Commentary: Trump Victory Sounds Familiar To Minnesotans

He shocked the world by winning election as a most unconventional candidate.

He never hesitated to say what was on his mind, no matter how controversial. He came from a celebrity background and preached the need to change government.

He attracted people who may not always vote. He attacked reporters, complaining they did not give him a fair shake. He often talked about himself.

And he did not spend as much money campaigning as others, in a large part because his star status drew plenty of attention.

Does that describe? A) President-elect Donald Trump, B) former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, C) neither, D) both.

Minnesotans who were around in 1998 know the answer is D.

“The American dream lives on in Minnesota because we shocked the world,” Ventura said in his 1998 election night victory speech. “When all the experts were saying, ‘He can’t win’ … I kept thinking back, ‘No, that’s not true; we can win.’ And we have won.”

Trump’s victory speech was different, but could have been the same. At least one line sounded like Ventura: “Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream.”

There is a strong similarity between Trump and Ventura. Differences, sure, but Ventura’s legacy may be able to show Americans what to look for in their next president.

Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura jokes with retired school principal Maxine Hankins-Cain after he gives the keynote speech at a Minneapolis gathering touting sister city projects called Sister Cities International, Friday, July 17, 2015. (Pioneer Press photo by Jean Pieri)
Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura jokes with retired school principal Maxine Hankins-Cain after he gives the keynote speech at a Minneapolis gathering touting sister city projects called Sister Cities International, Friday, July 17, 2015. (Pioneer Press photo by Jean Pieri)

I began the Minnesota portion of my political reporting career between when Ventura won his shocking election and a couple months later when he took office.

The Ventura term prepared me, and the few other reporters who were around then and still are in the profession, for Trump.

About a year ago, a couple of people asked me how the country could survive a Trump presidency.

The answer was simple, as it remains today: Minnesota not only survived the Ventura governorship, but in many people’s eyes the state thrived. He came into office with none of the political shackles that a long-time politician carries. Trump, too.

The first thing to realize about a politician who gains celebrity before running for office is he likely has two personalities, a public one and a private one.

Ventura and Trump are controversial, perhaps even abrasive, in public. But in private, Ventura was different and Trump probably is, too.

A few reporters had a chance to get to know Ventura well. While he developed a dislike for big Twin Cities newspapers and commercial broadcast stations he seldom saw what we wrote for our greater Minnesota and suburban newspapers and gave us good access. He frequently hosted a group of us at his state-owned home or Capitol office for interviews, often on Fridays before his workout or chiropractor visit.

There, he was not the bombastic orator we heard at news conferences and speeches. Instead, he was calm, cool, collected and friendly, even while in public he said we “rats” who work in the Capitol basement should be run over by his new sport utility vehicle.

When he was calling for the Legislature to become a unicameral body, with one chamber instead of both a House and a Senate, I was the only reporter to visit Lincoln, Neb., for an extended look at the lone U.S. unicameral legislature.

When I returned, I told Ventura that Nebraska senators (all legislators are called senators there) said lawmakers should be elected on a nonpartisan basis and committee chairman be picked by a secret ballot among committee members. Those and other changes would have to be made for unicameral to be successful, senators said.

The governor thanked me, first for checking out the Nebraska situation and then for asking about changes senators

President-elect Donald Trump addresses supporters as members of his family look on at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, Nov. 9, 2016. (Reuters photo by Andrew Kelly)
President-elect Donald Trump addresses supporters as members of his family look on at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, Nov. 9, 2016. (Reuters photo by Andrew Kelly)

suggested. He seemed sincere in his thanks, as well as his feeling that he did not want to follow the senators’ proposals.

So one thing to watch for leading up to Trump taking office, and during his White House tenure, is what people say about how he deals with them in private. He likely will be like Ventura in those situations, more subdued.

The major reason Ventura’s term was a success, even though he lost the unicameral debate, is he picked commissioners and aides from all parties and no party. There is general agreement that Ventura’s Cabinet contained some of the best people available.

Early reports out of the Trump transition team indicate he may be leaning a different way, favoring close allies from his campaign and rich white men for many posts. How that works out will be a key to determining whether Trump will follow Ventura’s success.

One of the most important things Trump can learn from Ventura, and this is no joke, is that he needs to control his humor, cynicism and sarcasm.

Ventura loved to joke, and was good at delivering lines deadpan. So good, that reporters often went into print or on the air with things he said as jokes.

Ventura did not stop that, but eventually after a yarn he was forced to add in his distinctive deep voice: “Joke. Joke. Joke.”