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Kyle Eller: Jesse's tuned in to day job

He sat facing us with a cold, hard stare, not speaking, barely acknowledging our presence with a nod as we gave him our names. The meaning was hard to decipher: Intimidation? Mistrust? Anger, maybe, but if so, over what -- a bad taste from past e...

He sat facing us with a cold, hard stare, not speaking, barely acknowledging our presence with a nod as we gave him our names. The meaning was hard to decipher: Intimidation? Mistrust? Anger, maybe, but if so, over what -- a bad taste from past encounters with "Greater Minnesota," a general disdain for the media, an unfriendly editorial?
Perhaps, as one colleague suggested later, it was a bad lunch.
Whatever the reason, the opening moments of the exclusive interview Murphy McGinnis Newspapers had with Gov. Jesse Ventura last week went from the pleasant preliminary discussion with John Wodele, the governor's director of communications, to a cold, hard gubernatorial stare.
As a journalist, I'm supposed to be immune to that, and believe it or not, I was over any intimidation I may have felt by then. Sure, the governor has a presence. He's a large, confident and forceful man who looks you unrelentingly in the eye when he speaks.
And yes, he's shown almost perverse hostility toward the media. We joked about "jackal" passes before the event, and I didn't know how he'd respond to us, because we had some unpleasant issues to raise.
Things were not off to a winning start.
But just as quickly, the icy stare faded, not into warmth exactly but at least into civility. And that's when a new picture of the man emerged.
Minnesota Jesse fans like him because they believe he speaks his mind. I've never been too sure about that: It's easy to confuse confrontation with honesty, and I'm more familiar than the average Minnesotan with the PR industry and its uncanny ability to "stay on message" at the expense of whatever question a reporter might have asked.
I'm pleased -- thrilled, actually -- to say Ventura does speak his mind. In our hour-long interview, I can maybe think of two questions he ducked, and I say "maybe," because one question was worded poorly enough, it's in genuine doubt.
Sad as it may be, that's really good.
I'm even more pleased to say he has a mind to speak, contrary to some opinions. Say what you want about his crack staff preparing him, but even normal governors have busy schedules. For us, Ventura was sharp and loaded with specifics about his policies, with Wodele flinging out charts and graphs as Ventura talked. Ventura can discuss those policies in depth and detail, on a pragmatic level or a philosophical one. They're really his.
So don't let the XFL gig, book tours and a slate of national TV interviews fool you. Ventura seems to be actually doing his day job.
Of course, here in northern Minnesota (not to be confused with the infuriating and ironically diminutive "Greater Minnesota") we have other questions. Could he find Ely with a map and a compass?
Well, he jokes about even people on the Range not knowing where the Range ends, but he also tried to duck the question of when he was next coming our way, finally settling on the fishing opener when he'll be "close" in Brainerd.
Please.
On the other hand, he did seem to have knowledge of specific northern Minnesota issues and declared them a priority. With a "joke" about mistreatment in a Range city, though, one hopes his only knowledge of the area doesn't involve a grudge match.
How is he in person? The man can talk. His other careers have trained him well in this regard. He is endlessly quotable, and more articulate than I ever would have guessed. I could turn on my tape of the interview right now and chances are it would be something I could plug into an article.
Unfortunately, his exuberance and passion for his policies are exceeded only by that for defending himself from attack. When responding to critics, the governor is witty and sharp and blunt -- in short, even more quotable than normal. Guess what hits TV? I think this contributes a lot to misperceptions about him.
There is much more I'd like to tell you, about the office, about the man, but the best I can say is this: I'm not sure we always have a fair sense of it, but despite all the hype and hoopla, he's a governor. For real.
Agree with them or don't (personally, I find his abortion policy abhorrent), but Ventura has got real policies, real ideas, real principles. He seems to truly be working for change in the way this state works, not just idle debate.
Which, when you stop to think about it, might just vault him from "real" governor to exceptional governor.
Kyle Eller is news editor of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at kyle.eller@duluth.com

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