Gov. Mark Dayton harshly criticized his predecessor Tim Pawlenty on Wednesday, ripping Pawlenty’s political comeback bid at length and charging that Pawlenty’s time in office left Minnesota “in disastrous financial shape.”
“I don’t know what he’s going to run on because his record as governor was so abysmal,” Dayton said in an interview with the Star Tribune. The DFLer is not running again this year after two terms.
In response, Pawlenty’s campaign did not directly address Dayton’s criticisms.
“Finger pointing is just another example of how divisive politics has become in Minnesota today,” said Sam Winter, a spokesman for Pawlenty’s campaign. “Tim Pawlenty has the experience and strength to bring people together and get important things done for the future of Minnesota.”
The decision by Pawlenty — a Republican who served two terms ending in 2010 — to jump back into Minnesota politics has created an inevitable clash between the two Minnesotans, each of whom has a strong incentive to defend his record and attack the other man’s leadership as failing the state.
Though Dayton is leaving office voluntarily, Pawlenty if elected to replace him would likely seek to undo much of Dayton’s legacy — just as Pawlenty watched Dayton take the state in a more progressive direction, raising taxes on the wealthy and significantly boosting the rate of spending growth.
In comments both before his entry into the race and since, Pawlenty critiqued Dayton’s tenure without mentioning him by name. In a video announcing his candidacy, he said Minnesota “wastes hundreds of millions each year on health care for people who aren’t even eligible. Give me a break.”
That’s a reference to a 2016 report from the Office of Legislative Auditor, in which examiners sampled 157 recipients of public health programs and found 38 percent weren’t eligible.
Pawlenty, the last Republican to win a statewide race in Minnesota, has framed his campaign as an effort to save a stagnant Minnesota from what he views as lack of preparedness for the future.
“I don’t think our businesses, our government or our people are as well-prepared for that future as they should be,” Pawlenty said last week.
“When I was governor,” Pawlenty said in the announcement video last week, “we were number one in ACT scores and in the top three states for teaching math and science, but we’ve slipped.”
Prior to his comments on Wednesday, Dayton had been relatively reticent about the race to succeed him. He has declined to endorse a DFL successor or talk much at all about the upcoming contest, which features a bevy of both DFL and Republican candidates.
But he indicated in the interview that he sees Pawlenty’s restoration as an attack on his legacy.
Pawlenty “sure didn’t save Minnesota before. He put us in disastrous financial shape,” Dayton said, citing a projected budget deficit of $6.2 billion when Dayton took office in early 2011. He also blasted Pawlenty for an accounting maneuver in which the state delayed payments to school districts to balance its own budget, although Dayton himself acceded to that same tactic in 2011 to help end a government shutdown.
Pawlenty has defended his tenure by noting that he held the line against state tax increases despite two national recessions and a series of budget shortfalls, and that he significantly slowed the growth of state government spending.
After his initial round of criticism, Dayton for a moment seemed ready to let the matter drop. “I’ve got better things to do than to bat around with Tim Pawlenty,” he said.
But then he continued.
Pawlenty “says he’s going to save Minnesota? From what? From 3.2 percent unemployment? From 290,000 more people working from when I took office?” Dayton said.
He rattled off recent national rankings that put Minnesota near the top in quality of life measures like “best state to retire” by AARP, and best state for women by WalletHub.
“So he’s going to reverse all that? He can say whatever he wants, but candidates running against him should just tell Minnesotans the truth because evidently he’s not going to,” Dayton said.
Dayton also questioned Pawlenty’s rationale for running: “So, why do you want to do this? What makes you think you have something better to offer Minnesota than what you did before and also what’s gone on the last eight years?”
Finally, he attacked Pawlenty’s career running a Wall Street lobbying organization after he left office.
“You left the state to get paid $2.5 million per year to lobby for the biggest banks in America in Washington,” Dayton said. “It’s so nonsensical.”