DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton profiled

A veteran DFL warhorse is making another charge.

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

A veteran DFL warhorse is making another charge.

Mark Dayton

Former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton is one of three Democratic gubernatorial candidates working to clear the Tuesday, Aug. 10 primary election to the November ballot.

It’s the department store heir’s fifth run for statewide office.

Dayton, 63, looks to his experience in state government — state auditor, state commissioner — as more pertinent to his ambition to serve as governor than the six years he served in the U.S. Senate.

Indeed, at a recent ECM Editorial Board meeting, Dayton did not mention the U.S. Senate until asked.

Dayton found the U.S. Senate, the body he spent some $12 million of his personal fortune in 2000 campaigning to reach, frustrating, he said.

He believes he’s better suited to the tighter reins afforded the chief executive, Dayton said.

“I said before I went to Washington I thought it was a cesspool,” he said. “I said after I got there, I’d underestimated how bad it is.”

He cited the power of special interest dollars.

Dayton, criticized as senator in one well-known flap of wildly overestimating the threat terrorism posed his office, decided not to seek re-election.

In an often-cited self-appraisal, the former teacher graded his Senate performance an “F.” “I graded the whole Senate an ‘F,’” said Dayton.

That part was left out of the story, he said. “I have high standards,” Dayton said.

Dayton traces a capacity for cold self-judgment to his upbringing — back to his father, Bruce Dayton.

“He instilled in me a work ethic and a performance ethic,” said Dayton, whose first summer job as an eight-year-old was pulling endless weeds from a horse pasture for his father.

His father, his relatives — these were hardheaded businessmen, according to Dayton.

They weren’t interested in self-delusion, Dayton said.

“When that self-criticality doesn’t exist (in government) — when we’re not striving to improve the quality of services — I get very impatient,” he said.

Dayton spent one summer working in the family business, which convinced him to look elsewhere for a career.

His father may have wanted him in the business, but above all else he wanted his son to find meaningful work, Dayton said.

One of his father’s favorite biblical quotations was, “to whom much is given, much is expected,” he said.

Another favorite saying of his father was the only thing worse than a bum was a rich bum, said Dayton.

Dayton considered medicine as a career — he worked several summers as an orderly at Abbott Hospital — but wound up teaching ninth-grade science in New York City after graduating from Yale University with honors.

He found the starkness between the affluence he was used to and the lot of his underprivileged students unsettling, Dayton said.

“I don’t think it’s guilt,” he said of the origins of his political activism. “I would hope if I came from modest circumstances I would still look at injustice and inequality and say, ‘These are wrong.’”

Dayton tells of how two of his students were thumbing through a “Who’s Who in America” in the library and found the listing for his father and discovered their science teacher was rich.

“They came running to me saying, ‘Well, Mr. Dayton, you come from a very wealthy family,’” said Dayton.

“I was kind of flustered and didn’t know what to say. And then one girl looked at me with eyes full of understanding and said, ‘That’s all right, Mr. Dayton. You can’t help where you were born.’”

A Presbyterian, Dayton’s spiritual life is important to him.

“I consider myself a very spiritual person as a beginner on a spiritual journey, trying to develop a constructive relationship with God — as I perceive God or imagine God — and in my small way, to try to do God’s will on this earth,” said Dayton.

“(But) I’m always wary of politicians who mix their religion with their politics. Because I see them doing it for their own self-advantage than for the service of God.”

Dayton has dealt with health issues. He told Star Tribune columnist Lori Sturdevant not long ago that he has suffered from mild depression throughout his adult life.

A recovering alcoholic, Dayton also said that he briefly began drinking again late in his U.S. Senate term — he sought treatment in 2007.

Asked what he tells voters about his health, Dayton told the ECM Editorial Board he says that he’s feeling good.

“I say I feel healthier and stronger than I ever did before,” said Dayton. “I wouldn’t be undertaking this if I weren’t very confident that I wouldn’t only survive but thrive in the rigors.”

“None of us can guarantee that we won’t have a heart attack, or go down in a plane crash, so I can’t make an absolute guarantee.”

“I think this is a huge responsibility that I’ve committed myself to.”

“I’ve committed myself to sobriety. I’ve committed myself to healthy physical practices.”

“And people can look at me and size me up for themselves. I know I’m fully capable of undertaking the job.”

Although Dayton has been involved in many election campaigns, he said that he always remains anxious.

He considers the endorsed-Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Tom Emmer of Delano to be a “formidable” contender.

“I always assume all my opponents are tough opponents,” said Dayton.

Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton recently warned that while Minnesotans will see Dayton’s “slick” television campaign ads, the ads hide “his bizarre decision to shut down his own Senate office or any discussion about the negative impact his job-killing tax increases would have on Minnesota job creators.”

A divorcee with two adult sons — Dayton’s two black German shepherds Mesabi and Dakota recently greeted visitors to his campaign office — Dayton often exhibits a self-depreciating sense of humor.

“I’m not a fan of gambling,” Dayton recently told one audience. “I found surer ways to lose my money in politics.”

Having a sense of humor is a good thing for a public official, because it helps them to keep their importance in perspective, he said.

After 30 years in public life he has come to terms with people knowing “snippets” about him — an item here, an item there, Dayton said.

But why should they spend the time to learn more? he asked. “I’m not (Minnesota Twin) Joe Mauer,” Dayton said.

In terms of his willingness to work with Republicans, Dayton points to collaborations he had in the Senate with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain — he’s willing to work with anyone who’s willing to work with him, he said.

Dayton’s running mate is Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth.

He left the U.S. Senate not knowing exactly what he intended to do, but eyeing the governor’s race. “I certainly did not intend to retire and take up miniature golf,” Dayton said.

Dayton views Minnesota as moving toward a fiscal iceberg and as the “Tax the Rich” candidate, he has no desire to preside as governor over the status quo, according to Dayton.

“If people think the state is headed in the right direction, then I’m not their governor,” Dayton said. “If they want to head in almost the same direction and just tinker around the margin, I’m not their governor.”

Asked whether his father, whom Dayton considered a good role model when growing up, is proud of his son, Dayton said he believes his father is.

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