A few years ago, nobody would have paid any attention to Clyde Cleveland. Had he run for Iowa governor in 1998 under the Libertarian banner, he would have been ignored by the media and the other candidates, and the public would have probably seen his name for the first time when they voted.

But that would have been before the unlikely ascendancy of former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, who is now in his first term as governor of Minnesota. Ventura, running in 1998 as a Reform Party candidate with a libertarian bent and gruff brand of populism, surprised pundits and his opponents by winning, spending only $150,000 in the process.

But this is not 1998, and Clyde Cleveland just might be a Ventura-like wild card in what's expected to be a hotly contested race for Iowa governor in 2002. Incumbent Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, is considered vulnerable, and two Republicans have already announced their candidacies: State Representative Steve Sukup and Opportunities Unlimited Executive Director Bob VanderPlaats. If he can get his name and ideas to the public, Cleveland could sneak, Ventura-like, into the governor's office.

For all their differences in demeanor, approach, and position, Cleveland is using the Ventura campaign - and victory - as a model. He answers many questions by referring to what Ventura has been able to do. For instance, when asked how he'll deal with resistance from Democrats and Republicans on the more radical components of his platform, Cleveland said that Ventura has "been able to build bridges to both parties" because he doesn't have a rigid party affiliation.

When he announced his candidacy on November 5, a year before the 2002 general election, Cleveland stressed the importance of being considered a legitimate candidate. "We need to convince people we can win, and then we will win," he told a gathering of approximately 10 libertarians in Davenport on November 8.

A Practical Libertarian

Cleveland is almost too perfect a candidate for people who want to see the Libertarian branch out: a clean-cut, well-spoken 52-year-old man with credentials as a businessman and an environmentalist. (He calls himself a "socially conscious venture capitalist" who has brought $22 million into Iowa. He started seven corporations and 22 limited partnerships.) He doesn't use drugs or alcohol but wants to take drug-control policy out of the federal government's hands. He's a free-market proponent who grows and eats organic food. He's pro-life but doesn't believe the government should force a woman to carry a child to term.

His straight-and-narrow lifestyle makes him an attractive candidate, he told the River Cities' Reader last week: "That's why the Republicans like me."

The Libertarian faithful might still be skeptical of somebody as polished as Cleveland. As one audience member said during the candidate's stop in Davenport last month, "Either he's a good guy, or he's a typical politician."

Cleveland, in other words, is not the stereotypical dismantle-the-government Libertarian. While "pure" Libertarianism is philosophical to the point of being impractical, Cleveland's platform is grounded in reality, recognizing current conditions and attacking problems with a Libertarian approach.

The state would take "very pragmatic approaches" in his administration, Cleveland said, "not radical, dramatic changes."

For instance, Cleveland supports enforcement of current U.S. immigration law, while a pure Libertarian would support fully open borders. Instead of wanting to eliminate all drug laws (a move many Libertarians support), Cleveland wants to de-federalize drug statutes, allowing states and local communities to draw up their own drug laws and decide how best to enforce them.

Cleveland is clearly a Libertarian in many ways. He supports the right of people to carry concealed weapons, for instance.

And yes, he wants to eliminate the state income tax and revamp the property-tax system, but he makes a compelling, practical case. And he wants to do those things over five years, with safeguards in place to ensure that they don't happen too quickly or too slowly. He wants to cut state bureaucracy by 7 to 8 percent each year, but through attrition rather than job cuts.

Cleveland's campaign certainly focuses on traditional Libertarian concerns: the size and power of government, returning control of most issues to the local level, and the preservation of individual freedoms. But the message of the campaign will sound familiar to anybody who's followed Iowa politics over the past few years: the retention and attraction of young people and new businesses.

Cleveland scoffs at attempts by the incumbent governor and Republicans to attract businesses through marketing and new amenities. "What a waste of money," he said. "Businesspeople look at the numbers. Our tax rates are what are killing us."

High income and property tax rates, Cleveland said, deter the things most people want to encourage: hard work, savings, and investment. A property owner, for instance, might not make improvements to a house, knowing that doing so will result in higher taxes when the property is re-assessed.

