At a labor convention in a St. Paul hotel this fall, Gov. Mark Dayton sounded boastful as he rattled off the accomplishments of his first term. From his signature income tax hike on the rich, to expanding kindergarten access and freezing tuition at public colleges, to raising the minimum wage, legalizing gay marriage and building a new Vikings stadium, Dayton flaunted a record that, agree with it or not, was ambitious by any measure.
“Hold your applause or we’ll be here until tomorrow,” Dayton warned several hundred AFL-CIO activists, before launching into his litany. It is a record that underlies Dayton’s argument for re-election: that he has led the way to “a better Minnesota.”
Framing his latest political battle in the context of a long life in politics, Dayton sounded more wistful, even as his amplified voice echoed through the downtown hotel ballroom. “I was first invited to an AFL-CIO convention back in 1982,” he said. “That was 32 years ago — before some of you were born, before others of you had reached junior high.”
An A-list player in state politics for more than three decades, Dayton, 67, has had a colorful career full of highs and lows, in both public and private. On Election Day he will learn if Minnesotans are willing to give him four more years in charge of the state — or are ready to send him into retirement.
“This is the most liberal ticket in Minnesota history,” Keith Downey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, said of Dayton and running mate Tina Smith. Republicans and corporate leaders complain that the 2013 income tax hike, which hit the top 2 percent of earners, is stifling private business growth.
Dayton’s GOP opponent, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, has issued a wider indictment. Noting a handful of high-profile blunders on Dayton’s watch, he charges the governor with incompetence.
“A year from now, I’ll either be in Bemidji or Bolivia,” Dayton cracked recently. It’s representative of his self-effacing, minor-key sense of humor. But as he prepares to face Minnesota voters for the last time, Dayton knows many of his accomplishments are on the line.
A bit awkward, with a tendency to swallow words and grimace, Dayton has never been a natural communicator.
But he has been a visible and active governor: posing for selfies with elementary school students in Brooklyn Park, listening to the concerns of local leaders at endless forums and panels, privately schmoozing with CEOs and senior executives, mixing it up in the high-stakes politics of legislative sessions.
“I don’t mind walking through the fire, and I don’t mind getting hammered — that comes with the territory,” Dayton said.
Dayton took office in 2011, narrowly defying a Republican wave the previous November and facing a $6 billion deficit. Minnesota, like everywhere, was struggling to climb out of a long and brutal recession. Republicans had taken over the Minnesota Senate and House, leaving Dayton with no natural allies in his income tax push.
Six months later, with Dayton and Republicans deadlocked over taxes vs. spending cuts, Minnesota went into a 21-day government shutdown. Dayton did not get his tax increase, but Republican legislators bore the brunt of the blame in November 2012, when the DFL recaptured House and Senate majorities.
Dayton and the DFL jumped on a once-in-a-generation opportunity: total control of the Capitol. Dayton got his income tax hikes, and the 2013-14 legislative session brought a raft of legislation he championed. The state’s deficits have been replaced by a surplus, and unemployment is at an eight-year low of 4.1 percent.
No governor can take full credit or blame for the ups and downs of a state economy, with its complex links to national and global counterparts. Through the first nine months of the year, the state was on pace to record the lowest number of new jobs since 2010.
Dayton ran as an economic populist in 2010, and sympathy for the downtrodden has been a bedrock value for this son of privilege. But Dayton has broken bread many times with some of the state’s top executives, particularly as he started seriously pushing his income tax hike in 2013.
The meetings were Dayton’s idea. At his invitation, chieftains like U.S. Bank’s Richard Davis, Cargill’s Greg Page and David MacLennan, HealthPartners’ Mary Brainerd, construction company president David Mortenson and others dined with the governor and key aides. Some dinners were at the governor’s official Summit Avenue residence, others in private homes.
What was for dinner? “Conversation,” said Mark Davis, whose family owns Minnesota-based Cambria and Davisco Foods International. Over two meals, Davis and others gave the governor an earful on income taxes.
“We told what we thought the adverse effects would be on our companies and situations,” Davis recalled. “We told him that we were at a disadvantage being headquartered in Minnesota and having factories in South Dakota and Idaho, where had we put our headquarters there, we’d pay considerably less in taxes.”
Davis, who calls himself a “conservative with libertarian tendencies,” plans to vote for Johnson, who opposes income tax increases. But Davis said he appreciated having his say. At one dinner, he mentioned difficulties with expanding his company’s Le Sueur manufacturing plant, and said Dayton’s administration later worked with Cambria officials to overcome regulatory tie-ups.
“He’s always been willing to listen and engage in the discussion,” Davis said, adding wryly, “The fact that he ends up making the wrong decision is probably a comment on my salesmanship.”
Dayton has consistently led in polls and fundraising over Johnson, who has lacked the depth of financial support from business leaders that predecessors like former Gov. Tim Pawlenty leaned on to mount winning campaigns.
By now, Dayton’s own background is well-known: great-grandson of the founder of Dayton’s, a department store chain that spawned Target Corp. After graduating from Yale, Dayton worked for then-U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale and former DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich.
