A jumbo portion of the State Fair’s appeal is its familiarity. Minnesotans like knowing that no matter what else changes, butter sculptures, newborn piglets and deep-fried treats await them at the end of every August, right where they were the year before.
Gov. Mark Dayton’s political appeal is built on some of the same ingredients. I’m referring to familiarity and dependability — not pigs and grease.
The prominence of his family’s name and business allows older Minnesotans to think they’ve known him for all of his 66 years. His bids for statewide office in 1982, 1990, 1998, 2000 and 2010 and one-term stints as state auditor and U.S. senator connected him with successive cohorts of Minnesotans who never shopped at Dayton’s.
I don’t have a poll to prove it. But I’d wager that DFLer Dayton’s familiarity was part of what allowed him to eke out an 8,770-vote victory against a strong Republican tide in 2010. The economy was still experiencing Great Recession aftershocks that year, and a wide chasm had opened between state revenues and spending commitments. With so much changing in frightening ways, Minnesotans went with the guy they knew and trusted.
Minnesota is still changing rapidly. But the changes lately aren’t as fearsome. Nearly all the jobs lost in the 2008-09 are back. The urban skyline again includes construction cranes — the late Gov. Rudy Perpich’s favorite economic indicator. Minnesota tied with California for the fifth-fastest economic growth in the country in a U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report this summer.
Fairgoers are toting more and bigger souvenirs — or so it seemed on opening day from my perch on the back porch of the Star Tribune booth, where passers-by and I asked Dayton an hour’s worth of questions.
The pall of persistent fiscal crisis appears to have lifted in state government. Now what? a fairgoer asked. “You’re coming up to another election. Are there some early things you can tease us with that you’re going to have on your agenda then?”
“Next year will come down to: Do the people approve of what we’ve accomplished in the previous four years?” Dayton said. “We’ll have other proposals for where we go next.”
Like what? I pressed. I got a Presbyterian’s good-natured recitation in response:
“As a churchgoing Methodist, you know by heart, ‘In due time all things shall be revealed unto thee. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ When he said evil, he must have had politicians in mind, don’t you think? We’ll get to that next year.”
Afterward, I tried again.
“I know that whatever we try to accomplish by way of making public investments in infrastructure, transportation, education, I know will be fiercely contested,” he said. He seemed hesitant to bring on an inevitable partisan fight too early.
Dayton has been around journalists long enough to know that patience is not a hallmark of my profession. But he’d do well to take the fairgoer’s question as evidence that news hounds aren’t the only ones who want to hear more soon about what he believes should come next in Minnesota’s 155-year-old state-building project.
An opportunity seems rising in 2014 for a gubernatorial campaign consisting of competing long-term visions. The immediate emergencies that preoccupied state government for so long are dissipating. Even this year’s storm damage, though sufficient to warrant a special session to pay for repairs, is minor compared with recent memorable disasters in Duluth, Rushford and Wadena.
An urgency of DFLers’ own making exists in one corner of business tax policy. New sales taxes on business and farm equipment repair, warehouse services and telecommunications equipment seem ill-conceived and counterproductive.
Dayton is prone to tagging the Legislature, and particularly the Senate, for those features in the 2013 tax bill. But his signature is on that bill. Dayton passed on correcting that mistake during the special session he has called for Sept. 9. That puts an onus on him to recommend a way to repeal those taxes and still keep the budget balanced in the 2014 regular session.
But the possessor of the state’s biggest political bully pulpit ought not allow discussion of those relatively lesser tax questions to dominate political discourse this fall. Not when Minnesotans are feeling new economic energy and thinking about new possibilities.
For all his political experience, Dayton is a novice at seeking a second term. Both as auditor and U.S. senator, he bowed out after just one. The ways and wiles of running for re-election aren’t old hat for him.
He’s ready and eager to rattle off his headliner accomplishments to date. His State Fair list included nearly paying off the state’s IOUs to schools, early ed scholarships, all-day kindergarten, a tuition freeze at state colleges and universities, and increased student financial aid. A fairgoer’s mention of his signature on the bill legalizing same-sex marriage drew applause.
But reminding voters of good work done is only half of the task of a candidate for re-election. The other half is convincing them that more good lies ahead, suited not to the problems of the past but the opportunities of the future.
Call me an impatient journalist. But I’d say the State Fair the year before an election is a fine time for a governor to start talking about the Minnesota he wants to help build in the years that will come after it. That may be especially so this year. The political premium in 2014 might not be on familiarity, but freshness.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.