Candidates launch early bids to unseat Ventura in 2002

Latasha Webb

As the regular legislative session wound down this year, Gov. Jesse Ventura sat in his office in the State Capitol puffing a cigar.

He assured reporters he wasn’t the least bit concerned about a state government shutdown, even though Republicans and DFLers were miles apart on a budget agreement.

It takes a peculiar man to endear himself to a majority of the state as he kicks back in his office, enshrouded in cigar smoke with a wide grin.

Then again, very little has been ordinary about Ventura’s term since he won the governorship in 1998, shocking the nation.

Through several well-publicized gaffes, growls and wrestling gigs, he still registered a 71 percent approval rating in the last public opinion poll in January.

He’s not worried about campaigning, and has yet to decide whether he even wants to run again.

Ironically, it’s the coalescence of all these things that seems to make Ventura so hard to beat.

But that’s not keeping a big handful of hopefuls from trying.

Several candidates are beginning their campaigns for governor, more than a year before the gubernatorial election. Their early starts could be evidence of the governor’s hold on voters.

“If you were to have the election tomorrow, nobody would run strong against the governor,” said University political science professor Bill Flanigan.

House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, businessman Brian Sullivan and accountant Michael Vekich are vying for the Republican endorsement a few months early.

Becky Lourey, Kerrick-DFL, State Auditor Judi Dutcher and artist Ole Savior are already tossing their hats in the DFL ring.

“The strength of the Republican candidate depends on who the Democrats put up and vice versa,” Flanigan said. “It’s impossible to say right now who the strongest candidate is.”

Sullivan and his campaign manager, Tony Sutton, said they are undaunted by Ventura’s soaring approval numbers.

“Looks can be deceiving,” Sutton said. Although people might feel “good will” toward the governor, it’s not a guaranteed vote, he said.

The governor has alienated a lot of people, he added.

“I’d look to (Yudof) for the new vision,” he said of his prospective policies for the University. “Clearly the governor didn’t have an interest in finding out what those visions are.”

Pawlenty has criticized the governor for spending too much time jet-setting and not enough governing.

“Pawlenty has a lot more experience,” Flanigan said. “But Sullivan has the backing of a lot of people.”

Vekich, the CEO of his own accounting firm, has served on several boards, including the Higher Education Services Council, the Minnesota State Board of Accountancy and the Salvation Army. He could not be reached for comment.

On the democratic ticket, Lourey, a wife and mother of 10, might appeal to a different population than the Republican businessmen and House majority leader.

She said public cynicism, not Ventura, will be her toughest opponent. “Lately most of the dialogue by this governor has been negative. I won’t be embarrassing Minnesota with comments about religion and prostitutes,” she said.

Lourey is pushing for health care reform, lower property taxes and improving education.

“I’m horrified by the raise in tuition,” she said. “We’re cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

Education is also a concern for Savior, a Minneapolis artist who also campaigns on ending nuclear war and world hunger.

He was not available for comment.

State Auditor Judi Dutcher, who was also unavailable, is primarily noted for her switch from the Republic party to the Democratic party in early 2000.

Although the conversion left a bad taste in the mouths of state Republicans, Flanigan said she has a good chance of winning.

John Wodele, Ventura’s director of communications, said the governor’s indecision has nothing to do with who is running against him.

Sutton called it an attempt by the governor to create hype.

The election will take place in Nov. 2002.