Dayton ran statewide for the first time in 1982, losing to Sen. David Durenberger. In 1990, Dayton was elected state auditor. He served one term and did not run again. In 2000, two years after losing a DFL primary for governor, Dayton was elected to the U.S. Senate by ousting Sen. Rod Grams. Again he served one term and did not run again. This year marks the first time Dayton has ever run for re-election.
His first term has seen missteps and occasionally unpredictable policy shifts, as when Dayton championed a package of tax increases on business but quickly abandoned them under withering criticism. His push for Vikings stadium funding triggered embarrassments: from botched revenue projections for an electronic gambling scheme meant to finance the project, to Dayton’s confession that he didn’t initially realize the deal with the Vikings allowed exorbitant fees for stadium seat licenses.
Dayton presided over the troubled launch of MNsure, the state’s portal for delivering federal health care changes. MNsure was plagued by a dysfunctional website and other problems. Dayton was forced to retroactively criticize bonuses last year to some MNsure executives.
“Those go beyond mistakes,” former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson said of Dayton’s handling of MNsure and the stadium. “I’d like to hear more discussions of how the governor intends to tighten his area of financial responsibility, so the taxpayer can feel comfortable their money is being wisely and prudently spent.”
Carlson would not reveal his vote for governor this year, but praised Dayton’s budget leadership. “He came in inheriting eight years of what I would call unacceptable financial management,” Carlson said.
Dayton said he truly believed the Vikings would have left Minnesota without a Metrodome replacement. He is quick to mention the project’s 7,500 construction jobs, and more than $1 billion in related private investment.
On MNsure, which he has called the biggest disappointment of his first term, Dayton said that despite glitches, it has delivered on the promise of broader coverage. More than 95 percent of Minnesotans now carry health insurance and MNsure’s enrollment stands at 350,781 for October, although rising premiums in its second year have generated fresh controversy.
The next four?
This year, Dayton’s candidacy lacks a theme as distinct as 2010’s income tax pledge. But recent weeks have seen more flesh on a second-term agenda. Topping the list is transportation. Recent estimates show the state $6 billion short of the money needed for basic maintenance of existing transportation networks, with added pressure from population growth.
Dayton said he would not push any more general tax increases if re-elected. But he is likely to propose to the Legislature a set of transportation-related revenue increases, which could include a sales tax hike on wholesale gasoline that could be felt at the pump. Gasoline taxes last went up a nickel a gallon in 2008 — for the first time in 20 years — following the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
Dayton’s first term has seen a series of crises at the Department of Human Services: The Minnesota Sex Offender Program is under threat of being dismantled by a federal judge for indefinite post-prison detentions. Understaffing and personnel problems have rocked the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. Glaring gaps have been exposed in child protection services. If re-elected, Dayton said he would start tackling those problems, which he suggested are due to years of underfunding.
Should Dayton win, he would turn 68 soon after he’s sworn in. Already Minnesota’s oldest governor ever, Dayton has started to show the physical wear common to people his age. His once thick black hair is gray and thinning.
Dayton has had three procedures at Mayo Clinic since taking office: back surgery in late 2012, a platelet injection in 2013 to help with hip pain, and surgery last February to repair a detached hip tendon. Noticeably slower, he now walks with a cane, but sometimes hands it off to an aide when in public.
“Getting older is certainly difficult to adjust to,” said Dayton, a former college hockey player.
On a recent plane trip to Winona, Dayton climbed in and out of a cramped airplane without help. Out of the public eye for a few months after the most recent surgery, he has resumed a busy schedule of public appearances.
Dayton said pain is no longer a big problem, and said he often must be badgered to do physical therapy. He said that other than immediately post-surgery, he relied only on over-the-counter pain medication. Anything stronger carries particular risks for recovering alcoholics like Dayton, who said he has had no relapses in his time as governor.
Asked if he is physically up to four more years, Dayton didn’t hesitate: “Absolutely. It’s a great job, and I’m energized by it.”
In his rare down time, Dayton throws a Frisbee with his black German shepherds, Wanamingo and Itasca. He watches sports, usually with the sound off so he can work. He occasionally reads for pleasure, mostly historical narratives. He’s gone to Minnesota Lynx games with Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, a fellow fan.
The twice-divorced Dayton said he has no time to date. He talks to his adult sons at least once a week, but one recently moved to San Francisco and the other is busy raising Dayton’s first grandchild. Dayton tapped personal wealth to fund previous campaigns, but this year is not. His wealth has shrunk, he said, adding that he’s still very comfortable.
Among aides and colleagues, Dayton is known as demanding but quick to poke fun at himself. They praise his empathy, eagerness to dig into issues, and political wisdom. Like Dayton, they know much is on the line on Nov. 4.
“You get to a stage in your life where you realize you don’t have unlimited time,” said Tina Smith, whom Dayton promoted from his chief aide to running mate. “You actually have a short period of time to make a difference.”