impressive display of pro-democratic law, tradition, and campaign strategy—yet Minnesota voters still ended up with a professional wrestler.

Now Ventura is selling his autobiography and has issued a new line of action figures to raise money for charitable causes. But unless Washington's Reform Party finds an action-figure-worthy candidate of its own, we'll be stuck with dull guys in suits.

Council to homeless: Wait two weeks

It never fails—say something nice about politicians and strange things happen. The City Council Parks Committee, set to review proposed amendments to the city's park exclusion ordinance, ended up tabling the effort for two weeks.

Peter Steinbrueck, one of three co-sponsors who got praised in this column last week for his principled stand, says he's trying to craft amendments that might actually get approved. Maybe so, but the majority of council members seem solid in their opposition to weakening the law. In its first year of use, 1,566 people were temporarily banned from city parks for illegal activity, three-quarters for either drinking alcohol or camping. Opponents of the law predicted it would be used to target minorities and homeless persons—and a council-mandated statistical report demonstrated a disproportionate impact on those two groups. Given this fact, the council should at least order police to continue keeping these statistics. You never know when fairness and compassion will come back into vogue.

Good morning, Seattle

Give it credit for trying, but the Society of Professional Journalists probably invited the wrong speakers to its recent panel discussion on the upcoming switch of The Seattle Times to morning publication.

The top editors at the two Seattle dailies—the Post-Intelligencer's Ken Bunting and the Times' Mike Fancher—were well-spoken, fast, and funny, trading barbs over the prospect of their upcoming competition for the morning newspaper market. Trouble is, neither would address the very real possibility that Seattle may be a one-daily town within the decade. This made the question-and-answer period a silly exercise, as there wasn't a straight answer to be had. So here's a few after-the-fact questions:

To Fancher: If the Times is so helpless to fight the national trend of daily newspapers being published in the morning, why should Seattle be able to buck the trend of medium-sized cities only being able to support a single daily?

To Bunting: How does the P-I maintain a quality staff, given that many of your reporters now have to add the paper's survival to their usual financial worries, like mortgages and college tuition?

To both: Given your unending fondness for using martial imagery to describe your competitive situation (showdown, battle, war), don't most of these violent encounters end with someone lying dead on the ground?

 
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