It seemed like a ludicrous notion. Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a professional wrestler, commentator, and actor, running for governor of Minnesota? It wasn’t totally crazy, considering that he’d already been the mayor of Brooklyn Park, but running for the highest office in the state on the Reform Party ticket? It sounded more like a wrestling storyline than reality. Nevertheless, Ventura silenced the skeptics when he metaphorically body-slammed his opponent in the 1998 election, and was sworn into office 20 years ago today.
Ventura certainly had a colorful early life. He joined the U.S. Navy after high school and served from 1969 to 1975, a member of Underwater Demolition Team 12. During and after his tenure in the armed forces, Ventura rode with the Mongols motorcycle club and worked as a bodyguard for The Rolling Stones.
Getting into wrestling and weightlifting in the mid-1970s, Ventura initially wrestled as Jesse “The Great.” It wasn’t until his tenure in the American Wrestling Aassociation that legendary promoter Verne Gagne gave him the nickname “The Body,” a moniker that grew from Ventura’s physique and the character that he had developed for himself as a southern California style bodybuilder. Ventura eventually made his way to the World Wrestling Federation.
The future governor discusses his valuable time in Predator.
In the WWF, Ventura shot to national fame. After a run of matches against Hulk Hogan in 1984, Ventura temporarily retired from in-ring action due to blood clots in his lungs. However, Ventura was given a chance to do ringside commentary and shined in the role; taking the then-novel approach of keeping his heel (villain) persona and openly cheering for the bad guys, Ventura brought a new dimension to the announce team and became a fan-favorite for his withering put-downs. His tough-guy, trash-talking persona got Hollywood’s attention, and he was cast in a memorable role in Predator in 1987; the role led to an action-film career, including turns in The Running Man and Batman & Robin.
Ventura worked for WWF until 1990, then had a run with rival World Championship Wrestling for a few years. During this period, encouraged by one of his former high school teachers, Ventura ran for, and won, mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, ousting an incumbent that had been in office for 25 years. Ventura held office from 1991 to 1995. After that, he set his sights on the governorship.
Joining Ross Perot’s Reform Party, Ventura ran for governor of Minnesota in 1998. He attempted a number of new and different campaign approaches, pitching himself as an alternative to “politics as usual” and tapping into the nascent internet culture of the time to spread his message. He was also socially liberal at a time that the movement was experiencing blowback from the investigations into the Clinton administration; Ventura stood up for gay rights, abortion rights, medical marijuana, and public education while opposing the death penalty. The novelty of a professional wrestler and quasi-celebrity running for a high state office caught national attention and propelled the campaign which, by design, spent very little money in comparison to other candidates.
Ventura defeated his Republican and Democratic opponents in the November 1998 election and was sworn in on January 4, 1999. His outspoken nature and iconoclastic views drew further national attention and often put him at odds with various pundits. In 2000, he left the Reform Party when supporters of conservative Pat Buchanan essentially took the party over. Ultimately, Ventura decided not to run for a second term, citing the negative effects that all of the attention and occasional criticisms had on his wife and children. Among his accomplishments in office was the furthering of light rail for public transit in Minnesota; the state finished the METRO Blue Line in 2004, the year after Ventura left office.
In the years since, Ventura has flirted with a presidential run, but never officially committed. He’s gone on to host film and radio shows, write or co-author 10 books, and return to WWE programming from time to time. In 2004, Ventura was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Ventura continues to be a popular talk show guest and makes occasional appearances in TV and film. And though he’s never firmly committed to running for president, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against a man that upset mayoral and gubernatorial races; in our unpredictable world, there’s every chance that he could become Jesse “The Commander-in-Chief” Ventura.