'People's' ball features jeans, cookies, new governor

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 9, 2011 - 1:26 PM

Gov. Mark Dayton threw open the doors to all comers for a modest, Minnesota-flavored "People's Inaugural Ball.''

Gov. Mark Dayton ended his first week in office with an inaugural ball in Minneapolis like few other gubernatorial galas.

The new DFL governor threw open the doors of the Minneapolis Convention Center on Saturday night for what he called the "People's Inaugural Ball."

Dayton stood for hours at the end of a receiving line filled with well-wishers, mostly everyday people who had never shaken hands with a governor before.

Regina Walker from Minneapolis was celebrating her 50th birthday and wore a party had that read, "50."

As she posed with Dayton for a picture, he and others around him sang, "Happy Birthday."

"It's my first inaugural ball," Walker said afterward. "It's the first time I've ever felt truly welcomed by a governor. He made me feel special."

The dress code was "blue jeans to black tie" and the most anticipated delicacy was Sweet Martha's chocolate chip cookies, adored by many State Fairgoers.

The first DFL governor in more than two decades ditched his formal duds for blue jeans, a blue button-up shirt and hiking shoes. Dayton, who is divorced, did not bring a date.

"I am looking forward to sharing this special event with all the people of Minnesota -- everyone is welcome," he said.

The event was not an entirely jubilant affair. Before Dayton began welcoming the estimated 2,000 guests, he expressed sadness over the Arizona shooting Saturday in which a gunman shot Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head and killed several bystanders, including a child and a federal judge.

He called the shooting "an atrocity" that "puts a pall" over the celebration. Minneapolis police officers were a constant presence outside the event and visitors weren't allowed to bring jackets or big bags into the gala.

As Dayton greeted visitors, Democratic members of Minnesota's congressional delegation held a news conference outside the banquet hall and stood stone-faced as they expressed their sadness over the shootings.

"Today's a day of great sadness and tragedy in our country," said U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn. "People who represent our government at its highest levels, as you know, were under attack."

A few minutes later, they stepped up on stage and asked for a moment of silence to honor those killed or wounded in the shooting.

After the pause, the music fired back up and people returned to the dance floor, sipping Summit Pale Ale and Grain Belt beer, as candles twinkled from glass ornaments hanging from leafy table displays. Wearing blue jeans, slinky cocktail dresses or cowboy hats, they nibbled Minnesota-themed hors d'oeuvre like turkey sliders and "Minnesota sushi" -- dill pickles wrapped in cream cheese and ham.

Tickets to the event, which ran until to midnight, were $30 or $15 for students and those with low incomes.

Scott Anderson, 25, started to support Dayton after Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak lost his bid for the DFL gubernatorial endorsement.

"I really like Mark Dayton's independence and his background understanding economics," said Anderson, director of a New Hope nonprofit group that fights hunger. As people danced to Aretha Franklin's "Respect," Anderson said it was rewarding to see Dayton celebrating his victory.

Andrew Dayton, the governor's son, said that two years ago he couldn't have imagined his father would be hosting an inaugural ball.

Now, he's thrilled and proud.

"It's exciting to see everybody all out here to see Dad," he said. "It's the end of a long journey for all of us."

Brian Rohrenbach, a towering chemical transport driver from Rosemount, donned a cowboy hat and a tuxedo with a western bow tie. "I am pleased that Mark Dayton won the governorship," he said. "And I think that's a good reason to celebrate."

History of modesty

Dayton's inaugural ball continued a long line of modest galas. Former DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich charged $5 for his inaugural in 1983. The event at the old St. Paul Civic Center featured the Mesaba Button Box Band and the Sabathani Baptist Church Choir.

Perhaps no one has topped the festivity of Gov. Jesse Ventura's 1999 bash, when Ventura sang with rocker Warren Zevon before a crowd of about 13,800 at Target Center.

As Dayton's gala wore on, several attendees said they were taken by how happy he appeared.

At one point, two men in wheelchairs approached him in the receiving line.

Dayton opened a wide, toothy smile.

He shook their hands as if he'd been waiting all night for them. Then he got between them for a picture and leaned over and whispered a joke to each of them.

As the camera focused, Dayton's smile widened.

Click.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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