There aren't many athletes or entertainers with more interesting post-retirement lives than Jesse "The Body" Ventura. So when I noticed today marked the anniversary of his 1998 election as Governor of Minnesota, I knew I had to get him on the phone.
The former Navy SEAL, pro wrestler, bike gang member, Minnesota Vikings radio announcer, and elected offical is famous, perhaps infamous, for being a straight talker. He won favor with voters in part for his ability to express his opinions in simple terms, regardless of how his audience might perceive them—and him. Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length, ranged from his 1998 gubernatorial campaign, to Donald Trump, to Colin Kaepernick. We talked marijuana legalization and stadium financing deals, and sports gambling, too.
Ventura's opinions can seem one moment fringe and conspiratorial and the next completely reasonable, and sometimes both at once. He has always been a maverick, afraid of nobody, and trusting of few.
"Is this Jesse Ventura?" I asked when his line picked up. I knew I had the right number when that gruff voice came back: "Who's asking?"
VICE Sports: Take me back to the night of your election.
Jesse Ventura: It was a tight election, because there were three parties, three candidates were involved, which always changes the dynamics of it, because when you only have two people, it's very simple. Three people, it's different percentages. It was close, but I ended up winning by three percent over the Republican and by nine percent over the Democrat.
How confident were you that you could win?
Well, I went into it with the thought of winning. Minnesota has same-day registration, where you can register and vote the same day, and we were confident when we found out that the lines to register were longer than the lines to vote.
In what ways did your celebrity help you?
It always helps because you don't have to buy name recognition, so therefore you don't have to spend a great deal of money on it. In my case, through wrestling and the films and things I'd done, and in the state of Minnesota I didn't need name recognition, so I didn't need to waste money on that. Because of that fact, I only raised and spent $300,000 dollars to become governor.
Do you remember what your opponents spent?
I think they combined [for] $12 million.
On the flip side, how did your celebrity get in the way of you presenting a substantial political message?
Well, because that leaves it to the media, and the media would rather focus on stupid things than things that affect people. You see it in today in the elections. The current elections give you a prime example of the media focusing on stupidity rather than focusing in on issues that affect the nation as a whole. Look at right now, you don't hear any talk about the wars. You don't hear any talk about the War on Drugs. All you hear are personal attacks between the two—between [Hillary] Clinton and [Donald] Trump—and quite frankly it's embarrassing to say you're an American today.
It's certainly been a wild election.
It's embarrassing. It's embarrassing what these two parties have allowed our political agenda to sink to. They should be embarrassed over it, and the people should be but they're not.
Why don't you think there isn't more of a sense of embarrassment?
Because people are lemmings. They have the media to guide them every step of the way—part of the mainstream media. See, when Trump says the elections are rigged, he's correct. He's completely correct. They are fixed. They are rigged. But he's wrong in how. They're not against him. He's a Republican. They're fixed and rigged by the Democrats and the Republicans so nobody else could get in, and the media is a co-conspirator on it. If you look at how they cover candidates, third party candidates get less than one half percent of media coverage. Ninety-nine-point-five percent goes to the two major parties. Why? Because they're all bought and sold by the same corporate interest: The media and the two political parties.
It's very simple really, but people would look beyond the shade, or whatever you want to call it. It was shown when those emails came out that Bernie Sanders didn't have a chance, that Hillary Clinton was already picked to win. And yet, when those were exposed, did the media expose that it was a fix? No. They went after the messenger. They trumped up this stuff that the Russians did, and we should be fearful of the Russians. When the reality was if those emails hadn't been written in the first place then no one would have anything to discover, would they?
That's the part when I look at the American people and go, why are you killing the messenger and not the message?
So would you be in favor of changing to a proportional form of government, like a parliamentary system?
I don't know. What we need to do is get some fairness [in the election]. The first thing you have to do is take the debates away from the Democrats and the Republicans. Because they control it. They decide who gets to debate. They take this 15 percent number out of thin air. There's no law that says you need to be polling 15 percent to be in the debates. That's a figure they picked out that's unattainable for a third party. And it's unattainable for the fact that the media won't cover anybody in the third party, so how could you possibly obtain 15 percent?
Example: When I ran for Governor of Minnesota, on Labor Day, I was polling nine percent. I was allowed in the debates, and in 16 days I was the governor. And they're not going to let that happen again. They learned from that. And when I say "they" you notice how I lump [Democrats and Republicans] together, because they work together on it. Democrats and Republicans pretend to be in opposition to each other but they're really not. They team up well and get along fabulous when it's keeping everybody else out.
