Late one night last year, Republican state Sen. Karin Housley sent DFL Gov. Mark Dayton a message asking if she could throw herself a birthday party at his Summit Avenue mansion, with Dayton as host.
“He texted me back immediately, and he said, ‘Absolutely. I would love to join you.’ ” said Housley, who represents the Stillwater area. A few weeks later, a group of her childhood friends from South St. Paul joined Dayton for walleye and birthday cake.
The party was a bonding experience for Housley and the governor. But it hasn’t won her vote for any of his ideas.
For more than five years, Dayton has tried and almost always failed to persuade Republican state lawmakers, sometimes through tirades, sometimes through private charm.
Dayton himself is skeptical about whether his latest efforts will help turn around a recent string of political setbacks. The success of his agenda — and, increasingly, that of his second term as governor — rests on whether he can get even a few Republicans on board.
“I’m really pessimistic about the chances of getting something through the Legislature,” Dayton told the Star Tribune.
Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt frequently criticizes Dayton for failing to cultivate strong relationships with legislators.
“I see what we do here as a relationship business,” said Daudt, R-Crown. “As with any relationship, you have to invest time in it to pay dividends.”
Unlike many of his predecessors, Dayton never served in the Legislature. It’s a frequent subject of jokes for the sometimes acerbic governor: “Believe me, no one wants them back in St. Paul less than I do,” Dayton cracked last year amid an unsuccessful effort to convince legislative leaders of the need for a special session.
Dayton has shared power with Republicans in three of his five legislative sessions as governor. One ended in a 21-day state government shutdown, another in a similarly protracted budget stalemate that ended just short of a second shutdown. In his one successful big-ticket bipartisan accomplishment, he teamed with Republican majorities in 2012 to push through the public-private Minnesota Vikings stadium financing plan.
Last Thursday, Dayton hosted a group of GOP legislative leaders and their top aides for breakfast at his Summit Avenue residence. It was another in a long line of morning meals Dayton has convened when lawmakers are in town.
Back at the Capitol, Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, were mired in a standoff over an extension for Iron Range jobless benefits and unemployment taxes on businesses that, though relatively minor, has already lingered into the third week of the 10-week session.
Dayton is pushing a wide-ranging but relatively modest agenda this year. He wants new spending in a few areas, including an effort to address racial economic disparities, vastly expanding broadband access in rural Minnesota, a bigger tax credit for child care, a hefty public works bonding bill with a focus on improving water quality infrastructure, and new state money for road and transit projects.
Several senior House Republicans share Daudt’s view that Dayton has neglected legislative relationships. Rep. Jenifer Loon, who chairs the House committee that doles out money to schools, said Dayton has always been cordial. But she said neither he nor Lt. Gov. Tina Smith ever sought a meeting with her on what Dayton called his top legislative priority last year — bringing prekindergarten classes to every public school.
“I guess I just assumed that would be part of the process, establishing a relationship,” said Loon, R-Eden Prairie. Dayton’s preschool plan has gone mostly unfulfilled.
Dayton called the failure to reach out to Loon an oversight: “That would be a valid criticism,” he said.
Rep. Greg Davids of Preston, chairman of the House Taxes Committee, said he’d like to hear from Dayton more.
“I haven’t seen much of the governor,” Davids said.
Davids agreed with Loon that Dayton is never less than cordial. But his public partisan broadsides — like last year’s “Republicans hate public schools” — have hurt his standing with GOP lawmakers.
Missteps with allies
Sometimes it can be as challenging to be Dayton’s political ally as one of his adversaries. Late last year at a news conference, the governor unexpectedly pronounced the DFL’s proposed gas tax increase dead at the Capitol.
“I didn’t know he was going to do that,” said Bakk, whose Senate DFL caucus had risked political blowback by voting for the tax hike. For Republicans, the remark boosted their long-standing opposition.
“I sympathize with his feeling blindsided on that one,” Dayton replied, adding that he was just giving his honest assessment of the proposal’s chances. He still personally supports the gas tax hike.
For Dayton and Bakk, this session is also about trying to repair some of the damage from their very public fallout last session, for the good of the DFL. The two men have been meeting more regularly, and both say the dispute is behind them.
At the end of last year’s session, Dayton in a private meeting urged Senate DFLers to replace Bakk as majority leader while Bakk stood nearby listening. This year, at a DFL fundraising dinner, Dayton told a packed room he wants Bakk back as the Senate’s leader in 2017.
“I don’t feel like we’ve gotten crossways on anything,” Bakk said.
The administration and the DFL legislative caucuses have been working to unite around shared goals such as paid family leave and Dayton’s water quality proposals.
Bakk said he fears that the partisan gridlock in Washington has infected St. Paul, too.
“You’ve got a Republican House, they’re just not going to give [Dayton] a win,” Bakk said. At a news conference last week, Daudt — who is always quick to mention his own good personal relationship with the governor — said he thinks it’s actually Dayton who is hoping no real progress gets made at the Capitol this year.
“That sets them up for a blame game for the election,” said Daudt, whose House majority stands between the DFL and complete control of state government.
Having spent most of his adult life in politics, Dayton has a well-developed sense of the limits of personal relationships in his chosen arena. Asked for examples of friends in politics, he mentioned two dead men — former Gov. Rudy Perpich and U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.
Occasionally, Dayton has made personal bonds. He once learned that Rep. Gene Pelowski, a Winona DFLer whose father ran a pro golf shop for many years, collects Kenneth Smith clubs (“The Rolls-Royce of golf clubs,” Pelowski said). Dayton’s own father had a set, and a few months after the governor learned about the collection, Pelowski’s cellphone rang.
“He said, ‘Hi, it’s Mark,’ ” Pelowski recalled. “He told me there was one club left from his father’s Kenneth Smith set and he’d found it in the basement. He said, ‘I’m bringing it over.’ ”
He gave Pelowski the club and signed several pictures for his father. Around the same time, Pelowski was pushing for a two-year tuition freeze at public colleges and universities. Dayton was initially skeptical but came around. He later told Pelowski that mentioning it always got him applause during his 2014 campaign.
“Be straight with him and you can convince him,” Pelowski said. “And we found a connection, and that helped, too.”
But persuading rivals in a polarized political atmosphere often takes more than a rare golf club or a festive night at the governor’s residence.
Housley said her budding friendship with Dayton doesn’t make her more likely to support his goals.
“We are, like, completely opposite on priorities,” Housley said.
Star Tribune staff writer Maya Rao contributed to this story.