By John M. Williams For most of America, Jesse "The Body" Ventura is already a political legend. The 49-year-old Minnesotan served as a Navy SEAL, worked as a bad-guy professional wrestler, and dabbled in acting and broadcasting before becoming the mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minn. Two years ago, running as an independent, he bested candidates from the two major parties to win the governorship of his home state.
An imposing 6-ft., 6-in. with a gravel voice and twinkle in his eye, Ventura is both outspoken and controversial. An advocate of campaign-finance reform, he refuses to even meet with lobbyists in the state Capitol. He's a stickler about a strong national defense. And some speculate he may even make a run for the White House someday.
What few know is that Ventura has a 17-year-old daughter, Jade, who suffers from both seizures and a learning disorder. Ventura used a $50,000 fee from a professional wrestling appearance to establish a foundation in her name that aims to help small organizations provide services and support to children with physical disabilities or tough family situations.
So it comes as no surprise that Ventura sees himself as a champion on disability issues -- although, even there, he's controversial, with some disability advocates complaining that he hasn't delivered the legislative goods. For instance, Ventura's government failed last year to spend $44 million earmarked for families caring for disabled relatives. That money hasn't been recycled back into disability programs in 2001, say his critics. And his state budget, recently submitted to the Minnesota legislature, keeps spending requests for disabled programs at current levels. On Jan. 17, when the governor discussed his views in an exclusive interview with BusinessWeek Online, Ventura didn't seem to be aware of that. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation:
Q: Do you plan to increase spending in your state for the disabled? What about investing additional money either into the purchase of assistive technology for disabled people or the development of assistive technology?
A: Check with my budget person on that one. (Note: The state of Minnesota released Governor Ventura's 2001 proposed budget on Jan. 23. Spending requests for disability programs were in nearly every instance at the same level as a year earlier. There were largely no requests for increases.)
Q: What is your opinion of the Americans with Disabilities Act?
A: It's a good law with excellent intended consequences. But the law is too gray. For example, it is too vague on what is a disability and what is not. I think a person who is disabled should be disabled by no act of their own. If you become disabled because of alcoholism, drugs, or things of that nature, I do not think those conditions qualify someone to be called disabled. I think those conditions result from personal decisions.
Q: So then the ADA is a federal mandate without the federal funds to enforce it?
A: If the government mandates anything with a price tag on it, then it ought to fund the project. I made it a point in my administration, when I was mayor and now as governor, not to legislate any unfunded mandates. The federal government should also honor its commitment and do what it said it would do in the field of funding special education programs. One of my biggest tasks in this area is to get the federal government to pay its share of special education programs. Many years ago when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed, the federal government agreed to pay 40% of the annual costs for special education to the states. For many years, the federal spending was around 11%. Now it's around 13%. That's too small.
I have spoken to former President Clinton about this lack of funding. I met with former Vice-President Al Gore when he was here campaigning. And I have already written a letter to President Bush about this issue and will discuss it with him when we meet.
Q: So is the lack of funding the fault of the President?
A: No. The President does not appropriate funding. Congress does. But I tell our congressional representatives and senators all the time they need to provide us with the 40% funding. To secure increased federal spending, I keep politicians' feet to the fire.
Q: How does the federal lack of funding affect Minnesota?
A: If the federal government paid its fair share of IDEA, that would free up $250 million annually for my state. That's money that we can spend in other areas. We could put more money into training people with disabilities so they can complete in this world economy. We could improve our centers for independent living and provide independent-living facilities for more Minnesotans. I could invest more money in public transportation so that people with disabilities will be able to get to and from a job. As you know, access to public transportation is important for people with disabilities who can't drive.
Q: How has your daughter affected your views of IDEA, and how should it be applied in the schools?
A: When you're involved in working to bring IDEA to the schools as interested parents, you see the flaws and the positives of the situation. My wife, Terry, and I have seen Jade have classes in broom closets, because that was the only class space available for special-education students. We have had poorly trained teachers working with Jade and other children with disabilities. I have seen special-education programs that were ineffective because they lacked the resources for teachers and students. We need to improve in these areas.
Q: But you are happy now about Jade's situation, now that she has been put into a mainstream classroom, with disabled and able-bodied students?
A: Yes. My daughter's most recent experiences at Osseo High School have been very positive. When able-bodied students are exposed to disabled children, the disability becomes second nature to the able-bodied students. The able-bodied students recognize that students with disabilities are the same as them, even though they have a disability. They see disabled students walking, talking, riding in a wheelchair, using assistive technology. I think there are many districts in Minnesota that are doing an outstanding job of mainstreaming disabled children with able-bodied children.
Q: Should the Professional Golfers Assn. allow Casey Martin to play golf, or has it the right to exclude him from riding from hole-to-hole in a golf cart because of his disability? Should Martin be using the ADA to force the PGA to let him play?
A: Martin should be allowed to ride from hole-to-hole in golf tournaments as long as he can qualify for each tournament. I don't understand the PGA's reluctance to let him play. If the ADA is his way of getting the PGA to let him play, then that's the way it is. But it's sure a waste of time by the PGA. It's also a public-relations disaster for the association. It's Martin's ability that counts in this case.
Q: You have a reputation for fiscal conservatism in government spending, yet you advocate spending more money on programs benefiting people with disabilities. How do you reconcile the two?
A: It's common sense. Disabled people need more invested in their education, housing, job training, transportation, assistive technology, and independent-living facilities. Governments earn back this investment -- and more -- by making people with disabilities economically productive citizens. As fully employed individuals, people with disabilities contribute to the strength of the economy, to the social fabric...to the overall strength of the country. And we know people with disabilities make excellent employees if they are just given the chance.
Q: What should be the relationship between the government and private sector in terms of helping disabled people?
A: There has to be a partnership between government and the private sector in working on programs benefiting disabled people in all walks of life. For example, the state of Minnesota recently gave a contract to Habitat for Humanity to build affordable housing for Minnesotans. And, of course disabled people use this housing. I think the partnership needs to be extended into training and rehabilitation areas, and in funding the development of assistive-technology products for disabled people. The private sector can produce these products less expensively than the government and can bring them to market quicker.
Q: Minnesota was one of the first states to sign into law the federal Ticket to Work and the Work Incentives Improvement Act. Why did you do it so quickly?
A: Ah, those are no-brainers. We want disabled people to work. Health insurance should be a given for every citizen. And this law provides it for disabled people who want to work. In fact, far more people with disabilities have taken advantage of the program in Minnesota than we originally anticipated. From the state's standpoint it is an unqualified success.
Q: Any thoughts about the new Bush team in Washington?
A: I am not in the position to micromanage the President because I am not privy to all the details. But I have a lot of confidence in the President. One of the things that made me very confident in him was when he selected Colin Powell as Secretary of State. In about a year, maybe we should start critiquing his performance.
Q: What should be Bush's No. 1 priority? You are a staunch advocate of campaign-finance reform. Is Senator John McCain right to push for this so hard considering the economy is slowing down and many people think a tax cut should be the main priority?
A: Both should be big priorities. Suddenly, the economy is important, and that's a priority. We need campaign-finance reform, too. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.
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