Gov. Mark Dayton swept into office nearly four years ago with the stamp of a liberal determined to restore financial stability to the state through an income tax hike on high earners and by meting out economic fairness through taxation.
Now as he sets off on his battle for re-election, Dayton says he finds himself increasingly frustrated at the layers of bureaucratic machinery that too can often smother good intentions.
“I vacillate every day from being a liberal to a libertarian,” the governor said in an interview before his overwhelming DFL endorsement for a second term. “Depending on what is happening, I sometimes go back and forth more than once a day.”
Having seen the realities of governing close-up, Dayton said, he often is unnerved when layers of bureaucracy or second-guessing by the feds delays progress or even halts it altogether.
“I do believe in government, and I believe in the importance of government,” Dayton said.
“I get more frustrated than anybody when I see government falling short, or becoming the obstacle rather than lending assistance.”
The emerging portrait of Dayton since he assumed office reveals a more nuanced leader with a strong libertarian strain pulsing in his political blood line.
Dayton has never completely fit the liberal DFL mold. He is a pro-gun politician who legalized medical marijuana. He is a government official of decades standing who last session oversaw the wiping out of more than 1,000 antiquated laws or rules.
When he needs to, Dayton has proved willing to sidestep the legislative process, as when he signed an executive order calling for a unionization vote for in-home child-care workers. A judge later ruled that Dayton made an unconstitutional end-run around a then GOP-controlled Legislature.
Last Friday, Dayton shocked some in his party by vetoing a DFL-led measure to halt the state’s foray into online lottery. Mindful that the measure had broad support in the DFL-controlled House and Senate, Dayton called the proposal an unwelcome intrusion into an agency he controls as part of the executive branch.
“I see him get very frustrated when he believes government isn’t performing the way it should and lets Minnesota down,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
“He does get mad about all of those frustrations that ordinary Minnesotans would get mad at.”
Dayton’s complex political evolution comes as rivals try to convince Minnesotans that the governor is a classic big-government, big-spending Democrat. And they have some ammunition. Dayton orchestrated an increase of more than $2.1 billion in new taxes and used it, in part, to boost state spending.
He was among the first governors to embrace President Obama’s health care overhaul, which in no way meets the test of a small-government initiative.
GOP gubernatorial rival Marty Seifert calls Dayton a “liberal huckster who tried to sell an elixir of big government and higher taxes.”
Others see Dayton as a bit of a DFL maverick, but definitely no libertarian.
“I do see him trying to buck his own party leadership, that is for sure,” Minnesota Independence Party Chairman Mark Jenkins said. “But there is a difference between having a little independent streak and being libertarian or even an independent.”
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Dayton has ushered in the largest expansion of state government in state history and was “dragged kicking and screaming” into the medical marijuana issue.