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Outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton: ‘I was part of making things happen’

Gov. Mark Dayton talks in the Governor's Residence in St. Paul on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. Andy Rathbun / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 7
"We accomplished some good things,” says Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, right, who called Dayton very intelligent and thoughtful. “He’s genuine about that which he believes is best for the state.” Special to Forum News Service2 / 7
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton fishes Big Sandy Lake north of McGregor, Minn. for the 2016 Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener at Big Sandy Lake Resort and Lodge. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service3 / 7
“Public service is about making a difference in people’s lives,” Gov. Mark Dayton says. “Frustrations and setbacks are inherent in the process, but at the end of it all you can look back and say, ‘I was part of making things happen.’” Andy Rathbun / St. Paul Pioneer Press4 / 7
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton gives his annual State of the State Address in the House Chambers of the State Capitol in St. Paul, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press5 / 7
Minn. Gov. Mark Dayton (center), talks to kindergartners in Erica Ruen’s class at Garfield Elementary School along with Minn. Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius (right), Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service 6 / 7
A young fan greets Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton Wednesday, June 8, 2016, as he visits Rochester, part of a statewide tour to push the Legislature to pass a public works funding bill. Don Davis / Forum News Service 7 / 7

ST. PAUL - Eight Minnesota Democrats had already announced they intended to run for the U.S. Senate in 2000 on the day Mark Dayton walked through the state Capitol press room and casually told reporters he was joining the race.

There was no fanfare. No campaign banners. No fiery speech with cheering supporters as a backdrop.

Dayton simply made his way around the cramped basement offices of about a dozen media outlets to tell individual reporters that he was running because he thought he would be the most qualified candidate to serve Minnesotans in Washington, D.C.

Why was he getting into the race so late? In the previous few months, he said, he was preoccupied with trying to save his second marriage, but “that didn’t work out, and that also opened the possibility of undertaking this campaign.”

It almost sounded like he had nothing better to do. But he mounted an aggressive campaign, cleared the DFL field and unseated Republican Sen. Rod Grams in November.

While Dayton, 71, has never been a conventional politician, next week he will wrap up a 40-year career of public service when he steps down as Minnesota’s 40th governor.

He is not a natural glad-handing, back-slapping politician. He’s reserved, socially awkward and not a gifted orator. But he always ran hard and usually won, in large part because he is passionate about public service and voters trusted him to fight for what he believed, whether they agreed with him or not.

“Public service is about making a difference in people’s lives,” he said in an interview last week at the Governor’s Residence, where he is recovering from two back surgeries and related lung complications that kept him hospitalized at Mayo Clinic for more than 40 days this fall. “Frustrations and setbacks are inherent in the process, but at the end of it all you can look back and say, ‘I was part of making things happen.’”

Friends and foes agree he made a lot — good or bad — happen in education, taxation, health care, economic development, environmental protection and construction projects during his two terms as governor.

“Mark Dayton’s political career resembles the phoenix that rises from the ashes,” said political scientist Larry Jacobs.

After finishing third in the 1998 DFL primary for governor, Dayton was written off as a low-tier talent in the 2000 Senate race, but he won a surprising election, said Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

A few years later, however, Time Magazine listed him among the worst U.S. senators. Humbled by his Washington experience, Dayton returned to Minnesota in 2006. Then against long odds, he won the DFL nomination for governor in 2010 and topped Republican Tom Emmer in an extremely close election for the state’s top office.

“I think, by many accounts, he’s been far more effective and consequential than political observers expected,” Jacobs said.

Transforming state's fiscal condition

Asked to list his most significant accomplishments in 40 years of public service, Dayton said he was proudest of restoring stability to state government. When he became governor in 2011, the state faced a $6.2 billion deficit and owed local school districts $1.8 billion.

Two years later, the state had balanced its budget and repaid the schools. Now it has a projected $1.5 billion budget surplus, a record $2 billion in a reserve fund and its AAA credit ratings have been restored, meaning it’s less expensive for the state to borrow money for roads, bridges and other public works projects.

“We’ve transformed the state’s fiscal condition from chronic deficits to chronic surpluses,” leaving it in a strong financial position for the future, he said.

