WASHINGTON - Amid a raging national budget debate, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton played the new kid on the block at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, staying in the background and generally avoiding the movable press scrums that make up much of this annual policy and schmooze fest.
"I'm here to listen," said Dayton, the state's first DFL governor in two decades and one of a record 29 fresh faces following a mass turnover in last year's elections. Against a background of budget and labor battles in Wisconsin and other states, Dayton was among 20 Democratic governors this weekend who seem determined to avoid friction with their state's public employee unions.
"Minnesota has already made some of these common sense and difficult decisions that Wisconsin is now addressing," Dayton said.
Compared to some of Dayton's recent predecessors, his low-key tone was one of style as well as substance. As governor, Jesse Ventura couldn't avoid a crowd at these meetings, and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in Washington Monday for a fundraiser, used his leadership role in the NGA as a springboard for a potential White House bid.
Dayton, by contrast, downplayed any broader agenda. Accompanied by three aides, he moved easily around the conference -- which included an audience with President Obama -- without much fuss from the national media.
Arriving a day early to meet with Obama administration officials, Dayton and the other Democratic governors emphasized job creation, largely avoiding Gov. Scott Walker's standoff with public employee unions in Wisconsin, a drama that has gripped the nation.
"Most of us see that as a distraction from the most important [thing] we can do to create jobs," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
As Dayton and the other governors prepare for partisan battles over their own state budgets, they set aside their differences in Washington to call on Congress not to do anything to increase financial burdens on the states, which face a collective $175 billion shortfall in the next two years.
While Wisconsin's Walker remained in Madison to deal with his own unfolding budget confrontation, his GOP colleagues seemed equally eager to stick to safe bipartisan topics such as unfunded federal mandates and public-private partnerships.
"There's been plenty of conversation among governors, and there are probably some philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans," said Republican Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska, the NGA's vice chair. "That doesn't mean we can't talk about it, but whether we could reach a common accord, that would be something else."
With protesters outside the governors' meeting to support the Wisconsin workers, Dayton was not alone in playing up the lack of labor unrest in his state.
"Nobody's going to stand up in our bipartisan meetings and criticize what's going on there [in Wisconsin]," said Washington state's Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire, this year's NGA's chairwoman. "Each of us have handled this situation ourselves. I for one have called on my unions to sacrifice. They stepped up and they have done it."
Amid meetings with Cabinet secretaries and Sunday night's dinner at the White House, Dayton and his fellow governors focused not only on their own budget woes, but those of the federal government, which could be headed for a crippling shutdown if Congress can't reach some budget accord by next Friday.
After states were forced to make a combined $75 billion in spending cuts over the past two years, some governors warn of dire consequences to the fragile economic recovery if they are forced to cut deeper to balance their budgets.
"Every time we cut, we lay someone off, directly or indirectly," Gregoire said. "We put someone on unemployment.
With Minnesota's projected $6.2 billion budget shortfall double that of Wisconsin's, Dayton wants Minnesota to join at least a dozen other states that have increased taxes in the past year to help close the budget gap, a prospect that has already put him at loggerheads with the GOP-controlled Minnesota Legislature.
Even in the collegial atmosphere of the national governors' meeting, Dayton faced indirect pressure from the outside, with GOP governors making rhetorical points about the effects of taxes and regulation on their states' business climates.
"I believe in competition among the states," Heineman said. "We're in competition all the time."
In a year when Republicans are politically ascendant, Dayton's close election victory in November was seen in Washington as one of the few bright spots among a dwindling number of Democratic governors. But if there was any expert advice to be had on governing through lean times, Dayton said he hadn't heard it from any of his fellow governors.
"There are a lot more of us who are brand new, getting accustomed to the challenges," he said. "I haven't gotten the sense of anybody offering a detailed prescription of how to do it successfully."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.