D.J. Tice: Dayton vs. Emmer would capture the mood of the moment

  • Article by: D.J. TICE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2010 - 5:58 PM

Minnesotans who don't relish picking their next governor from the ideological outskirts should start paying attention to this campaign

A story is told of a Minnesota businessman during the Great Depression, listening in dismay to an anti-capitalist tirade from Farmer-Labor Gov. Elmer Benson.

Benson had taken up the Farmer-Labor standard after the untimely death of that party's icon, Gov. Floyd B. Olson. The charismatic Olson put a lasting progressive stamp on Minnesota politics even though his actions were often less radical than his rhetoric.

Benson had a harder edge.

"Floyd Olson used to say these things," the businessman lamented. "But this sonofabitch believes them!"

Minnesota voters could be in for a shock a bit like that. This year's gubernatorial campaign could very easily put on the November ballot two major party candidates of startling, even alarming, ideological purity -- candidates who believe what others only say.

Would you believe Emmer vs. Dayton?

Minnesotans who don't relish picking their next governor from the ideological outskirts should start paying attention to this campaign. Actually, they may not have much choice.

Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton is skipping the DFL endorsing convention next weekend to run in the August primary. Also expected to challenge the DFL's endorsee are former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza and Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner. The endorsement is widely expected to go to House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher or to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

In the cacophonous chaos of that looming free-for-all, Dayton looks a serious contender to close observers of the political scene. "He's the Number 1 seed," says one political veteran.

Rep. Tom Emmer of Delano, meantime, is by all accounts locked in a toss-up struggle for the Republican endorsement against Rep. Marty Seifert of Marshall. Both have promised to support the GOP convention's choice.

A Dayton-Emmer showdown would be remarkable but not really surprising. It would perfectly embody the political moment i America.

Start with political polarization -- left and right backed into militant corners, finding common ground only in their true believers' feverish populist resentments of elites, economic or political. Add the view of University of Minnesota political guru Larry Jacobs that 2010 is "a tough year to be an establishment candidate" -- a banner year, in short, for mavericks and outsiders.

Dayton vs. Emmer would have it all.

Dayton is tiring even some fellow DFLers with his mantra-like vows to tax the rich. He is emphatically a native of what his mentor and hero, Paul Wellstone, liked to call the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.

Emmer sometimes seems to hail from the Mad Hatter's wing of the Tea Party movement.

Dayton boasts, not unjustly, that he has been "far more explicit than other candidates about what I intend to do." He promises to raise $4 billion over the next two-year budget period by hiking taxes on the wealthiest 10 percent of Minnesotans (roughly, households above $150,000), fixing the state's "steeply regressive tax structure."

So relentless is Dayton's message that Kelliher and Rybak -- while saying they, too, want to tax the rich -- admonish their rival that tax hikes alone won't repair the state's broken budget. "The facts don't add up," Kelliher says, while Rybak warns that "until Democrats run a candidate willing to mix taxes with cuts and reforms, we'll keep losing."

The scoldings illuminate a curious truth about Dayton. Born to wealth and prominence, long at the epicenter of DFL politics, he somehow remains the permanent outsider, the rebel, the troublemaker.

Jacobs calls Emmer "the Scott Brown of Minnesota politics." Rep. Jim Abeler, a moderate Republican from Anoka, says Emmer, compared with Seifert, is "more pure, more philosophical, from the heart." Seifert calls Emmer "undisciplined" in his rhetoric, dubbing himself "the substance candidate."

A burly lawyer with proud working-class roots, Emmer, like Seifert, holds all the usual conservative views, reserving special passion for states' rights and small government. He has authored legislation that would allow Minnesota to nullify federal mandates that state officials deem unconstitutional (making him, perhaps, the John C. Calhoun of Minnesota politics). He says overgrown government is "starving the private economy" and should "get out of the business of brokering charity," dismantling social service programs in favor of giving incentives for private largesse.

Emmer thinks the spirit of compromise can go too far in government. "When you negotiate the right position vs. the wrong position, the wrong always wins," he says, likening compromises over the size of government programs to the "compromise" he and his wife worked out. He wanted four children. She wanted three. They have seven.

The humor, bluntness and exasperation with opposing views are regular features of Emmer's colorful debating style on the House floor.

Whether Emmer becomes the Republican nominee will depend on how deeply the Tea Party spirit has reached among GOP regulars at the convention. But Dayton will take his case to DFL primary voters, and political pros warn against underestimating his chances.

First, Dayton has money. He says he's on "a budget. It's more limited than in the past, but certainly sufficient." He won't have to waste a dime telling Minnesotans who he is, and his long service and generosity have won him many friends in the party.

Dayton is politically experienced and shrewd. He has run and won two statewide elections (for state auditor and senator), notes Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, the big public employees union that has given Dayton its influential endorsement. None of Dayton's opponents on either side has done any such thing.

Dayton's tax-the-rich refrain, whatever its policy merits, is exquisitely simple and clear, with a gut-level appeal, especially for DFL primary voters. And if taxing the rich isn't enough? Dayton repeats his idea for a state-owned casino to compete with Indian tribes, a proposal that could resonate in rural areas.

Dayton lacks Rybak's polish and energy and Kelliher's comfortable, just-folks optimism. His publicly admitted past struggles with drink and depression may give some pause. His self-deprecating departure from the Senate, complete with closing his Senate office over terrorism fears, "wasn't good," as Jacobs puts it.

But Dayton's strategy seems to be to use his flaws to demonstrate "that he's open and honest, someone you can trust," in the words of one political insider. "My barnacles are out there," Dayton says, "all of them that I'm aware of. I'm sure [the Republicans] can make some more up."

An Emmer-Dayton match-up would give Minnesotans a jaw-droppingly clear choice. It could also, some say, leave spacious running room down the middle for Tom Horner, a longtime moderate Republican turned Independence Party candidate. Horner believes he could win a three-way race, especially if the major parties nominate ideologues, with his message that a centrist is needed to blend the best ideas of conservatives and liberals.

But Horner, a courteous, buttoned-down public relations executive, may have his work cut out matching the emotional sizzle of insurgent candidates in a season of discontent.

D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor. He is at dtice@startribune.com.

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