Another top priority, he said, was keeping a campaign promise to increase funding for public schools every year he was governor, “no excuses, no exceptions.” The state grew school aid by $2 billion on his watch.

Dayton is especially proud that he delivered funding for free, all-day kindergarten to schools. He’s disappointed that he couldn’t persuade lawmakers to also fund universal pre-school programs for 4-year-olds, although the state has expanded early learning opportunities through increased scholarships and school readiness programs.

Minnesota’s economy has fared better than most other states. While Dayton’s policies helped, he said, “I credit the people of Minnesota, the business owners who have located or expanded here and a talented workforce that made those expansions successful.”

While he chalked up some significant accomplishments as governor, he also suffered setbacks. His biggest disappointment, he said, was his administration’s failed rollouts of the state’s MNLARS vehicle licensing and registration system and its MNsure health insurance exchange. In both cases, he said, his team tried to do too much too soon without adequate testing.

He regrets the “disruption it caused in so many people’s lives,” he said, adding that both systems are working better now.

Rocky start

On the same day in 2010 that Dayton was elected governor, Republicans won majorities in the state House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. The GOP controlled one or both chambers during six of his eight years in office.

Divided government resulted in frequent gridlock and prevented Dayton getting many of his progressive ideas enacted into law.

He said he tried to find common ground with GOP leaders, but it was “unrealistic to expect people with very different views” to agree on what’s best for the state. He said it was especially difficult to negotiate with some Republicans “who believe that intransigence is a virtue and compromise is a weakness.”

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said Dayton was often difficult to work with. During end-of-session legislative negotiations, he said the governor would cancel scheduled meetings with legislative leaders or refuse to meet.

He also was hard to pin down in bargaining talks, Daudt said. “At times I thought we agreed on something, and the next day they (his staff) would fire an email over saying, ‘To clarify the governor’s position, he does not agree to that.’ ”

But on the flip side, the speaker said, “We accomplished some good things.” He called Dayton very intelligent and thoughtful, open to hearing legislators out and willing to try to find common ground. “He’s genuine about that which he believes is best for the state.”

GOP lawmakers repeatedly rejected Dayton’s proposals to increase taxes and criticized him for boosting state spending.

The 2011 legislative session ended in a record 40-day state government shutdown when Dayton and Republican lawmakers failed to pass a balanced budget on time.

The governor had his most successful sessions after DFLers regained control of the Legislature in 2013. During the next two years, they raised income taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans to balance the budget, funded all-day kindergarten, legalized same-sex marriage and raised the minimum wage.

Richard Cohen of St. Paul, the senior Democrat in the Senate, said “the hallmark of Dayton’s administration” was his strong support of education, especially early childhood programs.

“He was not always successful,” Cohen said, “but I think people appreciated how resolute he was about what he cared about.”

As the first DFL governor in 20 years, Dayton was “in a sense, the safety net for Democrats during his eight years as governor,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley, the incoming House DFL majority leader. Even when Republicans controlled the Legislature, he said, DFLers could count on Dayton to protect their economic security policies, investments in education and health care and defend the rights of all Minnesotans.

Republicans won back the House majority in 2014, and progress on Dayton’s policy wish list slowed.

Still he and GOP lawmakers managed to hammer out agreements on several major public works projects, including a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, the state Capitol renovation, a new baseball park in downtown St. Paul and civic centers in Mankato, St. Cloud and Rochester.

Although Dayton failed to win approval for a gas tax increase to provide an ongoing source of new money for roads and bridges, he and lawmakers managed to find hundreds of millions for several high-profile projects, including the St. Croix River bridge, St. Paul’s High Bridge, the Lewis & Clark water system in southwestern Minnesota and the Southwest Corridor light-rail line.

Although it drew little public attention, perhaps Dayton’s most significant infrastructure contribution was his work getting state funding to help launch Mayo Clinic’s Destination Medical Center economic development project in Rochester, a plan which is expected to create about 35,000 jobs over 20 years. Dayton deserves “enormous credit” for keeping the state’s largest private sector employer “fully in Minnesota,” political scientist Jacobs said.

