Jesse Ventura showed a key quality for a statesman — the ability to learn from mistakes

November 28, 2022 7:00 am

Gov. Jesse Ventura testifies before the Senate International Trade Subcommittee during a hearing on trade policy challenges in 2001 October 5, 2000 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo by Alex Wong/Newsmakers.

Jesse Ventura was back in the news again recently by endorsing Tim Walz for governor. He qualified his endorsement by saying he’s not a member of any political party. Instead, Ventura claimed he’s “a statesman”.

For many, that title is probably hard to square with Ventura’s squirrelly, shoot-from-the-lip manner when he was Minnesota’s governor a couple decades ago. Remember, for example, when he told the state Chamber of Commerce at its annual dinner that his top goal was to exempt jet skis from the state’s sales tax?

Still, Gov. Ventura showed one of the finest qualities of a statesman — the ability to learn from past mistakes.

My personal example is Ventura’s handling of the rights of tribal nations in the state. While attending a governors’ conference in Washington, he crudely dismissed the fishing rights of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which were then being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court and were later upheld. Ventura said if tribal members wanted to enforce treaty rights, they “ought to be in birch bark canoes instead of 200-horsepower Yamaha engines.”

On his return to St. Paul, Ventura received a letter from Mille Lacs’ then-Chief Executive Marge Andersen accusing him of rejecting tribal rights, heritage, and sovereignty and most seriously, of opening old wounds when leaders should be trying to heal them. (And adding she knew of no Band members with 200 HP Yamaha engines.)

Ventura responded to Andersen, not with more wise-guy, pro wrestling-style hyperbole, but by trying to undo the unnecessary bad will he had caused. He first learned as much as he could about the rights of  Indigenous people in Minnesota and then went about repairing the damage.

As the state’s deputy attorney general whose portfolio included Indian law, I was asked to give the governor an hour-long tutorial — which included lots of questions from him — on the legal roles of federal, state and tribal governments. State agency officials likewise briefed him on their interactions with tribes. And Ventura himself visited a number of reservations and invited tribal leaders to the Governor’s Residence.

The result of his efforts was by the end of his tenure in office, then-Prairie Island Tribal President Audrey Bennett said no previous governor had done as much as Ventura to respect tribal sovereignty and improve state-tribal relations. Among Ventura’s accomplishments were updated tax agreements with tribes, public safety pacts between tribal, county and state governments and a first-ever executive order recognizing the equal nature of state government and tribal government interactions.

Now it’s true that Ventura had downsides as governor. He memorably received $100,000 plus royalties for “guest” refereeing a WWF match and likely earned much more as an announcer for the televised games of the short-lived XFL pro football league. And though governors share budgetary responsibility with the legislature, an inescapable fact is Ventura took office in 1999 with a $4 billion state surplus and left the state four years later with a $4.3 billion deficit

Still, Ventura took his leadership responsibilities seriously. Many state employees to this day claim his appointed commissioners were the best they ever had, though they ran the political gamut from conservative to liberal. (They were also scandal free.) His goal of simplifying property taxes was enacted much to the liking of many and he was able to direct tobacco settlement funds into anti-smoking purposes.

Ventura’s work with tribal governments is a lesson for every politician, and every adult for that matter. You don’t have to be defined by stupid statements or by taking unwise positions.  Instead, they can be used as reasons to learn, to grow and to accomplish good things.

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Ken Peterson
Ken Peterson

Ken Peterson is a board member of Clean Elections Minnesota. He served as the commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry under Gov. Rudy Perpich and Gov. Mark Dayton, and spent eight years as a state deputy attorney general. He lives in St. Paul.