Popular Entertainers Who Became Governors
Some governors rise through the legislative ranks. Others succeed in business and make the leap to politics. But a few famous governors were entertainers who rode their popularity right into the statehouse. Here’s a roll call of America’s best-loved “governtainers.”
Former pro wrestler JESSE VENTURA was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998 as a candidate from the feisty Reform Party. Ventura was controversial: as Jesse “The Body” Ventura, he had been a star in the popular but certifiably phony matches of the World Wrestling Federation. Ventura had also tried his hand at acting, appearing with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator (1987) and with Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man (1993).
As governor, Ventura drew fire from critics for appearing as a TV commentator for the fledgling XFL football league while still in office. He served one term, choosing not to run for reelection in 2002.
Country music Hall of Famer JIMMIE DAVIS was the “Singing Governor” of Louisiana from 1944-48 and 1960-64. (Louisiana is a state where political eccentricities are not unknown.) Davis was already a popular country crooner and songwriter when he made his first gubanatorial run in 1943; his hit “You Are My Sunshine” became the theme song of his campaign. Rather than make speeches at political rallies, Davis would say a few words and then sing some songs, a tactic which infuriated his opponents but worked like a charm with voters.Like Ventura, Davis kept his entertainment career going while in office. In 1947 he even starred as himself in a feature film about his life, Louisiana.
Actor RONALD REAGAN was hosting TV’s Death Valley Days in 1965 when friends urged him to run for governor of California. After a speaking tour convinced him he had a shot, he announced as a Republican candidate in 1966 and then shocked the state by clobbering the Democratic incumbent, Pat Brown. (It didn’t hurt that Reagan continued to appear weekly on Death Valley Days right through election year.)Reagan served from 1967-75 and then used his governorship as a springboard to the White House: in 1980 he trounced another Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter, to become president of the United States.(A sidelight for political junkies: Pat Brown’s opponent in the 1962 race for governor was Richard M. Nixon, who had lost to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential elections. Brown whipped Nixon in ’62, prompting Nixon to make his famous “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more” statement to the press. But in 1968, Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey to become president after all.Ronald Reagan was succeeded as governor by none other than Edmund “Jerry” Brown — Pat Brown’s son. Jerry Brown was elected as governor in 1974, the same year Nixon resigned the presidency. Six years later, Reagan was himself elected president. And in 2010, Jerry Brown was elected governor of California all over again.)
19th-century humorist GEORGE WILBUR PECK was the beloved creator of Peck’s Bad Boy, a charming rogue in the Bart Simpson mode. In the days before radio and TV, Peck’s funny newspaper essays were a smash hit, leading to a series of Peck’s Bad Boy books (and decades later, movies). They also led to a political career for George Peck: he was elected governor of Wisconsin and served from 1891-95.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER is the nation’s first bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-governor. Never shy about his ambitions, Schwarzenegger joined the Kennedy Clan when he married Maria Shriver in 1986. As the years passed, speculation grew that Schwarzenegger would run for governor. He saw his chance in 2003 when Republicans launched a successful drive to recall Democratic incumbent Gray Davis.In classic Hollywood fashion, Schwarzenegger announced to Jay Leno on The Tonight Show on 7 August 2003 that he would run in the recall election. Two months later, California voters chose to oust Davis and replace him with the actor who once played “The Terminator” on the big screen. Californians elected him to a second term in 2006, and Schwarzenegger stepped down after that term ended in 2011. Unlike Ronald Reagan, Schwarzenegger can’t make the leap to the presidency. He was born in Austria, and the U.S. constitution requires presidents to be native-born U.S. citizens.