Rocky finish

Dayton’s last two legislative sessions, with Republicans in control of both houses, ended on sour notes. At the close of the 2017 session, Dayton reluctantly signed a two-year budget bill, but he used his line-item veto power to cancel the Legislature’s operating budget, hoping to force lawmakers back to the bargaining table to rework several tax breaks and other measures.

Republicans called the veto blatantly unconstitutional. “It was perceived as trying to eliminate the Legislature,” GOP Speaker Daudt said. “It showed that he never really viewed the Legislature as a co-equal branch of government.”

In response, Republicans sued Dayton, taking their case all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Late in the year, the high court upheld Dayton’s veto, forcing lawmakers to scramble to find enough money to continue operating until they could pass a new budget bill at the start of the 2018 session.

Relations between Dayton and GOP leaders hit their low point at the end of last year’s session, when after failing to reach agreement on a supplemental budget, the lawmakers packed most of their top priorities, including aligning Minnesota’s tax code with recent federal changes and additional education funding, into a single, nearly 1,000-page bill and sent it to the governor without his prior agreement.

Citing dozens of “objectionable provisions,” Dayton vetoed the entire package and wiped out the bulk of the work Republican lawmakers had completed during the entire year.

Some veteran lawmakers and legislative staffers pronounced it the “worst session ever.”

Long record of public service

Dayton is one of longest-serving state officeholders in Minnesota history. The scion of the family that founded Dayton’s department stores and Target discount stores, he benefited from a well-known name but also had to overcome his name’s association with wealth and privilege.

He grew up in suburban Long Lake; attended Blake School in Hopkins, where he became an all-state hockey goalie, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University. After college, he taught in a New York City school and performed social work in Boston.

He became an anti-Vietnam war activist at Yale, earning a spot on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” He landed his first government job in 1975 as an aide to U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale. Two years later he returned to Minnesota to work on Gov. Rudy Perpich’s staff, eventually becoming the governor’s commissioner in the state energy and economic development departments.

Dayton first ran for office in 1982 when he unsuccessfully challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger. He won his first election as state auditor in 1990 but abruptly stepped down after one term.

‘An F for results’

After his failed run for governor in 1998, he made a political comeback in 2000 by defeating Republican Sen. Grams. But he disliked the legislative give and take, said he and Congress deserved “an F for results” and announced he would not seek re-election in 2006.

Saying he was “much better suited for the executive branch,” he made another political comeback in 2010 to win the governor’s race.

Despite his wealth and political successes, Dayton also has experienced life’s difficulties. He was married and divorced twice. He was treated for alcoholism in the 1980s and years later revealed that he had struggled with mild depression and relapsed in his recovery from alcoholism while serving in the Senate, prompting him to check into treatment again.

Since becoming governor, he has had a series of health issues — four spinal surgeries, a hip operation and treatment for prostate cancer after he fainted while delivering a State of the State speech to the Legislature in January 2017.

After his most recent back surgeries this fall, he suffered lung damage that kept him hospitalized at Mayo Clinic for more than a month. He returned to the Governor’s Residence in late November and has rarely left the house since then. He walks with a cane and has limited mobility.

“I’m recovering slowly,” he said during the interview.

At 71, he’s Minnesota’s oldest governor. “The previous oldest one died in office, so that’s the marker. I’m still here,” he said with a chuckle.

His health problems have prevented him from pursuing some favorite activities, such as traveling around the state.

“But I don’t think it’s affected my brainpower, my acuity, my ability to focus on (current issues),” he said. “My brain cells don’t reside in my hip or my prostate.”

Best job ever

After leaving office on Monday, Dayton said he plans to go to a health spa in Arizona for two weeks “to concentrate on my physical fitness.

“I am not moving to Arizona for the winter,” he stressed.

Instead, he will move into an apartment in Minneapolis to be closer to his two adult sons, Eric and Andrew, Eric’s wife Cory and his grandson, Hugo. Then he’ll decide what he’ll do next.

He said he believes he’s already held the best job he’s ever wanted. “Being governor ranks at the top, totally,” he said.