Lori Sturdevant: Mark Dayton reveals a private struggle: Depression

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 27, 2009 - 5:48 PM

In an exclusive interview, the former senator and current candidate for governor gets ahead of a topic that could come up during the 2010 campaign.

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On the campus of St. Catherine, Senator Mark Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak watched a short video of how Paul Wellstone touched people's lives.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, File photo

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Determined politicians in the prying Internet age know better than to try to keep personal secrets. At age 62 and seeking statewide office for the fifth time, Mark Dayton is nothing if not a determined politician.

That's why the DFL gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. senator wants Minnesotans to know that he has battled depression through his entire adult life.

It's "mild depression," Dayton told me last week. It's "never been debilitating, and has never kept me from anything I've ever wanted to do," he said.

It's been controlled with the help of medication since 1993. A regimen of diet and exercise he has followed in recent years has proven especially effective. Depression is "a challenge I've dealt with and have considerably overcome," he said.

Dayton, a recovering alcoholic since 1987, also revealed that he suffered a brief relapse and began drinking again late in his single term as a U.S. senator, after he had decided not to seek reelection in 2006. In February 2007, he checked himself into Hazelden's Renewal Center for a one-week program. He has been sober ever since, he said.

These matters would not be easy for anyone to reveal to the masses. For Dayton, an introvert by nature and a protector of privacy by nurture in one of the state's most-prominent families, disclosure of this sort has to produce particular discomfort.

But Dayton says he believes going public with his struggle with depression and alcoholism is part of the price of admission to the political arena in 2010. "I'm presenting myself to the people of Minnesota for their consideration for governor, and they have a right to know this about me," he said. "I want to reassure people that I feel extremely confident of my abilities. I feel stronger, more confident and more capable within myself than I ever have."

Depression of the sort Dayton has known is all too familiar to many Americans -- 11 million, by the estimate of the American Association on Health and Disability. For him, its primary symptom has been persistent, inexplicable fatigue, he said.

It has never made him feel suicidal, he said. In fact, he contends, it has never been a factor in any of his public actions or decisions.

The validity of that claim is bound to be challenged by Dayton's opponents. For example, some will likely speculate that depression played a role when Dayton shuttered his Russell Senate Office Building office in late 2004 in response to a reported heightened threat of terrorism. He was the only senator to make that move.

When that claim comes -- and he clearly expects it --Dayton has a vigorous defense ready. "I carefully considered that decision over the course of three weeks," he said, after reading three times an intelligence report that warned of an "unprecedented" threat.

"My responsibility was to protect my staff. I knew it would be unpopular, but I'm proud of the stand I took."

Neither depression nor alcoholism were factors in his decision not to seek reelection, he insisted. He said he based his 2005 decision on a cold-blooded analysis that another DFLer -- Amy Klobuchar -- stood a better chance of winning.

Depression was also not a factor in his decision not to seek a second term as state auditor in 1994, he said.

More than many politicians, Dayton has been willing to stand apart from the crowd. His ability to self-finance campaigns has given him a degree of independence from interest groups and the DFL Party apparatus that other politicians lack.

When he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998 and successfully for the Senate in 2000, he did so without first obtaining DFL endorsement. That's how he plans to run in 2010, too.

Dealing with depression may have made him more comfortable charting a singular path in politics, I suggested.

His counter: To the contrary -- his experience with depression helps him relate to other people. "I'm reminded daily of my common humanity. ... It's made me more compassionate."

One could argue that going public now with his history of depression is a matter of political self-defense. In today's no-holds-barred campaigns, any potentially damaging bit of personal information a candidate does not reveal himself, on his own terms, is bound to be revealed for him by an opponent, in terms far less friendly.

Dayton does not deny that such calculation is part of his reason for speaking out now.

But he prefers to describe it as reflective of an awareness acquired through three decades of the personal commitment and transparency public leadership requires.

In 1982, when he first ran for the U.S. Senate, Dayton was the kid in the race, widely seen as the upstart scion of a wealthy family. In today's 11-person DFL gubernatorial field, he's the gray-haired veteran, steeped in experience and schooled by hard knocks. In addition to serving in the Senate, he has headed two state agencies by appointment and one by election.

Telling Minnesotans about his struggle for mental health is in keeping with his campaign claim that he has the personal integrity and courage required for the difficult choices Minnesota faces in the coming decade. Dayton says he wants to be governor to reverse the regressive tax policies and disinvestment in the common good that he says have marked the Tim Pawlenty years in the governor's office. He argues that among the DFL contenders, he's best able to bring about that change.

"There's a depth of life experience that comes with [depression] and the struggles involved in overcoming it, and out of that comes a certain existential courage to take a stand. To me, that's one of the challenges of leadership, to deal with hard decisions face-on. That's part of what I've been dealing with all my life.

"Everyone faces challenges. In that, I'm no different from anyone else. ... I know that I was very fortunate in the circumstances I was born into. Some people think I've had a life of ease. The reality is very different."

Depression of the kind Dayton has known is so widespread that scarcely a family has not been touched by it. It's an affliction that troubled some of democracy's most-storied leaders, including Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.

But like other mental disorders, depression is often poorly understood, and carries a social stigma. In sharing the reality of depression in his life, Dayton will soon know the extent to which it carries a political stigma, too.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

 

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