Wrestling With Reform

The freshest face on the political landscape, Jesse Ventura, speaks his mind on government, taxes, education and business.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the January 2000 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

"You can't legislate against stupidity, but we try to do it all the time."

He was born James George Janos in Minneapolis on July 15, 1951. As a member of the Navy SEAL Special Forces many years later, he was called "Janos the Dirty" for pushing the limits of the force's rules. When he launched his career as a professional wrestler at age 23, he changed his name to Jesse Ventura. (he was in California at the time and picked the name of a city there that means "luck" in Spanish.) Indeed, if there's one thing you can say about Jesse Ventura, it's that his many and varied monikers reflect the chameleon-like changes he's made in his 48 years--and the changes he may well make for himself, his state--heck, maybe even his country--in years to come.

After living with the nickname "The Body" during his wrestling days for his 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound frame, Ventura called himself Jesse "The Mouth" when he became a controversial talk-show host. As Jesse "The Actor," he appeared in such movies as Predator, from which he borrowed his most famous line for his recent autobiography, I Ain't Got Time to Bleed: Reworking the Body Politic From the Bottom Up (Villard).

Ventura's political career launched in 1990 when a guerrilla campaign resulted in a record local turnout and his election as "The Mayor" of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Then on November 3, 1998, he stunned the political world by generating another massive grass-roots response to his Reform Party message, beating two veteran politicians to become "The Governor." This despite the fact he only spent $600,000, much of it raised via the Internet, while his opponents had spent a combined $13 million.

Now Ventura insists on leaving behind "The Body" sobriquet and being addressed as "The Mind." He has certainly gained a considerable amount of respect; among his admirers are Donald Trump and Minneapolis businessman and bestselling author Harvey Mackay. There's even talk of drafting Governor Ventura to add "The President" to his designations in 2004.

Although people's opinions of Ventura vary greatly, there's no denying he has made America sit up and take notice. His fearlessness and independent thinking are clearly refreshing to a large group of Americans who have grown weary of the slick political and business players who typically dominate the headlines. Indeed, his approach may well represent a change in the political and business landscape in a way that will allow small business to thrive.

Scott S. Smith:A year into the new job, are you still having fun, or has it turned out to be very frustrating?

Gov. Jesse Ventura: I'm enjoying it very much, and I love coming to work every day. It's a heck of a challenge and an honor to be given the trust of the voters to fulfill this office. It's a tremendous learning experience.

Smith:What are some of the lessons you've learned?

Ventura: The most basic thing I've realized is that it's easy for everyone to holler for tax cuts, but in government, the law of physics prevails. I only got Cs in physics classes, but I do remember the basic principle: For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. When people say cut taxes, they have to understand that you can't do it without cutting spending. Where you get into the muddy water is when everyone wants you to cut what doesn't affect them.

You can't have it both ways. If we're going to cut taxes, then we have to cut the government's role. My definition of the government's role is that it should do only what you can't do for yourself. That's the mindset I'm trying to have prevail among my commissioners and staff. But it's a long process to change the way government has been doing things for so long.

Smith:How can government encourage small business?

Ventura: By being a partner instead of an adversary. One thing I noticed before I came into office was that any time I had to do anything with the government, it was always a headache and a roadblock. We need to make it friendly, to support people instead of punishing those who do the right thing. The classic example is property taxes. If you do the right thing and improve your property, the government charges you more taxes. If you let it deteriorate, it rewards you and you pay less.

Smith:You used the Internet a lot during your campaign, and your state has one of the highest rates for Internet usage. What should the government's attitude be on Internet regulation?

Ventura: You certainly don't want fraud, and the Web is a prime place for that. The government should oversee law-breaking, but other than that, it's probably going to be a free-for-all.

I should confess that I'm computer-illiterate, but I did have a great Webmaster who allowed us to campaign extremely cheaply. The Internet will play a huge role in future elections.

Smith:What should be the role of business in education?

Ventura: Business needs to play a greater part, especially in supporting the public school system. We need to create a partnership between education and business. We need the business sector to voice its opinion on what kids should be learning so when they graduate, they can step right into the available jobs. Technology is the future, so we need to be training them for that type of work. In my opinion, the day of the liberal arts degree is waning.

Smith:Canada has legalized hemp for industrial purposes, but it's illegal here because parts of the plant can be used as marijuana. Do you see it being legalized in the United States?

Ventura: We're working on it. My administration just passed an industrial hemp law, and now we have to battle the feds on it. I don't particularly like where our country stands on such issues because I think the federal government is taking away states' rights. I think this is a good one to take a stand on because we have farmers who are in trouble, and hemp could be a good industry for things like paper and clothing.

Smith:How would the consumption tax you advocate impact the economy?

Ventura: I think a national sales tax instead of an income tax is a tremendous idea. It would put the government on a direct budget [in line] with the economy. If our forefathers knew you worked at a job and the government got paid before you did, they'd turn over in their graves. If we had a national sales tax instead of the income tax, it would encourage savings, and everyone would pay taxes, including illegal aliens, tourists and cottage industries that pay nothing right now.

Smith:You're famously combative. For instance, you've had a rough-and-tumble relationship with the media. Any tips on how to deal with the press?

Ventura: I think that the big problem with the mainstream media is, they have no sense of humor. When you do something tongue in cheek after you're elected, they usually think it's inappropriate. My message to them is, I will have fun whether they like it or not.

We all support freedom of the press and speech, but with that comes responsibility, which the media tends to shirk in many ways. When there is no news, they often attempt to create it in the spin they try to put on stories. That shouldn't be their role; they need to just report the news as it is. The media also attempts to control government decisions by using editorial influence, which is dangerous.

Smith:What's the key to good communication?

Ventura: Tell the truth.

Smith:That's it?

Ventura: During a campaign debate, a woman gave me a notepad and pen to take notes on what my opponents were saying. I gave them back and told her I don't need a good memory as long as I tell the truth. I never use notes when I speak. The truth isn't always what everyone wants to hear, but people respect you when you tell it.

Smith:What's your view of term limits? Would constant turnover put officials at the mercy of the bureaucracy, and don't you need knowledge of the law to draft it?

Ventura: I don't think offices should be held for just two years. That's horrible because you barely learn the job before you have to run for reelection. At the other end of the spectrum, eight years is long enough--no one should hold office longer than the president.

Smith:Give us a lesson from the Navy SEALS that would apply to business.

Ventura: Never assume.


Ventura: Never assume.

Smith:OK. What did you learn from wrestling that is important to success in the wider world?

Ventura: I learned how important it is to think on your feet. I also learned to be comfortable speaking to the media because if I didn't communicate well, I didn't make money. I learned how to motivate people to come out and spend their hard-earned dollars to see me get beaten. And, of course, communication through the media plays such a big role in politics and business today.

Smith:Finally, what's your outlook on political reform in the country? Are you hopeful or concerned?

Ventura: I think we're on the verge of major reform. The public's becoming less apathetic and more involved. They realize now that if they don't vote, they can't bitch.

Scott S. Smith writes about business issues for a variety of publications, including Investor's Business Daily.

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