No First Lady for Dayton? No problem

Other than not having someone to confide in, most agree Gov. Mark Dayton will fare just fine going solo.

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Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, right, shakes hands with Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea as sons Andrew, left, and Eric look on Monday, Jan. 3, 2011 in St. Paul, Minn., after he took the oath of office for Minnesota governor.

Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press

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Mark Dayton is not only Minnesota's new head of state. He's also our most eligible electee.

Twice divorced and not dating anyone at the moment, he's one of only two Minnesota governors -- and the first in nearly 100 years -- to take office unmarried.

Dayton isn't the only one going it alone, but almost. Of the nation's 50 governors, only three others are single, all following divorces: New York's Andrew Cuomo, Illinois’ Pat Quinn and Oregon's John Kitzhaber, who was married when first elected.

Public opinion seems to have evolved to a point where it's not necessary for holders of high office to wear wedding rings, but official opinion varies about how important it is to fill the traditional spousal role.

"First Ladies generally matter less symbolically and politically to governors than they did 40 years ago, said Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College and longtime observer of the Minnesota political scene. "I don't think he's disadvantaged in not having one. At the national level, for the president, it's still important, but at the state level you have 50 governors. ... It's not as entrenched a role."

Dayton's sons, Eric and Andrew, held the Bible for their father's inaugural swearing-in ceremony, a job typically handled by spouses.

Asked to comment on whether anyone will perform the traditional First Lady functions, Dayton responded that along with the help of his sons, he is "committed to fulfilling all the duties Minnesotans expect of a First Family." Earlier, he was quoted as saying that he'll "do double duty. I wish I had someone to share that with, but I don't. I'll just do whatever it is First Ladies do myself."

"Dayton was single as a senator and managed very capably without having that rudder [of a first lady], so I'm sure he'll find a way to do it again," said Phil Krinkie, president of the Minnesota Taxpayers League and frequent opponent of Dayton's tax positions.

But Krinkie also noted the value of a political spouse that goes beyond the traditional role. "Spouses will tell us things that professional advisers won't when we need unvarnished opinions," he said. "They will tell you what you shouldn't have said or done. Also, politics is a brutal arena to play in, so it helps to have someone supportive when you go home."

Former First Lady Susan Carlson, wife of Arne Carlson, agrees. "I think what is going to be difficult for him is not having that confidante you live with, to share things. And the governor's mansion is a big place. It could get lonely."

Annette Atkins, a history professor and author of "Creating Minnesota: A History From the Inside Out," posits that Dayton's sons may continue to fill in, as "the other two legs of the three-legged stool."

"He will use his sons to connect to the larger community. We will see him more as a father, where former governors were known more for being husbands."

As for who, if anyone, will accompany him to official functions, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, who is widowed, could be a natural choice.

"We're in uncharted waters here, but it might be politically helpful because he owes a lot of his getting elected to northern Minnesota," Schier said.

Of course, if Dayton were a married woman, no one would be asking whether the First Husband planned to fulfill any satellite responsibilities. What's expected of First Spouses depending on whether they are male or female hasn't kept up with modern mores.

"There's still quite a gap there," Krinkie said.

Many modern politicians, including the Clintons and Paul and Sheila Wellstone, have used the "twofer" selling point to great effect, assuring voters they are getting a team and then operating as such.

Most recent First Lady of Minnesota Mary Pawlenty, a judge who has made her own, independent mark, used her position as governor's wife to great effect by promoting aid for military families. Former Gov. Rudy Perpich viewed his wife, Lola, as such an integral part of his political legacy that he insisted -- controversially -- that she appear in his official portrait. That portrait was initially rejected but put in place several years after his death.

Dayton's being twice divorced "does feed into the stability question," said Debra Petersen, an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas who is researching the rhetoric of First Ladies. "But family members help set an emotional tone, and two adult sons aren't going to fill the bill as well as a wife would. A wife can serve as a surrogate who helps give us the feeling of who that politician is as a person."

But children have been known to fill that role when needed, she said. When the divorced Douglas Wilder was running for governor of Virginia in the late 1980s, his daughters appeared as a replacement in campaign ads for his wife.

Although both of Dayton's opponents in the governor's race, Tom Emmer and Tom Horner, are married, "you didn't see much of their wives in their ads, so there might be a bit of a change happening in whether that's seen as necessary," she said.

Should Dayton find time to get serious about anyone during his time in office, no one expects him to emulate fellow divorcé and new gubernatorial electee Andrew Cuomo of New York, whose girlfriend, celebrity chef Sandra Lee, will be spending nights with him.

"That wouldn't go over big here," said Petersen.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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