Think the next gubernatorial election is a lo-o-ong time off? My tromp around the State Fairgrounds on the Great Minnesota Get-Together’s opening day made Nov. 6, 2018, seem just around the corner.
For some Minnesotans, evidently, that’s not soon enough.
Republican Matt Dean related that as he put the finishing touches on his booth on Cooper Street at 6 a.m. Thursday, he was interrupted by a fairgoer who pointed at his “Dean for governor” banner and asked, “Is that you?” When Dean introduced himself, the early riser asked, “Can you start now?”
No. Gov. Mark Dayton has a constitutional lease on the office until Jan. 2, 2019.
But ambition to succeed Dayton is palpable at the fair. Six candidates and/or surrogates were nearly elbow-to-elbow at the redesigned DFL booth, struggling to convey distinctive messages over the din. Gregarious Matt Freeman (grandson of the late Gov. Orville, son of Hennepin County Attorney Mike) planted himself near a busy entrance and drew folks’ attention across Cooper Street to the only solo booth leased by a DFL gubernatorial candidate — his boss, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
Inside the GOP booth on Carnes Avenue, candidates aren’t allowed space prior to endorsement. Dean, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and former state party chair Keith Downey set up tiny shops of their own on Cooper, Cosgrove and Underwood streets, respectively.
But gubernatorial politics is the featured attraction at the party’s booth. A corn kernel poll — place a corn kernel in the jar labeled for your favorite — had Johnson, the party’s 2014 candidate, in the lead at midafternoon Thursday, followed by Dean and Downey. Last week’s newcomer to their contest, Dave Osmek — the guy who says he wants to emulate Donald Trump — was a distant fourth. Five other jars bore names even political junkies will struggle to recognize.
It’s a crowded field — and might become more so. DFL expectations that Attorney General Lori Swanson will run for governor are so high that state Rep. Debra Hilstrom has a spot in the DFL booth touting her candidacy to succeed Swanson as A.G. Republicans are watching for announcements from House Speaker Kurt Daudt and U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, both of whom remain noncommittal at this writing.
Is this a crowd big enough to eclipse the governor now in office? Not yet, I’d say, judging from the sizable and mostly friendly audiences Dayton drew at Thursday-morning appearances at the Minnesota Public Radio and Star Tribune booths. (I shared the new Carnes Avenue Strib stage with Dayton. The booth’s old back porch/stage is no more.)
I detect a looming threat to Dayton’s political relevance during these latter days of summer. But it isn’t much — yet — from his many would-be successors. Rather, it’s from the justices of the state Supreme Court. They’ll hear arguments Monday in the lawsuit engendered by Dayton’s line-item veto of the Legislature’s entire operating budget in May.
A win for Dayton in that suit would either put the Legislature out of business — an untenable outcome — or, in Dayton’s version, compel the Republicans in charge of the House and Senate to come back to the bargaining table and reduce the size of the tax cuts he signed into law on May 30.
If Dayton’s appeal fails — and that seems more likely, given the power of Ramsey County Chief Judge John Guthmann’s argument in the Legislature’s favor — the governor says he’ll still ask the 2018 Legislature for revisions in several 2017 bills.
But he’ll do so as a lame duck nursing a largely self-inflicted wound. And that status will encourage those who want to replace him — in both parties — to stand apart from him and draw the state’s attention their way.
At the fair, Dayton defended his disputed veto as the best of a number of bad options. “They put me in a box,” he said, with a poison pill — the elimination of funding for the Revenue Department if he were to veto a tax bill whose cuts he deemed too large. His doubt that he could overcome the Revenue Department’s defunding deterred a tax bill veto. So did his belief that “there were good features in the tax bill, too — property tax relief for farmers, tax credits for students and teachers.” With no tax bill enacted in either 2015 or 2016, a veto this year “was not, frankly, desirable,” he said.
He chose instead to use his line-item veto power as a tool of coercion. The high court will soon let him — and future governors — know whether that’s a constitutionally permissible option.
If it isn’t, Dayton will be in immediate need of a new strategy for staying relevant enough to work his will with the 2018 Legislature.
“I intend to take these issues, win or lose, to the next legislative session,” he said. “[I’ll] bring them before the Legislature and try to make the people of Minnesota aware that what’s at stake here is the fiscal integrity of this state.” He made the case that a return to deficits in the state budget will put at risk his proudest accomplishments in the past seven years — all-day kindergarten, preschool for 4-year-olds in a growing number of school districts, better funding for higher education.
Fairgoers’ cheers as he ticked off those accomplishments suggest that Dayton has not run low on political capital. A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll conducted three weeks before the end of the 2017 legislative session — and before the disputed line-item veto — gave him the highest approval rating of his governorship, 62 percent.
A high-court repudiation of Dayton’s veto would be a blow to that standing. But Dayton’s response — more, for now, than that of those striving to succeed him — will determine whether the blow is a fleeting setback or the de facto conclusion of his governorship. His ability to rally support for his ideas and capitalize on the goodwill he has built over nearly seven years as governor — and 40 years in public life — may be about to be put to its most telling test.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.