On Monday, Minnesota will witness something it has not seen in 32 years — the second-term inauguration of a DFL governor.
The late Gov. Rudy Perpich, who was inaugurated three times, has been on my mind. More’s the point: He likely has been on Gov. Mark Dayton’s mind. Watch Dayton’s face light up as he relates Perpich anecdotes — which he often does — and one can see that Minnesota’s longest-serving governor made an abiding impression on the current one. Dayton even framed a Perpich line for his office wall: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
One might say that Dayton learned how to govern by watching Perpich. He did so from close range as Perpich’s legislative aide in 1977 and his economic development commissioner in 1978 and 1983-86. Dayton was at Perpich’s elbow for the gubernatorial work Perpich loved best, the pursuit of “jobs, jobs, jobs” for Minnesota.
They were personally close, too, until their relationship soured during a 1990s squabble over Perpich’s pension while Dayton was state auditor and Perpich, unbeknown to most Minnesotans, was dying of cancer. Their friendship was real, despite very different life stories. The iron miner’s son developed a mentor’s fondness for the mercantile heir, seeing in Dayton a reflection of his own passion for bettering the lot of average folk. Dayton looked up to Perpich and tried to keep up with him — which every reporter who covered Perpich can attest was not easy to do.
I don’t expect Dayton to worship at a polka mass before his swearing-in ceremony Monday morning, or disappear Tuesday on an undisclosed coffee shop listening tour or secret meeting with an expansion-minded corporate CEO. But I think Dayton would do well to emulate the best features of Perpich’s second term — and also to beware the pitfall into which Perpich fell during his third term, which began in 1987 and ended with defeat in 1990 at the hands of Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. For instance:
• Perpich looked way ahead. He saw sooner than most that a global information age was dawning and that Minnesota could be a leader among the states in the 21st century if it thought globally and burnished its reputation as “the Brainpower State.” He pushed the University of Minnesota to raise its academic bar, founded the Minnesota Trade Office and started a pattern of gubernatorial trade missions that persists to this day.
Like Perpich in 1983, Dayton begins his second term with the state’s economy nicely recovering from a nasty recession. The state’s fiscal house is in order. That makes this a fine time for a governor to consider again how best to give Minnesota a long-term competitive boost.
• Perpich was an education reformer. He took on the public school establishment to push two potential brainpower-boosters into law — open enrollment, the chance for students to enroll in a public school outside their home district; and Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO), the chance for high school students to enroll in college classes for dual credit and at no additional cost.
PSEO was as far as Perpich was able to go toward a goal that’s still relevant and ready for Dayton to embrace — improving educational attainment by blurring the distinction between high school and college. Helping more students earn college credit while still in high school is an idea that’s in play in the 2015 legislative session, and could use a gubernatorial push.
• Perpich loved to build things. Until recently, Minnesota had the Metrodome to show for it. (Permit a bow to GOP Gov. Al Quie, who in 1979 finished the Metrodome authorization Perpich started.) It also has the Mall of America, an arts high school bearing Perpich’s name, the Center for Victims of Torture, expanded higher ed campuses and the National Sports Center in Blaine.
Dayton has already matched Perpich in the football stadium category, and he and Lt. Gov.-elect Tina Smith are working to make “Destination Medical Center” more than a slogan in Rochester. But Minnesota could use a lot more building — and rebuilding, of roads and bridges. My nomination for a project worthy of a second term: a high-speed rail line that would put the Mayo Clinic 30 minutes away from the Twin Cities airport.
• Perpich was ambitious for Minnesota. Get the leader of the Soviet Union to spend a day Minnesota? Why not? How about landing a Super Bowl, an NCAA Final Four, a Winter Olympics? Well, two out of three isn’t bad. Perpich convinced Minnesotans to think bigger about their state’s possibilities.
This state is starting to think big again. Minnesota’s second Super Bowl and third NCAA Final Four are coming in 2018 and 2019, respectively. In 2016, a group of visionary Minnesotans hopes to land a World Expo for 2023, a scaled-down version of a World’s Fair. Dayton should be their staunchest ally.
• Perpich looked out for the whole state. Minnesota’s one and only governor from the Iron Range wanted nearly all of the proceeds from the state lottery dedicated to economic development in Greater Minnesota. He stood squarely with indebted farmers during the farm financial crisis of 1985-86. Even when he proposed an urban assistance package dubbed “The Year of the City” in 1989, no one ever accused him of being “metro-centric.”
That’s the tag that was hung on Dayton and Greater Minnesota House DFLers in the 2014 campaign. It’s one they should be eager to shed. Dayton could go a long way in that direction by proposing to put some serious state money into broadband expansion. No portion of Minnesota should be without reliable and reasonably speedy Internet service.
Those are Perpich attributes worth emulating. On the other hand:
• Perpich allowed himself to become isolated. His circle of advisers shrank during his third term to such an extent that at times it seemed to include only his family. His public appearances dwindled in number and his engagement with everyday Minnesotans diminished. He became prickly, defensive and self-absorbed — traits voters never admire.
That happened despite Perpich’s desire to serve a fourth term, and despite his generally outgoing nature. By comparison, Dayton is an introvert. He has already announced that he does not plan to seek a third term in 2018. He’ll have to guard against the temptation to withdraw too often from public view, and to pay heed only to those he has long known and trusted. Remembering Rudy may help.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.