And changing the property-tax system doesn't necessarily mean less money. When California set property taxes at 1 percent of a home's last purchase price, "property-tax revenue actually went up," Cleveland said, because of a building boom.

While the detailed plans for eliminating the state income tax and changing the property-tax system won't be ready until the first of the year, the broad outlines are simple.

Cleveland proposes phasing out the state income tax in five years, and altering the property-tax system so that the tax rate is a percentage (probably 2 or 3 percent) of the property's last purchase price. These changes, he said, would create a climate that will attract new businesses and residents, thus increasing state revenues from other sources - such as the sales tax - by 8 percent a year, without rate increases.

The plan calls for cutting the income-tax rate by 25 percent each year, but that pace could be accelerated or decelerated depending on whether state revenues meet certain goals. "We think we can do it in three years," he said.

Meanwhile, the state would cut its expenses by 7 percent a year by, among other measures, instituting a hiring freeze and a salary cut.

Cleveland said that Iowa is bureaucrat-heavy, and the state needs to bring itself in-line with the rest of the country. Iowa has 650 state employees per 10,000 residents, compared to 400 to 450 nationally.

In Iowa, public-sector employees make 130 to 140 percent of what their equivalents in the private sector make, Cleveland said, compared to a rate of 110 percent nationally. He noted that he would cut the governor's salary by 30 percent if elected. "We're going to start at the top," he said.

Cleveland promises to bring business principles to these personnel issues. He said that although government doesn't have the profit motive of private corporations, it's still possible to create performance-based standards and goals to judge whether people and agencies are doing their jobs.

This kind of talk clearly puts Cleveland at odds with unions representing public servants, but the candidate seems unconcerned. "The people in the unions are going to realize they need to work with me," he said. (Some budget items, such as money for teacher salaries and public-assistance benefits, would not be cut, Cleveland promised.)

Money can be saved in other ways, too. The criminal-justice plan being floated by Ed Noyes, the Libertarian candidate for attorney general, would save the state about $20 million a year, Cleveland claimed.

The premise of the plan is that nonviolent offenders should not be incarcerated. "We do not believe a person who has not harmed another person should be locked in a cage," he said. Iowa now has approximately 8,000 prisoners, about half of whom are locked up for nonviolent offenses, and incarceration costs the state $70,000 per year per prisoner.

Noyes proposes putting the fates of those prisoners into the hands of county mentor/parole boards, which would be given $20,000 per offender by the state. That board would decide whether a person should be jailed, released, put into drug treatment, or something else. White-collar criminals would be given the opportunity to pay restitution plus punitive damages or be incarcerated.

A Million Dollar Man?

Cleveland is not approaching the campaign half-heartedly. He's running for governor full-time and has a full-time campaign coordinator and a full-time fundraiser. His fundraising guru will be hiring 20 part-time employees, and eventually the campaign will employ an assistant for its campaign manager.

"It seems we've tapped into a well of discontent," Cleveland said. "Now we're starting to get money."

And a serious full-time campaign will take money. So far, the campaign has raised between $6,000 and $7,000. "Our target is $1 million," Cleveland said, "and I think if we get anywhere close to that, we'll win."

The campaign is predicated on the fact that the number of registered voters not affiliated with a party is greater than the number of either registered Democrats or Republicans. Like Ventura, Cleveland also hopes to attract students, environmentalists, and freedom groups.

But he'll have to reach those people first.

"We have to go out-of-state [for fundraising], because we're not going to get special-interest money," he said. "We're not going to get corporate money. We're not going to get union money. Not with our issues."

There's also the question of what can be accomplished by a Libertarian governor with a legislature filled with Republicans and Democrats. Cleveland promised that he'd use the threat of veto as leverage over the legislature, but he admitted in his Davenport gathering that he can't do it alone. "We have to get Libertarians elected and into the legislature, or it will be difficult," he said.

And Cleveland brushes off most questions about how he'll accomplish certain things with a legislature that's likely to be adversarial to his agenda. That's a problem, it seems, better left to other people; Cleveland considers himself an idea guy. "I'm not a manager," he said. "I'm not a day-to-day guy. I'm an entrepreneur. I oversee my managers."

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