Mark Dayton probably will never land on the cover of Time magazine, in contrast to previous noteworthy Minnesota governors, such as the athletically charismatic Wendell Anderson (in 1973) and the outrageously flamboyant Jesse Ventura (in 1998).
Yet Dayton has been as impactful as either, and for a longer time. He’s been near center stage in Minnesota politics and policymaking for almost 40 years. When he finishes his second gubernatorial term next January, he will have served in three statewide offices for a combined 18 years (eight as governor, six in the U.S. Senate, four as state auditor).
But somehow it’s a little hard to imagine a statue of Dayton joining those of Hubert H. Humphrey and Floyd B. Olson and other greats on the State Capitol lawn.
Some obvious limitations affect perceptions of Dayton’s legacy. His chronic health problems, introversion and awkwardness in public settings, mushmouth speaking style, perennially dysfunctional relations with Republican and sometimes DFL legislative leaders, and a few too many snafus in state government are not the stuff that inspires adulation and sky-high approval ratings. (Dayton currently ranks squarely in the middle, 24th, among America’s 50 governors on public approval of his job performance.)
Often dour and brutally hard on himself when he and his administration have fallen short, Dayton strikes many outsiders as a downright oddball. When he first ran for governor in 2010, an otherwise mostly positive profile in the liberal New Republic magazine was headlined: “Eeyore for Governor.”
But here’s the most important truth about our slightly gloomy chief executive — and the reason the state ought to raise a statue to him someday. No Minnesota political leader in modern times has had more impact advancing the cause of racial and economic equity, and improving our natural environment. Dayton’s credo of “A Better Minnesota” has meant reducing overall economic inequality and otherwise improving the lives and potential of people of color, women, the variously disabled and middle- and lower-income folks. And he has used his office persistently to accelerate renewable energy conversion and begin improving air and water quality, in a state actually named for sky and water quality (Minnesota is Dakota for sky-tinted water).
A thunderous ovation from hundreds, mostly Minnesotans of color, greeted Dayton before he spoke on Jan. 15 at a Martin Luther King Day celebration in St. Paul. True to form, Gov. Eeyore rained on his own parade at one point: “There’s so much left undone, and, in fact, too much is getting worse, not better,” he said.
But there was much head-nodding and many shouts of affirmation as Dayton recited a litany of his efforts to attack disparities and discrimination.
Here’s just some of it:
• The percentage of workers of color employed in state government has risen from 8 percent in 2011 to 12 percent. In 2017 alone, 16 percent of new hires were people of color. This is real progress toward an eventual Dayton goal of 20 percent, matching the state’s overall of-color percentage.
• Minnesota under Dayton has become much more intentional on minority hiring for state contracts and for taxpayer-supported projects such as U.S. Bank Stadium. Dayton also doubled the percentage of judges of color and he appointed more people of color to his staff and top-level administrative posts than any previous governor. Small-business startups for people of color are improving markedly, and disparities in employment and education attainment are finally narrowing slightly. Business leaders and philanthropists have been warning us for years that these disparities threaten our economic competitiveness.
• On immigration, Dayton has reinforced Minnesota’s reputation as a welcoming state to one of the largest foreign-born and refugee populations in the nation, and to aspiring new Minnesotans from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The current and ongoing deadlock over budget funding is due in large part to Dayton’s opposition to efforts to deny driver’s licenses to undocumented residents.
Fact is, however, most low- and middle-income households in Minnesota are white. And apart from the racial disparities, Dayton has presided over some historic equalizing. To wit: restoration of higher income tax rates on the top 2 percent of earners; nation-leading minimum wage increases that raised income for about 325,000 low-wage workers by a half-billion dollars annually; expansion of health care coverage, resulting in one of the lowest uninsured rates in the nation; defeat of constitutional amendments that would have restricted voting rights and same-sex marriage; enactment of marriage rights regardless of sexual preference; expansion of all-day kindergarten and early childhood education that reaches at least 100,000 additional children; and much more focus on career pathway job-training models that move underemployed young adults toward trades and postsecondary credentials for higher-paying jobs in demand.
Economic and environmental justice, to borrow from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., are bound up in “an inescapable network of mutuality,’’ and Dayton’s legacy reflects this conviction. Although his recent qualified support for a new generation of mining Up North has angered some, he also has focused intently on water quality, and on the fact that too many Minnesota waters are no longer drinkable, swimmable and fishable. Requirements for 50-foot-wide buffer strips between farmland and drainage streams have been derided by many farmers and rural leaders as excessive. Tweaking the policy may be in order, but the general direction is sound and overdue.
Meanwhile, Greater Minnesota community and business leaders generally have praised Dayton for aggressively investing state dollars in broadband expansion, local government aid, transportation and infrastructure, and especially water and wastewater treatment in bonding bills. Dayton has pushed hard also for the Destination Medical Center project in Rochester and dozens of grants and incentives that spur rural community development.
Most recently, he has doubled down on promotion of renewable energy policies and long-term goals initiated by conservative Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, announcing a moonshot goal of 50 percent renewable energy reliance by 2030. An estimated 57,000 jobs have been added to the state economy in the renewable sector.
With 11 months to go before Dayton hands the keys over to a new governor, much of Minnesota is humming with economic vitality. Unemployment and poverty rates are nearing all-time lows. Recent rankings of states by media and other institutions show us rising and near the top on almost everything, and in the top five on “Best Run,” “Best to Retire In,” “Best for Business,” “Best for Kids,” “Best for Women” and even “Best State Overall.”
Of course, the current nationwide prosperity is making governors look good in red states as well as blue. Partisans and ideologues will argue endlessly whether the good times result from Obama-Dayton investments and a long and steady recovery from the recessions of the George W. Bush presidency, or from Donald Trump’s arrival on the scene. Immediate and causative connection between policy and economic growth is always tricky.
But at the very least, we can admire the efforts and achievements of a governor born to wealth and privilege, who has been driven since his youth by an idealistic zeal to improve the lot of those without such advantages. Mark Dayton has shown us that justice need not impede economic growth, a kind of Minnesota exceptionalism that gives us a competitive advantage.