Gov. Mark Dayton stormed out of a public meeting about the State Capitol restoration on Tuesday, after accusing a Republican state lawmaker of playing politics with decisions about a set of Civil War paintings and their placement in the soon-to-reopen building.

"If this commission gets hijacked for political purposes, I'll resign from it," Dayton said at the meeting of the Capitol Preservation Commission. He cited a recent memo by state Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, to his House colleagues arguing against what he alleged was a move by the administration to remove one or several Civil War paintings.

"The Capitol should not be designed around the likes and dislikes of any temporary tenant," Dean wrote in the memo.

"I won't allow this to become the new norm," Dayton said. Then he got up and left, leaving a room full of prominent state lawmakers, state officials, citizen members and others momentarily befuddled. He later clarified that he wasn't actually resigning from the commission.

Department of Administration Commissioner Matt Massman took over the meeting, and after further discussion the commission voted to recommend to the Minnesota Historical Society that four Civil War paintings be returned to their original spots in one of the Capitol's grandest spaces, the Governor's Reception Room. The Historical Society's board has the final decision.

At a news conference later in the afternoon, Dayton reiterated that he believed House Republicans were trying to make political hay out of disagreements over the paintings' placement: "I'm not going to sit around and be part of that contrivance," the DFL governor said. He said he would not try to influence the Historical Society's decision.

Dayton said he believed the art kerfuffle was an attempt by Republicans to distract from their inaction in addressing an expected spike in MNsure premiums in January. He also alleged that Dean, who is considering a 2018 bid for governor, was using the issue to bolster his own conservative credentials.

"No, this was done because we're supposed to do our job on the Capitol Preservation Commission, which is to preserve the Capitol," Dean said. He added: "The governor has yelled at me before, he probably will again."

Before the Capitol closed for renovation, there were six large, painted Civil War scenes in the Governor's Office: four in the Reception Room, and two in an anteroom leading into the larger room. Minnesota governors use the Reception Room for news conferences and other public events, for Cabinet meetings and often for legislative negotiations.

Dayton first remarked several years ago that he thought such a heavy focus on Civil War paintings was perhaps outdated.

"Is that broadly representative of 150 years of Minnesota history? Clearly it's not," Dayton reiterated Tuesday. Since he first raised the issue, several committees and subcommittees of legislators and citizens have struggled with questions of where and how the Capitol's vast art holdings should be displayed.

"I think it's really important we keep those paintings," House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said at the meeting. "I realize it's controversial, but I think it would be more controversial to remove them. I think it would be a disgrace to the soldiers who fought in the Civil War for Minnesota."

Many of those veterans helped build the Capitol, which was completed in 1905; supporters of keeping the paintings in place said the building itself was meant to be a Civil War memorial. "The bloodstains of history can't be washed away by removing a picture," said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, who has written books about Minnesota history.

But Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, said those contributions could still be properly honored even if room were to be made in the Reception Room for newer art. "I personally think a Civil War room would be more effective to tell that story to all visitors."

Two other Reception Room paintings are more likely to be removed, though no final decisions have been made. Both depict scenes of interaction between Minnesota settlers and several American Indian tribes, and some Indian activists have criticized the paintings for historical inaccuracy.

Urdahl said he wants those painting to remain, too: "They are part of the story of Minnesota, the good and the bad, and they deserve to be explained."

Patrick Condon • 651-925-5049