Dayton reflects on tough first year

by T.W. Budig
ECM capitol reporter

A confident looking Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton popped an M & M into his mouth and jokingly fielded a reporter’s question on whether the past year had been tough.

Gov. Mark Dayton

“I signed up for tough,” said Dayton, smiling. “I expected tough.”

The governor may have got it.

A fired-up crowd — some waving signs blazing anti-federal health care act slogans — surged into the governor’s reception room at Dayton’s first press conference as governor in January as he prepared to sign an executive order directing early enrollment in federal medical assistance.

Dayton stepped aside, let an opponent take the podium to denounce the action, then signed the order.

Although Dayton and leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature exchanged tokens of good will, the governor’s proposed state budget when released in February, one including tax increases on wealthier Minnesotans, had Republicans recoiling.

One Senate Republican leader said he didn’t want to say the budget was dead on arrival.

“(But) I don’t think it has much of a heart beat,” said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel, R-Edina.

Republicans did not want any tax increases; Dayton spoke of an unwillingness to make “barbaric cuts” to government services.

This basic standoff, simmering since the gubernatorial campaign, persisted throughout the legislative session and beyond into the hot days of summer until Dayton and Republican leaders finally struck a budget deal ending the longest state government shutdown in state history.

Dayton called the shutdown a “major disappointment.”

But the political dynamics of divided government set the stage for contention, according to Dayton. “And it was,” Dayton said.

More recently, Dayton’s invitation to Republicans for a pre-Thanksgiving special session on the Vikings’ stadium slowly fizzled after an e-mail by House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, surfaced indicating Zellers had no intention of agreeing to one.

An executive order signed by the governor calling for a vote on the unionization of child care providers was denounced by Republicans and challenged in court.

But Dayton sees the glass half filled.

He speaks pridefully of his human services commissioner saving $500 million by instituting competitive bidding and his education commissioner snagging $45 million in federal Race to the Top education funding for the state.

The governor spoke of spotlighting job creation in his recent jobs’ summit. He cites streamlining the state’s permitting process to make the process quicker as another accomplishment.

And Dayton speaks of a personal doggedness.

“I learned in this business (politics) persistence is a prerequisite for success,” Dayton said. “It doesn’t always guarantee success, but it’s a prerequisite for it.”

Although Dayton and Republican leaders skirmished for months over the budget, in general the rhetoric on both sides remained civil.

Indeed, despite stark budgetary and policy differences, Republican leaders express a fondness for Dayton.

A haggard House Health and Human Services Finance Chairman Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, leaning back in his State Capitol office chair during the state government shutdown and intense budget talks, gave a generous appraisal.

“He’s a very good man,” Abeler said.

“He’s got a good heart. And he really cares about the people (Minnesotans).”

Dayton himself says he brushes off political attacks.

He paused for a moment when asked what he thought of the Republican Party of Minnesota, a party that preaches fiscal frugality but is heavily in debt.

A party that heralds the defense of marriage and loses its Republican Senate majority leader to scandal.

“Well, the Bible says before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye, first take the log out of your own eye,” Dayton said. “And that applies to all of us.”

University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute Political Science Professor Larry Jacobs views Dayton as one of the most remarkable political turnaround stories in state history.

With the weight of his tarnished U.S. Senate term around his neck, Dayton not only succeeded in edging out the endorsed DFL state party gubernatorial candidate but ran in a Republican year as one of the most hard-left liberal candidates in the United States and managed to defeat Republican Tom Emmer for governor, he said.

Once elected, Dayton, instead of embracing hard-left liberalism, has governed as a pragmatist, according to Jacobs.

“I think that’s really quite striking,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs views Dayton as bringing a keen political eye to the office.

In the Vikings’ stadium debate, he has gently moved Republicans into something of a box, Jacobs said.

Dayton also has shown keen PR instincts by bringing his beloved black German shepherd dogs Mesabi, Mingo and Wanamingo into the public’s eye.

“It seems trivial. But it’s not,” Jacobs said.

It builds connections with the public, he said.

Democrats tend to overlook such personal connections, instead over relying on political arguments to gain support, Jacobs said.

A plausible argument can be made that it was Dayton’s incorrect assumption that if he just pushed Republicans hard enough they would cave that resulted in the state government shutdown, according to Jacobs.

Still, in his talks with Dayton, Jacobs senses the governor, unlike many politicians, views the opposition as fulfilling a role and not as the enemy.

“Unfortunately, that is not common,” he said.

Jacobs also views Dayton as bringing a humility to the governorship, perhaps the result of Dayton’s own struggles in life.

“Dayton clearly has had some very rough moments,” he said. “He’s been in the shadows. Some really sad places.”

Dayton has dealt with chemical abuse problems in the past. He is a divorcee.

Rep. Tom Tillberry, DFL-Fridley, said Dayton has done a good job in the political climate in which he must function. “I would give him a B-plus,” he said.

According to Tillberry, Dayton the human being is a “fantastic” person. He’s a sharper guy than the public might assume, he said.

Unlike Jacobs, Tillberry said the state government shutdown resulted from Republicans mechanically passing a state budget they knew beforehand the governor would not accept.

“I’m more ashamed of the Legislature than of the governor,” he said.

In recent weeks, in response to his controversial child care unionization executive order, Republicans have depicted Dayton as bending to the will of unions that had supported his candidacy.

But Tillberry, tracing the back roads Dayton took to the governor’s office, views the road-less-traveled-by as leaving Dayton without political debts. “He doesn’t really owe anybody anything,” Tillberry said.

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, views Dayton as “predictably liberal.”

She expressed surprise over the governor’s child care executive order — his explanation for it seems odd, Kiffmeyer said.

Republicans in general were surprised by Dayton’s budget negotiation strategy which caused the state government shutdown, she said.

“I think we took him at his word,” Kiffmeyer said of earlier Dayton utterances about working hard to avoid shutdowns.

The Republican House Caucus truly believed that Dayton had meant what he had said, she said.

Kiffmeyer recounted a meeting that she had with Dayton earlier this year in the governor’s office concerning the voter photo ID bill she was carrying.

At one point during the meeting, his staff indicated to him that he needed to move on to other things, according to Kiffmeyer.

Dayton waved them away. They had ample time to discuss the legislation, Kiffmeyer said.

“He later vetoed the bill,” she said. “But we had a good conversation.”