Gov. Mark Dayton finds himself with another important task on an already full plate — maintaining public confidence in his ability to carry out one of the most demanding jobs in the state after two days of very public revelations about his health, including a prostate cancer diagnosis.
“By resuming my normal schedule, day by day, I can show Minnesotans,” Dayton told the Star Tribune shortly after he went public with his cancer news. He was unequivocal in the interview that he didn’t expect any serious disruption to his job duties.
The cancer disclosure followed Dayton’s highly public fainting episode the night before during his State of the State speech in the House chamber. It was a televised collapse in front of the entire House and Senate, drawing national headlines and an outpouring of concern for the DFL governor, who turned 70 last week.
With politically loaded skirmishes over billions of dollars in state spending soon to consume Dayton and his frequent adversaries in the Legislature’s Republican majorities, it’s tough to predict how the governor’s health issues could affect Capitol dynamics in what is expected to be another contentious session.
Leading Republicans showered Dayton with sympathy last week, and it’s notable that the week ended with the governor signing a GOP-backed bill to deliver $326 million in health insurance premium relief — the kind of bipartisan victory that has been in short supply in St. Paul in recent years. Republicans are unlikely to stop butting heads with Dayton over spending and policy disagreements, and don’t particularly expect him to change his often confrontational style, either.
“He’s a very tough competitor and a very, very, very tough person, so I wouldn’t anticipate this is going to slow him down,” said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, who has clashed often with Dayton.
In addition to the coming legislative battles, Dayton has many additional responsibilities that come with his elected job. One is traveling the state to promote key priorities, as he did Friday when he touted his water quality initiatives at a forum in Morris. On a daily basis, he’s meeting with commissioners and aides, interviewing candidates for judicial seats and appointing dozens to state boards, and frequently getting pulled into other public controversies.
Several other governors, business executives and public figures have been diagnosed with prostate cancer, including Warren Buffett, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Dayton’s own father, who died at age 97, more than two decades after his diagnosis.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, eight years Dayton’s senior, sought radiation treatment for prostate cancer at age 74 in early 2013. The timing and circumstances were nearly identical. Like Dayton, Brown’s cancer news came as he prepared to roll out his budget proposal and deliver a State of the State address.
Past health issues a road map
Dayton’s latest health developments are another test for a core team of senior aides, most of who have been by his side since he took office six years ago. It includes Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, chief of staff Jaime Tincher, senior advisers Joanna Dornfeld and Bob Hume, and deputy chief of staff Linden Zakula.
The close-knit group, intensely loyal to Dayton, already has a blueprint for how to function if the governor proceeds with treatment that could include radiation or surgery. He’s expecting to learn more about options at a Mayo Clinic appointment this week.
Two previous spinal surgeries, in 2014 and 2015, shifted how Dayton and his staff work together. When he was laid up in a body cast at his residence, the office simply came to him.
“We’ve been doing this for six years, and he has developed a really great group of people around him that he trusts,” said Dayton’s budget chief, Myron Frans, another close and trusted adviser. “We will continue to do the same thing we’ve been doing for the last six years and that is giving him information, providing him with data to make decisions, so that’s not going to change.”
Between constant text messages, conference calls and meetings at the Capitol, members of Dayton’s team say technology means flexibility in how they present emerging problems, along with data and options for Dayton when he needs to make decisions.
Frans, Smith and Tincher have at times represented Dayton in spending deliberations with legislative leaders.
Dayton “constantly wants to know what’s happening,” Frans said. “I don’t consider it micromanaging, but it’s just hands on.”
The frequent texting exposed a generational divide on the Dayton team: The governor’s old-fashioned penchant for proper punctation, capitalization and grammar in his texts conflicts with the looser style of younger aides.
A wave of well-wishes
Flowers and calls for Dayton poured in all week from Minnesota legislators. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka led the full Senate in a round of “Happy Birthday” on Thursday. The relationship between Dayton and the previously low-profile Gazelka is one to watch at the Capitol this year. Members of Dayton’s team say they see personal similarities between the two men despite wide political differences.
Despite the seriousness of Dayton’s collapse, which his Mayo Clinic physician attributed to prolonged back pain from standing too long and possible dehydration, Gazelka said it was a moment that brought Minnesotans together.
“All the people who represent Minnesota were there, and it felt like everyone was standing up for the governor,” Gazelka said.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has had a rocky relationship with Dayton in recent months. The two have sparred repeatedly over health care, taxes and transit, at times in tough language.
“It’s a human thing, and it can happen to any of us,” Daudt said of Dayton’s diagnosis. “So we support him, and we’re going to continue to work as well as we can with him and obviously we may have some different views about what might be the best solution to a problem, but I think we all want to do what’s best for Minnesotans.”
Dayton has struck an upbeat, lighthearted tone in recent days as he’s repeatedly called to discuss his new challenge in interviews and public appearances. He is keeping a zone of privacy around certain medical information, declining to reveal what medications he takes. Asked if he’d consider releasing his medical records after this week’s consultation, he said he’d think about it.
“I think I’ve made very immediate and complete disclosure of my medical issues over the last six years and I intend to continue,” Dayton said, pledging to provide new details after next week’s appointment and once a treatment plan is set.
“I don’t feel any embarrassment,” Dayton said. “It’s not something I had any control over and it’s unfortunately something that afflicts other people, especially men my age. The nature of that disclosure of it was not difficult. Having a life situation is difficult, but I’ve had other difficult life situations. I’m accustomed to them.”
Staff writer J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.