VIRGINIA, Minn. – DFL Gov. Mark Dayton pledged unshakable support for embattled iron miners at a rally Monday, the latest stop in an aggressive new travel schedule that marks a turning point in his quest for a second term.
In recent weeks, Dayton has broken ground on long-sought convention center expansions for Republican-leaning Rochester and St. Cloud. He stood on the shores of Fountain Lake in Albert Lea to tout $22 million in projects in that area, including millions for environmental improvements to the lake.
On Monday, Dayton stirred the crowd at a mining rally on the Iron Range, shoring up the labor wing of the party in an area that could be critical to a second Dayton term.
“The story of the Iron Range is one of standing strong against exploitation and oppression, and too often of a government that will not stand with them,” Dayton said to a cheering crowd of 2,000 iron miners. “But now we have the best workforce in the world. We have you.”
With every stop, Dayton is starting to sketch out the political narrative that will shape his campaign. He is talking more about his job-creation accomplishments, and about Republican resistance to many of those ideas.
His Republican rivals, despite having to wage their own primary fights, are already taking the fight to Dayton.
During the steel rally, a figure hovered at the back, holding a sign that said “Save Our Steel Jobs” — state Sen. Karin Housley, of St. Marys Point. Housley also is the running mate for GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Honour.
“Scott Honour and I support the mining jobs in northern Minnesota,” Housley said. “We are all about mining jobs.”
After the rally, Housley toured the proposed copper-nickel mine in Hoyt Lakes, where PolyMet Corp. is seeking approval for a mine that could bring hundreds of jobs and millions in new investment. But the 20-year mine also could require environmental cleanup stretching out 500 years.
“There is room for common-sense growing jobs and protecting the environment,” Housley said.
GOP-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson issued a statement saying that Dayton is not leading on job-creation issues.
“Attending rallies is not leading, it is standing,” Johnson said. “When I am governor, I am not just going to stand with people who are losing their jobs, I am going to do everything I can to ensure that mining jobs aren’t just protected, they are expanded.”
A new role
As he hits the campaign trail, Dayton finds himself in an unusual position. Despite a long history in Minnesota politics, Dayton has never before run for re-election. He has served as auditor and U.S. senator, but only one term apiece. In each of those races he played the role of the scrappy insurgent, running well-financed but at times long-shot campaigns.
Now he is the well known incumbent running on his record, but without a catchy slogan like the populist “tax-the-rich” mantra that became a cornerstone of his first campaign.
Dayton’s recent travels are designed to highlight one of his bedrock beliefs — that government can be an effective and often essential tool in job creation. When he can, he highlights economic development projects and state investments passed over by previous Republican administrations.
“We want to showcase these projects, first of all where the locals have shown incredible perseverance, and where they can make a difference by revitalizing downtowns and creating jobs,” Dayton said.
Still recovering from hip surgery, Dayton plans to continue his robust official travel schedule before he tilts into full-on campaign mode.
“It’s about building public support so that if I do return, we’ll have that recognition that we need government to be doing its share — along with the private sector — to create jobs and continue economic growth,” Dayton said.
Dayton also is seizing a rare moment when Republicans are distracted by a high-stakes, four-way primary fight that will decide who goes head-to-head with the governor.
“I think he is in trouble and he knows he is in trouble and he is trying to bring positive attention to things that every governor does each and every year,” said GOP rival Kurt Zellers, a Maple Grove legislator and former House speaker.
Rivals increasingly say Dayton’s new round of official appearances are thinly veiled campaign stops.
Zellers said he highly doubts Dayton will lead a ribbon-cutting for the new Senate office building, a $77 million facility that has for now become a chief issue for Republican challengers. “Then I will know it is not a shameless, self-serving campaign event,” Zellers said.
Dayton is also taking the fight directly to the communities that are home to Republicans trying to replace him.
The governor plans to visit Republican-leaning Marshall to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for the Southwest Regional Sports Center, which got money as part of a measure he signed into law this spring. He may add on a visit to Action Manufacturing, a Marshall company that got help from the state to expand.
Marshall is the hometown of GOP gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert, a former state House minority leader.
“I am not naive enough to think he is going to get many votes there, but I am glad he is coming to visit,” Seifert said. “I am in Minneapolis all the time, and that is where he and his running mate are from.”
Dayton’s increasingly regular visits to Rochester also have drawn the fury of his rivals. Dayton was an early and strong supporter of the new multibillion-dollar, state-backed Rochester redevelopment to aid Mayo Clinic. At a recent stop in Rochester, he praised new state funding for the long-sought expansion of the Rochester Civic Center, expected to result in $370 million in new economic impact over the next decade.
“This investment ensures that Rochester has a world-class civic center to go along with a world-class medical center,” Dayton said.
The new state money even drew praise from area Republicans.
“This is truly an exciting and important project for our city’s future and the future economic vitality of our state,” said state Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester.
Some Republicans, however, hammered Dayton for holding fundraisers in Rochester at the same time.
“It is disturbing that Dayton is fundraising directly off of the [projects],” Johnson said. “The implication is that you have to pay to play.”
Back at the mining rally, Dayton finished his speech and had little time to catch a flight back to the Capitol. As staffers readied the car, Dayton told them he wanted a few minutes to mix with the crowd.
On a gloriously sunny day, Dayton slipped into the sea of orange hard hats and quivering blue rally signs as others spoke from the podium.
One by one, he shook hands, “Hi, I am Mark Dayton,” he said. “I want you to know, I will never turn my back on you.”
Someone handed him a pro-mining button. He graciously accepted it. A couple minutes later, a boy with a Minnesota Wild shirt sheepishly approached for a handshake. Dayton shook his hand and handed him the mining button. The boy beamed.
After about 15 minutes, Dayton’s dress shirt was soaked in sweat. He slipped into a gray sedan and was rushed off to the airport.