That's the fix. Trump doesn't take the fix to its ultimate end, which is that the two parties rig and fix the whole system so the two parties control the whole system.
Comparing Trump's campaign to your campaign—I know this is something you disagree with, but—
They like to do that. I was much closer to Bernie's campaign than I was Trump's. People forget, once Trump joined the Republicans his campaign was nothing like mine. I ran as an independent. So there truly is no comparison between the two.
Why do they compare me to Trump?
I think the parallel is that you both have a celebrity background.
So what? Ronald Reagan had a celebrity background too, didn't he?
He did, yeah.
I don't see the comparison here. I think people are stretching it. There is no comparison between the Trump campaign and my campaign.
During your campaign for governor, you openly toyed with legalizing marijuana and prostitution, although, if I'm not mistaken, you didn't wholeheartedly endorse either idea at the time. Now you're obviously behind legalizing pot. Tell me a bit about your latest book, Jesse Ventura's Marijuana Manifesto, and what you see as the biggest roadblocks preventing nation-wide legalization.
Well, the biggest roadblock is money. You've got the government making money on keeping it illegal. You've got the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency. That's how they survive: keeping it illegal.
The marijuana issue is one that people want changed in this country. That could be the issue that gives us back our government, because you've got the federal government telling us "no" and you've got polls stating that 60 percent of Americans are now supportive of full legalization. Well this is an opportunity for us to rise up as a people and tell the government a simple message: they work for us, we don't work for them.
It's their job to do what we want, not what they want done. So marijuana could be a key issue in pursuing that, in the fact that the people could rise up, as they're doing. It's happening state-by-state-by-state. They're voting on it. So how does the federal government deny the people what the people are voting?
So this could be the issue where we establish that we're the boss. We're the employer. Washington is the employee.
So this issue is about more than just people wanting to get high?
It could be. I just saw an article the other day. Colorado has 18,000 more jobs now, because of their limited legalization of marijuana. 18,000. You've got an industry here waiting to happen. I mean, how many people work in the tobacco industry? How many work in the alcohol industry? You could have the same thing with marijuana. It means jobs. It's such a versatile plant. It's medicine. It makes biodiesel fuel. It makes clothing. It does multitudes of wonderful things, and yet we have a government that eradicates it and won't let us use this plant. It's shameful. The people stopping us from using this plant ought to be the ones going to jail.
What about prostitution. Has your stance on that changed since leaving office?
Well, it's interesting when you go to that subject. The point is, any two people can have consensual sex all that they want and they're not breaking the law, as long as it's consensual. The only thing that makes prostitution illegal is not the sex, it's the exchange of money.
That should tell you the government wants to be the pimp. See, that ties in with marijuana. Why they won't legalize it? It all comes back to money. You can grow it in your backyard, so poor people could have access to marijuana and not have to pay big pharma and not have to pay big government. They could grow it in their backyard after an initial investment and get the benefits of this product. That's why the government so vehemently opposes it. Because if the government had their way, they'd tax you for the air you breathe, if they were capable of doing it.
That's the problem with marijuana. God created it, if you believe in God. It was here before we were. And it grows naturally. Anyone could grow it like a tomato patch in the backyard. You could use the plant and the government wouldn't get a cut from it. That's the true rub of the whole thing: that the government wants a piece of the action.
I want to move on to another place where the government gets involved when maybe they shouldn't. I know when you were governor, you were opposed to a new stadium proposal form the Vikings. Can you tell me about that?
Well, I won't support any professional stadiums. It's the most basic form of corporate welfare out there. You've got billionaire owners and millionaire players and yet we're building them their place of work?
We're very much like the Roman Empire now. The thing that's important to us today is entertainment. And we're willing to pay any price for that entertainment.
Like the whole Colin Kaepernick thing. I support him completely. He has every right to protest and do it in any peaceful manner he wants to. That's part of the freedom of this country. What's being lost in all this is that the media is focused on Kaepernick, when the real story is—and this is a story that lasted one day before the media killed it—but it came out that our defense budget, our tax dollars are paying billionaire sports owners to honor the veterans. Did you see that?
Yeah, we've actually written about it.
Now, to me, why is that being killed immediately? That is the most atrocious thing I've ever heard: buying patriotism. These billionaire owners have to be paid to honor me? Because I'm a veteran. They couldn't have insulted me worse.
