Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton confirmed Sunday that he has long been medicated for depression. A recovering alcoholic, Dayton also said he relapsed before the end of his Senate term, leaving voters to decide whether the revelations will hobble the enigmatic millionaire's bid for the state's highest office.
"I am a candidate for governor and I think people have a right to know this about me," Dayton said in a 10-minute interview Sunday.
But Dayton refused to offer many details of either his depression or alcoholism -- only that he started drinking again sometime between February 2005, when he decided not to seek a second term, and February 2007, when he checked into Hazelden's Renewal Center for help with his recovery. He said he has been sober since 2007.
Reaction to Dayton's disclosures ranged from praise to predictions that he will be unable to keep details private if he hopes to win the hypercompetitive contest. He is among 11 DFLers running for governor.
"It looks less like he's trying to protect his privacy and more like he is trying to hide something," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C. "Until he provides additional clarification, it will be an issue for the duration of the race."
After first describing his twin struggles in a Star Tribune opinion column published Sunday, Dayton spoke to a Star Tribune reporter Sunday morning, but would not fully elaborate on the revelations. Asked when he started drinking again, how much and whether he drank at work as a U.S. senator, Dayton refused to answer.
"I don't think there is anything more to say," he said of his drinking. "That's what I'm disclosing. I'm not going to say anything more about it."
He also declined to offer many details on his lifelong depression, which he characterized as mild.
"It's part of who I am, but it doesn't prevent me from getting up every day and exercising and going to work and doing my best work," he said.
"I think I've revealed a great deal, a lot more than most public figures do. And I think there are parts that are still properly private."
'It's not relevant'
People who have worked closely with Dayton or within the DFL said they have long known the former senator struggled with mental health issues.
Blois Olson, a political commentator who worked on several DFL campaigns, said Dayton never tried to hide his depression or his personal struggles. Dayton first disclosed that he was a recovering alcoholic in 1987.
"I was not surprised" to read about Dayton's depression, Olson said.
Jim Gelbmann, who has known Dayton for about 30 years and served as his 2000 campaign manager, said he was aware of Dayton's depression, although not of the alcoholic relapse.
"If he did not come out and talk about this publicly, someone was going to bring it up and they were going to use it in a campaign commercial or whatever," Gelbmann said. "This way he was able to control the message as opposed to having himself be defined by one of his opponents in a much more ugly way."
Minnesota Republican Party chairman Tony Sutton said he remembered discussions within the party about Dayton's mental health back in the 2000 U.S. Senate race.
"It's not relevant," Sutton said. "I am more troubled with what he wants to do to businesses in this state than I am about his private mental health issues or his struggles with drinking."
Several of Dayton's DFL rivals praised Dayton's decision to talk about his depression and alcoholism.
"It's certainly not an issue that should be an issue in the governor's race," said Bridget Cusick, a spokeswoman for DFL gubernatorial hopeful Matt Entenza. "We should be past that as a society."
Tales of odd behavior have long dogged Dayton's political career.
In 2006, Time magazine dubbed him "The Blunderer," naming him one of the five worst U.S. senators that year and citing his "erratic behavior." Opponents -- and even some supporters -- have long whispered of his possible struggle with mental illness.
In public, he has often appeared strikingly shy, and yet has spoken openly to journalists of his heartache and loneliness. Before now, he had never spoken publicly about his depression.
He told the Star Tribune that he has taken medication for depression since 1993 but that the condition has never debilitated him and the chief symptom has been fatigue.
Dayton said neither his depression nor his alcoholism affected his political decisions, including those to close his Senate office in 2004 when he -- and no one else -- perceived Washington to be at an immediate risk for terrorism, and to serve just one term in the Senate and one term in the state auditor's office.
Minnesotans, he said, have no reason to fear that the depression and alcoholism would hinder his ability to lead the state.
"I wouldn't be seeking the office if I weren't very confident in my abilities," he said. "People will judge my capabilities, as they should, based on my performance in the coming months."
Duffy, of the Cook Report, said not offering more details about his treatment for depression and the latest drinking episode will hurt Dayton's chances. "It leaves a lot of questions unanswered."
Among the unanswered questions: How did Dayton's drinking mix with his antidepressants and what led him back to sobriety?
Physicians say that mixing alcohol and antidepressants can worsen the medication's side effects, such as drowsiness, and counteract the medicine, sending someone into a deeper depression.
A raft of politicians have disclosed their addiction to alcohol -- Dayton himself talked openly of a 1987 stint at the Betty Ford Center before he was elected state auditor in 1990. Fewer politicians have acknowledged struggles with mental illness.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 1.5 percent of adults, or about 3.3 million Americans, live with chronic, mild depression each year. A 2005 study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that about 7 percent of adults abuse alcohol.
In a lengthy 1989 Star Tribune magazine article, Dayton, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1982 and governor in 1998, spoke about his painful calls to family when he first revealed his drinking problem.
He said then, as he does now, that voters had a right to know about his alcoholism before he faced them at the polls.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164 Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288