At the end of his eight-year tenure as governor, Gov. Mark Dayton was dismissive when the subject of his legacy came up, and he especially loathed the idea of sitting for a portrait that would hang in the Capitol that he helped restore.
Perhaps a Polaroid would do, he joked. Or his dogs could be the subject.
Despite decades in public life, Dayton eschewed the self-important trappings of politics, beginning nearly every speech with a joke at his own expense.
Thursday’s unveiling of his official Capitol painting was no different.
“As everybody in this room knows, I’m difficult,” he said, thanking portrait artist Paul Oxborough for his patience.
Dayton’s two children, family and many friends made during a lifetime in politics finally prevailed on him, and they gathered in the Capitol rotunda Thursday to celebrate Dayton, 72.
His successor, Gov. Tim Walz, thanked Dayton for the restoration of the Capitol, which was completed during Dayton’s second term and that Walz called a “legacy to our democracy.” He also thanked Dayton for focusing on “the littlest Minnesotans” — Dayton approved all-day kindergarten and expanded early education.
Dayton frequently empowered talented women during his years as governor, and none more so than U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who began as campaign manager of his main DFL rival in 2010 before becoming his chief of staff and then his lieutenant governor. He appointed Smith to the Senate in 2017 when Al Franken resigned. She rattled off some of Dayton’s frequent sayings: “None of us is as smart as all of us.” (Dayton freely admits he stole that one from the late Gov. Rudy Perpich.)
But Dayton’s most important and frequent saying, Smith said, pausing as emotions welled up, “Family comes first. We will always be family. And that, my friend, is the sweetest legacy.”
The portrait was then revealed.
Oxborough rendered Dayton in front of the Capitol, which holds such a commanding presence in the work as to be almost the former governor’s twin. It’s a fitting image, given Dayton’s record in state government. But more significantly, Dayton spent considerable political capital to win approval and then help oversee the $310 million restoration of the Capitol, with bipartisan support from the Legislature.
The portrait radiates light. It’s a leavening surprise given the barely concealed darkness that could sometimes waft from him, even in public. He struggled with both mental and physical ailments, election losses, addiction and divorce, though he could always make a knowing joke.
Dayton, looking thinner but sturdier than when he left office, was in typical form, spending most of his brief remarks thanking people.
“Each one of you is so special to me. Your friendship, support, guidance and assistance have meant more than I can say,” he said.
Dayton said he was persuaded to sit for the portrait in part because he wanted to honor the Capitol and the democracy that it houses.
Despite setbacks, he said, “democracy has survived. Generations of Americans have created and sustained the most advanced and successful form of self-government the human race has ever devised. It’s worthy of improving and enhancing.”
Dayton said the portrait is not just of him.
“All of you are right in here with me.”