In the eyes of his political allies and opponents, Gov. Mark Dayton is entering a crucial phase of his term, one that could determine his legacy.
Before him are wrenching decisions on whether to veto legislation that would expand the use of citizen deadly force in Minnesota and to overhaul the state's longstanding system of teacher tenure. Meanwhile, he is facing the arduous task of persuading lawmakers to approve state financing for a new Vikings stadium, and he is fighting for passage of his multi-million-dollar plan for an array of state building projects.
Despite that daunting political landscape, Dayton is already envisioning a second term.
"Caretaking doesn't do it," he said in an interview last week. "You set your sights high, aim for what you think is best. In the nature of this process, you don't get everything, but hopefully you get a lot of it."
But Dayton's path forward is sure to test the political skills he has sharpened over the past year.
Backed by favorable poll ratings, the governor is pushing his agenda at a time when the GOP-led Legislature is still digging out from a scandal that toppled the party's former Senate majority leader late last year.
Yet, despite that seeming political advantage, Dayton also faces the recurring challenge of winning support from rank-and-file legislators within his own party -- including some who say he did a poor job of reaching out to them in the run-up to last year's historic, three-week state government shutdown. Several felt excluded, their years of hard-won knowledge ignored.
"When you need votes, you need votes one by one by one," said Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, a 20-year House veteran who said her sense of feeling cast aside played into her decision not to run for re-election. "Leaders can whip people into shape," she said. "To be a strong governor, you have to do that, too. He hasn't worked on that yet."
Republican legislators say they too are still trying to figure out Dayton's rhythm.
They were dismayed by his rapid-fire vetoes of four measures to limit lawsuit liability earlier this year and his public tongue-lashing afterward, in which he accused them of catering to "their special interest friends, the rich and powerful."
"That has hurt us, in terms of relationships," said Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester.
Senjem said he is often unsure what Dayton really wants or how far he is willing to go to strike a deal.
"I wish there were an opportunity to visit even more privately about some of these issues," he said.
Stiffer spine, more confidence
Several DFL legislators and colleagues say the former U.S. senator, who admitted he was not successful during his one term as a senator in Congress, is gaining confidence as the state's chief executive. They say his political spine has stiffened and that he is showing growing acumen for legislative strategy.
"I think he is way better than anyone thought he would be," said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. "I hear that everywhere. I think what he is discovering about himself, as we are discovering, is that he is pretty good at this."
Dayton said last summer's government shutdown taught him that Republicans are not interested in negotiating, even after he approved GOP-led initiatives on education reform and speeded-up business permitting.
This year, when Republicans sent the lawsuit liability measures and the deadly force bill straight to his desk, without engaging his administration first, Dayton said it showed they were more interested in scoring political points than in seeing bills signed.
"It has caused me to be very realistic about what I think is possible to get out of this legislative session," Dayton said.
Colleagues and legislators say Dayton also is realizing that some of his prized initiatives might take longer than he expected.
"When he ran, most people, maybe including him, thought he might be a one-term governor," Hausman said. "I think he's already arrived at the point where he is saying, 'I am not transitional; I am here for the long term.'"
Dayton increasingly sounds like he is taking a longer view of his position.
"I spend every waking minute involved with this job," he said. "I take it very seriously. ...Good Lord and the people of Minnesota willing, I will serve two terms."
Dayton remains confident some important things can get done this year.
He expects Republicans to eventually send him a bonding bill with $500 million in building and road projects and another $241 million to renovate the aging Capitol. He said Republicans need those projects for their home districts just as much as he needs them to kickstart the state's depressed construction industry.
"I'd lay a lot better odds on that than a stadium," Dayton said.
The stadium remains Dayton's biggest political challenge of the moment, one that will require the kind of bipartisan arm-twisting the Capitol has not seen in years.
That means Dayton must cultivate relationships with legislators and, if needed, apply the kind of pressure only a sitting governor can bring.
There are faint signs he is starting to lay that groundwork.
While Dayton always says his office is open to legislators of either party, last week he took the unusual step of meeting with Rep. Tony Cornish in the Vernon Center Republican's tiny office, across the street from the Capitol.
Cornish, a former police chief, is carrying a bill that would allow gun owners to use deadly force wherever they feel threatened -- a potentially dramatic expansion of state law. The legislation passed the House and the Senate and awaits Dayton's signature or veto on Monday.
Cornish brought out some of his homemade bear sausage -- from a bear he had shot himself. While the two noshed, Dayton showed Cornish iPhone pictures of his beloved German shepherds.
When it came time to talk business, Dayton expressed to Cornish his love of firearms, but also stressed law enforcements' grave concerns.
Later Cornish said that while he's still unsure what Dayton will do with his bill, he has come to realize there might be some things that Dayton would support him on.
In turn, Cornish said, "there is some stuff I would come along with him on."
Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288