ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Mark Dayton, the Democratic governor of Minnesota who let his state's government shutdown rather than accept the refusal of Republican lawmakers to raise income taxes on the wealthy, was born into money.
It made him sure of something: "I grew up in that environment. I know people can afford it."
Most of Minnesota state government stands idle this weekend, the result of Dayton's and the GOP-controlled state legislature's failure to pass a new budget by Friday's deadline. State parks and the Minnesota Zoo are closed, highway projects are stalled and thousands of government workers are at home without pay for the foreseeable future.
The battle over the state budget in Minnesota echoes those underway in Washington and in other state capitals, as Republicans still energized from gains in 2010 focus on cutting spending and refuse to consider tax increases of any kind. New GOP governors such as New Jersey's Chris Christie and Florida's Rick Scott have made deep cuts in state programs and employee benefits, while even some of Dayton's fellow Democratic governors, such as New York's Andrew Cuomo, have eschewed tax hikes amid a fragile economic recovery.
The soft-spoken Dayton refuses to cave to the GOP's stance that higher taxes are verboten. Since taking office, he has championed tax hikes on rich Minnesotans — or at least some form of new state revenue — as a necessary part of any solution to closing the state's $5 billion budget deficit.
"My father's favorite quote was from the Bible: 'Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required,'" Dayton told The Associated Press on Friday afternoon in his Capitol office. The front doors to the domed building were newly adorned with signs: "This building closed until further notice due to the state government service interruption."
Dayton's great-grandfather founded a Minneapolis-based dry goods store and along with family members built it into the department store chain that's now Target Corp. The Dayton family no longer controls the company, but it left Mark Dayton a wealthy man who's spent large chunks of his fortune on a quirky political career that took him to the U.S. Senate (he quit after one term) and now, at 64, to the state's top political office.
"I don't underestimate his resolve," said Doug Magnus, a Republican state senator and a farmer from the state's southwest corner. "Other people around the table, including the Republicans, have political things in mind. I believe the governor feels he has one term to do what he thinks is the right thing to do, and he's going to do it."
The political ideology underpinning Dayton's actions isn't limited to his experiences as a personally wealthy man. In Friday's interview, he described his years after graduating from college at Yale, which included a short time teaching in an inner-city school in New York City.
"All these kids in my classroom were just as wonderful creations as I, and through no choice of our own, I was born into this great good fortune and they were born into this abject poverty," Dayton said. "The injustice really seared my conscience."
Dayton said his political views are more sophisticated now, but protecting the downtrodden has remained a constant. He decried the spending cuts that would likely be necessary without more tax money in Minnesota: "We're going to cut home health care attendants for seniors? We're going to deny elderly widows the at-home services they rely on? All so that millionaires do not have to pay another dollar in taxes?" he asked.
After his stint on the East Coast, Dayton returned to Minnesota and drifted into politics, first in appointed positions under a Democratic governor and then as a perennial candidate. He ran for U.S. Senate and lost in 1982, served a single term as elected state auditor from 1991 to 1995, ran for governor and lost in 1998, then in 2000 ran and won a U.S. Senate seat by knocking out a conservative Republican incumbent.
Dayton served a single, mostly undistinguished term marked mainly by his decision in 2004 to close his Senate office due to an unspecified terrorist threat. He was the only senator to do so, and the incident came back to haunt him two years later when a national magazine named him one of the country's five worst senators.
By that time, Dayton had already announced he wouldn't run again, saying he didn't want his legacy to be that he brought Democrats "to defeat or debacle" in the race.
To the surprise of many political observers, Dayton quickly jumped back into politics. Initially ridiculed when he announced in early 2009 that he'd run for governor, Dayton was sworn in this year as the state's first Democratic chief executive in two full decades. He just barely beat a conservative, tea party-beloved Republican in a race that also featured a moderate ex-Republican running as an independent.
Dayton has never made being a politician look easy. Quiet and intense, he speaks in a halting manner, sometimes garbles his sentences and lacks a smooth personal touch. Twice divorced, he is close to two adult sons and lives in the governor's mansion with two German shepherds — one named for a southern Minnesota town, the other for a northern part of the state.
He has talked openly of struggling with drinking and depression, and early in his last campaign revealed that he suffered a relapse late in his Senate term and sought treatment when he left Washington. Being governor is difficult, Dayton said, but added that the job's demands have been good for his mental health. "I feel very good. I sleep well. I get good rest and I'm ready for whatever comes," he said.
Last week, President Barack Obama echoed Dayton when he called for upper-bracket income tax increases as a means of shrinking the country's debt. Obama even used a term Dayton has repeated like a mantra: A "balanced approach" to describe a mix of tax increases and spending cuts they both have said is the surest way to restore stability to government budgeting.
"I do think Democrats around the country are looking for models of courage, and strong leaders they can use as a model," said Jeff Blodgett, a longtime friend who was an adviser to one of Dayton's closest allies, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. "He isn't afraid to be honest and direct about his principles."
Dayton stands now as the heir to Minnesota's long line of successful liberal Democrats, a tree that includes Wellstone and former vice presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. Mondale, who was mocked in the 1984 presidential campaign against President Ronald Reagan for saying he would raise taxes, is a political patron of Dayton's.
Mondale lost badly, and Reagan went on to raise taxes. On the first day of Minnesota's shutdown, Mondale recalled his 40-year friendship with Dayton and said he hoped to see him win his tax fight.
"He was green at first. I think he was insecure at first," Mondale said. "It took him a while to get his feet under him, and it seems like it's all come together in the governor's seat. It seems like he was made for it and he's going to do it."
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