By the time you read this, former Gov. Mark Dayton will be off on his first vacation in eight years.
Minnesota’s 40th governor was there in the crowd in St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater on Monday morning as Tim Walz took the oath to become governor 41. Leaning heavily on a cane after recent surgery, Dayton accepted the crowd’s cheers and applause. But he stayed away from the stage and out of the limelight, because this day wasn’t about him.
As far as Dayton was concerned, none of the past eight years have been about him.
“He left as he arrived — with the focus on things that were not himself,” one longtime aide said afterward. “Humble to a fault. He had a bigger focus on people than anyone I ever met in public life.”
And so Mark Dayton packed up and slipped out of the governor’s residence with his two big dogs before anyone realized he was gone. He posed grudgingly for his official state portrait, left a nice note for the Walz family, and spent his last day as governor of Minnesota with the same people who had been by his side during the first days.
His low-key exit shocked none of the staff and commissioners who worked with him through stadium fights and government shutdowns and all those Christmas Eves when he called them in to talk about budget line items.
This was the governor who dropped by a funeral on the way to his 2011 inaugural ball.
Seng Vang, a young staffer in his Senate office years before, had just lost her father. Dayton made time, on the first busy day of the next 2,920 busy days, to stop by and pay his respects.
“My father died thinking he was a ‘nobody’ in this country. I wish he would have known that the highest-ranking elected leader of this state thought he was a somebody,” she wrote in a letter to the editor that ran in the Star Tribune last week. “[T]his wealthy and powerful politician will always be remembered as a ‘man of the people.’ ”
Everyone who spent any time around the Minnesota Capitol has heard a Dayton story like that one.
There are other Dayton stories, of course. The time he defunded the entire Minnesota Legislature. His habit of holding turkey pardon ceremonies every Thanksgiving without actually pardoning any turkeys (because, he argued, turkeys are delicious and Minnesota produces more of them than any state in the country).
He gave long, winding speeches that were almost impossible to quote directly without multiple ellipses. He would bolt in the middle of an interview if he spotted a dog or small child on the other side of the room.
But Mark Dayton tried very hard, and he left this state better than he found it. You can’t ask much more of a Minnesotan than that.
Before he headed off someplace warm to try out life as a full-time grandpa, Dayton once again shifted the focus from himself in a final letter to the 5 million Minnesotans he’d served.
My Fellow Minnesotans,
I am deeply grateful for the chance to serve as our great state’s Governor for the past eight years.
In 2010, I promised “A Better Minnesota.” Working together, we have kept that pledge.
Governor Mark Dayton