Political insiders say it was just a matter of time before rivals made his mental health an issue.
While Mark Dayton insisted he disclosed that he suffers from depression to be open with voters, political insiders suspect the DFL candidate for governor was trying to dilute the potentially damaging revelation before opponents could exploit it.
"Everybody in town knew that some Democratic candidate had planned to use it against him," said Sarah Janecek, a GOP strategist and director of political coverage for Politics in Minnesota. "The game right now is the DFL endorsement. It's not a pretty time in politics."
Janecek wouldn't identify a candidate who might be seeking to discredit Dayton. But she and other political operatives said his struggles with depression and alcoholism were no secret among his most loyal backers and his political adversaries.
Had Dayton decided to keep quiet, he ran the risk that other campaigns would cleverly draw attention to his problems, forcing him to publicly address them on someone else's terms.
"Clearly, this was a factor weighing on Mark Dayton's mind," said Ben Golnik, a longtime Republican operative.
Dayton is among 11 DFLers locked in what is expected to be a bruising and expensive battle for the state's highest office. A millionaire and former U.S. senator, Dayton brings deep pockets and nearly three decades of political experience to the race. At the same time, he and other candidates are bracing for what they expect to be fierce scrutiny of their political careers, business dealings and private lives.
Several DFL gubernatorial candidates or their campaign managers refuted the GOP claim that Democratic rivals would exploit Dayton's problems. They said they had no idea Dayton struggled with depression or had relapsed in his drinking. None said the latest disclosure would become an issue during the campaign.
"Mark's a very good person," said state Sen. Tom Bakk, one DFL candidate for governor. "I don't have a bad thing to say about him."
But for some GOP insiders following Dayton's campaign, the only questions were: Who would raise the issue first and when?
Opposing campaigns could have raised issues about Dayton's mental health problems in a variety of ways, Janecek said. They could have dribbled tips to reporters or utilized a campaign technique known as push polling. In push polls, campaigns use the guise of opinion polling to anonymously spread false or damaging information about other candidates.
For instance, Janecek said, a caller might have been asked if they think Dayton is less viable because he suffers from mental health issues.
Disclosure timing called odd
In a Star Tribune opinion column published Sunday, Dayton revealed publicly for the first time that he has long been medicated for depression. A recovering alcoholic, Dayton also said he relapsed briefly after deciding not to run for a second Senate term sometime after February 2005. Two years later, he checked into Hazelden's Renewal Center for help with his recovery.
But Dayton declined to talk about his antidepressant regimen or reveal details about his relapse.
The timing of Dayton's disclosures -- on the weekend after Christmas -- struck some political observers as odd.
Some thought Dayton wanted to mitigate the damage by releasing the information through an opinion column writer during the holiday weekend, when people were busy and away.
"It seems he's not entirely comfortable with it, which is why it's seen as sort of courageous," Golnik said. "It made him look sympathetic."
Dayton said his decision to come forward was not the result of any threat.
"I have no knowledge of that," he said in an interview.
Did he fear opponents would come out with it?
"I didn't fear anything," he said. "I just felt that, as I said, I'm a candidate for governor, and people were going to consider me for that office have the right to know this about me."
Did Dayton think his opponents knew about his depression or relapse?
"I don't know. You'd have to ask them. I can't answer that," Dayton said.
Secrets get out
Dayton would not have to look far for cautionary tales of Minnesota politicians felled by secrets in pursuit of higher office.
In 1990, a sex scandal forced Republican gubernatorial nominee Jon Grunseth to drop out nine days before the election. The Afton businessman's political career vaporized after allegations surfaced that he invited three teenage girls and his adopted daughter to swim nude with him at a party years before. Grunseth allegedly tried to touch the breast of one of the girls.
In 2006, state Rep. Matt Entenza dropped out of the race for attorney general after disclosing he paid a Chicago research firm to investigate Attorney General Mike Hatch, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a legislator.
Entenza is now a DFL candidate for governor.
Politicians better plan for anything they want kept secret to become public during a campaign, said Minnesota DFL Party chair Brian Melendez. "To plan otherwise is generally not good."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288