That's another reason why today I don't particularly care for professional sports, because like I said, you've got billionaire owners who are paid my tax dollars to honor veterans that gave them the freedom to make their billions.
Well, you don't seem to be alone. NFL viewership is way down this year.
I don't know. I don't look at any of that. I don't follow that. You know, I still watch games, but I won't attend them in person. There's no way I would go. Another reason is that you have to get patted down now, and I just refuse to go through that.
I want to return to the stadium idea.
I had a mechanism to pay for every stadium in Minnesota and I couldn't get a Democrat or Republican to even carry the bill.
What was the mechanism?
Legalize sports betting. I pulled law enforcement in when I was governor, and I asked law enforcement how prevalent sports betting is in Minnesota. I said I heard it was a $2 billion a year industry. And law enforcement at the time—remember, this was back in 2000—told me it was closer to $3 billion a year, just in Minnesota.
So you've got all this gambling on games going on, and the government won't step in and become the bookie, and all this illegal money is being transferred on sports betting. If the government legalized sports betting and became the bookie, and it's $3 billion a year and the bookie takes 10 percent? That means the government would make $300 million a year on sports betting alone. That would pay for the new Vikings stadium in less than four years, and it would be right on the backs of the very people who gamble on the games.
What could be cleaner or better than that? And yet I couldn't get a Democrat or a Republican to even carry the bill. Because people need to remember: governors can't pass laws, only legislatures can. You can veto it, but you can't make a law, and I couldn't get one person to even carry that bill to legalize sports betting which would bring in revenue of $300 million dollars a year that would pay for every stadium they want. And then guess what? When the stadium is done, the money would keep coming in, wouldn't it? You could use it for schools. You could use it for infrastructure. You could use it for a variety of things.
But instead, let's shut our eyes, so sports betting can go on under the table, so nobody pays taxes.
It's interesting though, when you compare sports betting and, say, marijuana. The government would also legalize and tax marijuana, but you said a minute ago that they're not doing that because of big pharma—
—and because they're making money keeping it illegal. The DEA and all that with seizure laws and all that. They're making huge money. Plus, it goes deeper than that, with the privatization of our prisons. They need to keep the prisons full, so the prisons can show a profit for the shareholders of the privatization that is running the prison. It becomes a big long trail of problems.
But what's standing in the way of legalizing gambling? There's less standing in the way there than when you compare it to marijuana.
Our federal government said only Nevada can have sports betting, which is another reason I wanted to do it. How stupid are they? They have no right to do that. They can't give one state an advantage over another. It's unconstitutional. How can the federal government say Nevada is the only state you can have sports betting in but in the other 49 you can't? And yet somehow no one challenges it. But we have a corrupt court system today anyway, so it would probably get shot down. Who knows?
There are a lot of things out there that go on but through prohibition we don't see them. If we would behave like adults, and treat everything in an adult manner, meaning marijuana, prostitution, sports betting. All these things happen on a daily basis, but we seem to want to pull the blanket up over our eyes and pretend that they don't, and I think we're lying to ourselves and deceiving ourselves.
People are under the assumption that if you make something illegal it'll go away. No it's not. You can't prohibit things. It's not going to go away. It's just going to be run by a criminal element, and it will continue to exist. So obviously our government is profiting from keeping it illegal. That's the trail you have to follow: who in government is profiting from keeping all this illegal? Or who's getting paid off keeping it illegal?
What would you say is your most important legacy as governor?
I put in light rail. Mass transit. If it wouldn't have been for me, there would be no mass transit in the twin cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Now that's something they can't take from me. It's something they wish I wouldn't have done, so I wouldn't get credit for it.
Everything I did they tried to reverse.
This seems like a great example of when the government can do good.
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I feel like when I was in there I didn't let politics interfere. I did what was good for the state. Because I wasn't owned. Nobody owned me when I got there. Here's a little tidbit: In the four years I served as governor, I never once met with a lobbyist. In four years. So why do you think they wanted me gone? I couldn't be bought. I couldn't be paid off.
And here's another thing: When I got out of office, nobody offered me a cushy job. I didn't get offered a job. Because why? I didn't do any favors when I was there. I didn't set things up for when I got out by giving someone a sweet deal to get a job with them when I got out. Which is what goes on immensely in that business.
It's a dirty, rotten business. It's the dirtiest business in America. And believe me. I've been in pro wrestling and I've been in rock and roll, and politics is worse than both.