They laughed when Jesse Ventura, the pro wrestler who favored feather boas and pink tights, ran for governor in Minnesota. Now they're howling at the idea that TV talk-show host Jerry Springer--the maestro of "Stripper Wars" and "I'm Sleeping With My 13-Year-Old's Ex"--is toying with a run for the U.S. Senate from Ohio. But "we're not kidding," says Tim Burke, head of the Hamilton County Democratic Party in Cincinnati. He is pushing Springer, an old pal, to run against the straitlaced Republican incumbent in 2000. And Springer is letting the trial balloon float while he vacations incommunicado abroad.
Springer does have a legitimate political resume. Before he became "Jer-ree! Jer-ree!" he was Gerald Norman Springer, a campaign worker for Robert Kennedy and a popular '60s liberal in Cincinnati. As a city councilman in the Vietnam era, he proposed declaring the draft illegal within city limits. His star fell after police raiding a massage parlor found his personal check to a prostitute. But Springer persevered, winning election at 33 as the "boy mayor." He took mayoral business to the streets in his van, "Jerry Springer's Mobile City Hall." He engineered lower bus fares. He spent a night in jail to expose poor conditions. Then, after a decade in public office and a failed bid for governor, Springer left electoral politics in 1982 for a TV career that eventually reinvented him as the self-described "ringmaster" of his raucous hit show.
Now, politics beckons once again. The 55-year-old TV host plans to announce if he'll throw his hat--or maybe his chair--into the Senate ring when he returns from vacation next month. The audience is already getting pumped. In Washington, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle huffs that Springer is "a joke" and would "never join our [Democratic] caucus." In Ohio, a flood of letters to the editors and phone calls to the state Democratic headquarters question party leaders' sanity for not squashing the idea outright. Ohio's Republican Party chairman, Bob Bennett, taunts his rivals, quipping: "Was Howard Stern busy?"
Ohio Democrats do need a fresh face. They have been shut out in important elections lately, and Sen. Mike DeWine, a Capitol Hill veteran, won't give up his seat easily. Personally and politically, DeWine is the anti-Jerry: a Roman Catholic father of eight known for his ice cream socials and his advocacy of children's health and safety. Dr. Seuss books fill a shelf in his Senate office.
Springer's repertoire runs more toward "I Was a Breeder for the Klan." His bankroll (he reportedly makes $9.5 million a year) would help him stay in the headlines. And even serious politicos like Dale Butland, once an aide to former Democratic senator John Glenn, suggest that Springer could make a comeback as a mainstream politician. Ohio's AFL-CIO chief, William Burga, agrees labor might welcome Springer, a liberal who believes in government spending. Even conservative opponents admire Springer's self-deprecating humor, his smarts and his popular, give-a-damn style. "He's the most dangerous man in Ohio politics," says radio commentator Bill Cunningham. That's something both fans and foes can probably agree on.