Gov. Mark Dayton swept into office nearly four years ago with the stamp of a liberal determined to restore financial stability to the state through an income tax hike on high earners and by meting out economic fairness through taxation.
Now as he sets off on his battle for re-election, Dayton says he finds himself increasingly frustrated at the layers of bureaucratic machinery that too can often smother good intentions.
“I vacillate every day from being a liberal to a libertarian,” the governor said in an interview before his overwhelming DFL endorsement for a second term. “Depending on what is happening, I sometimes go back and forth more than once a day.”
Having seen the realities of governing close-up, Dayton said, he often is unnerved when layers of bureaucracy or second-guessing by the feds delays progress or even halts it altogether.
“I do believe in government, and I believe in the importance of government,” Dayton said.
“I get more frustrated than anybody when I see government falling short, or becoming the obstacle rather than lending assistance.”
The emerging portrait of Dayton since he assumed office reveals a more nuanced leader with a strong libertarian strain pulsing in his political blood line.
Dayton has never completely fit the liberal DFL mold. He is a pro-gun politician who legalized medical marijuana. He is a government official of decades standing who last session oversaw the wiping out of more than 1,000 antiquated laws or rules.
When he needs to, Dayton has proved willing to sidestep the legislative process, as when he signed an executive order calling for a unionization vote for in-home child-care workers. A judge later ruled that Dayton made an unconstitutional end-run around a then GOP-controlled Legislature.
Last Friday, Dayton shocked some in his party by vetoing a DFL-led measure to halt the state’s foray into online lottery. Mindful that the measure had broad support in the DFL-controlled House and Senate, Dayton called the proposal an unwelcome intrusion into an agency he controls as part of the executive branch.
“I see him get very frustrated when he believes government isn’t performing the way it should and lets Minnesota down,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
“He does get mad about all of those frustrations that ordinary Minnesotans would get mad at.”
Dayton’s complex political evolution comes as rivals try to convince Minnesotans that the governor is a classic big-government, big-spending Democrat. And they have some ammunition. Dayton orchestrated an increase of more than $2.1 billion in new taxes and used it, in part, to boost state spending.
He was among the first governors to embrace President Obama’s health care overhaul, which in no way meets the test of a small-government initiative.
GOP gubernatorial rival Marty Seifert calls Dayton a “liberal huckster who tried to sell an elixir of big government and higher taxes.”
Others see Dayton as a bit of a DFL maverick, but definitely no libertarian.
“I do see him trying to buck his own party leadership, that is for sure,” Minnesota Independence Party Chairman Mark Jenkins said. “But there is a difference between having a little independent streak and being libertarian or even an independent.”
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Dayton has ushered in the largest expansion of state government in state history and was “dragged kicking and screaming” into the medical marijuana issue.
“This is so far from independent or anything having to do with individual freedom and liberty,” Daudt said. “It sounds to me like an election-year gimmick. It’s laughable.”
Fresh delays over a relocation of Hwy. 53 in the Iron Range are the latest issue to twinge Dayton’s libertarian nerve.
State agencies were working through the issues when new concerns by the federal Environmental Protection Agency threaten to delay the project a year and add $1 million to the cost.
Too much government
“There’s just too much cumulative effect of government,” Dayton said. “There is just this layering of government on top of government until it piles up and becomes too heavy.”
He said the more he governs, the less patience he has for bureaucratic obstacles.
The lottery showdown highlights this tension for Dayton, despite overwhelming and bipartisan legislative support for the measure.
The easy move for Dayton, the one that would have appeased party leaders and some DFL contributors, would have been to let the measure become law, ending the sale of lottery tickets online, at gas pumps and ATMs.
After two weeks agonizing over the issue, the governor handed out his only veto of an otherwise harmonious legislative session. He told lawmakers that a strong majority of Minnesotans gave constitutional approval to the lottery and that he is obligated to honor voters’ wishes to see it succeed.
He said the measure seemed designed to aid powerful casinos and charitable gambling interests, not protect Minnesotans struggling with gambling addiction.
State Rep. Jim Davnie, who emerged as an ardent supporter of reining in the Minnesota Lottery, was not surprised by the veto after watching Dayton the past few years.
“He runs the lottery; he thinks they have all the statutory authority they need,” said Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis.
“A large number of us disagree. I don’t think it is the lottery’s job to go out and recruit the next generation of gamblers.”
Dayton said this is the latest example of legislators — even in his own party — reaching into state agencies and trying to make management choices that he says should fall under his control.
“The Legislature has gone overboard in micromanaging what should be the responsibility of the executive branch,” Dayton said. “The Legislature is trying to prescribe exactly how everything can be done, and doesn’t foresee all the possibilities of the real world.”
Legislators and political operatives from both parties say privately that they are impressed or surprised by Dayton’s political acumen and willingness to run up against even his own party’s leadership.
“He has an incredibly good gut sense of where Minnesota is at,” Davnie said.
Davnie was among several Democratic leaders who strongly opposed the public subsidy for the new Minnesota Vikings stadium, which Dayton passionately supported.
‘You go to trouble’
“An awful lot of Minnesotans wanted to see a new stadium,” Davnie said. “And he was right about that. So he leads from his depth of experience.”
Dayton said his frustration with the speed bumps of government is fueled at least partly by the constant reminder that he is ultimately accountable, particularly when things go wrong.
The governor often finds himself rushing toward problems that are high-stakes and politically messy, such as the stadium, the controversial Southwest light-rail transit line and the state’s new health insurance exchange, in which he appoints the board but lacks a direct role.
“Some people operate by avoiding the tough situations, or the controversial issues and decisions,” Dayton said. “My belief is that a big part of this job is that you go to trouble. … So you make the best of it; you make the most if it.”