Seven years before Gov. Mark Dayton failed to reach a budget deal with Republicans and Minnesota’s government shut, he closed his U.S. Senate office for almost a month after being warned of a terrorist threat.
The Republican Party of Minnesota called the episode an example of “erratic” behavior. In fact, it shows that Dayton, a 64-year-old Democrat who told reporters Monday that he can endure a shutdown until his term ends, will stand on principle even if it hurts him politically, said Thomas Borman, who grew up with the governor.
“He felt that it was inexcusable to put his staff at a risk,” said Borman, 59, a lawyer and part owner of a bank in Minneapolis. “Sticking to his guns in these settlement negotiations is consistent. That’s how he is.”
Dayton is in a stalemate with Republican legislative leaders over a $5 billion deficit that has kept the government at a halt since July 1. Friends and supporters say they don’t expect Dayton, whom they describe as an introvert with a passion for public service who was born into wealth, to back down — even if it costs him his job.
The two sides say they remain more than $1 billion apart. Republicans want spending cuts alone, and Dayton seeks higher taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans to preserve services in the Midwest state that’s the home of UnitedHealth Group Inc., the biggest U.S. health insurer by revenue; Best Buy Co., the world’s largest consumer electronics retailer; and Target Corp., the second-largest U.S. discount retailer with roots in the company the governor founded.
Dayton’s opponents say families can’t afford higher taxes, and they question whether the governor, who won office in a three-way race with 43.6 percent of the vote, can afford to hold to his principles, said David Durenberger, a former Republican U.S. senator from Minnesota.
“The governor, in the end, has to be responsible,” Durenberger, who defeated Dayton in a 1982 Senate race, said in a telephone interview from his home in San Rafael, California. “I’m not sure that Mark Dayton has the skills -- the communication skills, the leadership skills, the persuasive skills -- that are necessary to prove that the Republicans are wrong.”
Dayton’s office didn’t make him available for an interview after email and telephone requests to Katharine Tinucci, his spokeswoman. The governor convened a news conference Monday at the Capitol in St. Paul to say he is open to compromise and is starting a two-day tour of the state today to get his message to residents.
Asked how long he will be able to hold out, Dayton told reporters, “My term expires Jan. 5, 2015.”
Dayton’s stand is hurting some of his supporters, including state employees and those who depend on state government, and raising taxes will make a fragile economy worse, said Tony Sutton, chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.
“It’s not a principled stand to raise taxes to chase jobs out of the state,” Sutton said in a telephone interview from St. Paul.
The 12-day impasse is the longest of the nation’s six state government shutdowns since 2002 by four days, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It has idled about 23,000 state workers, closed agencies and stopped construction projects statewide. The state’s economist has estimated that the shutdown will cost Minnesota about $23 million a week in spending power, and Fitch Ratings last week downgraded about $5.7 billion in general-obligation bonds one step to AA+ from AAA, the highest level.
The deadlock, with a Democratic executive and Republican- controlled Legislature influenced by the Tea Party, is a microcosm of the debate in Washington about raising the nation’s debt ceiling, said Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota professor who directs its Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.
“It might even be a leading indicator of what could happen on the debt ceiling, where you’ve got a group of Republicans elected in the Tea Party who see a higher calling to their principles that they ran on than to winning re-election,” Jacobs said in a telephone interview from Minneapolis.
Dayton is the right leader for Minnesota now, said Connie Lewis, a friend who managed his 1982 campaign.
“It’s a very kind of defining moment for our state, and I honestly think people are glad that they have a leader like him that they know,” Lewis, 59, said in a telephone interview from St. Paul.
Dayton chose public service over a life of leisure, said Jim Gellman, who has periodically worked with Dayton as an aide and deputy since 1981. Dayton’s father, Bruce, a former chairman of Dayton Hudson Corp., instilled in his eldest son the quote from the Bible, “to whomsoever much has been given, of him shall much be required,” Gellman said.
Dayton was raised in a house in the Minneapolis suburb of Long Lake, where his father still lives, according to the governor’s website. Dayton’s great-grandfather, George, founded the Dayton Dry Goods Corp. in Minneapolis in 1902 that merged with The J.L. Hudson Co. in 1969 and changed its name to Target Corp. in 2000.
After graduating from Yale University with a psychology degree in 1969, Dayton taught ninth-grade science for two years in a New York City public school before joining the Washington staff of former Democratic Minnesota U.S. Senator Walter Mondale in 1975. Dayton lost his first bid for public office in 1982 against Durenberger, served a term as state auditor and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998 before winning his U.S. Senate bid in 2000.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who worked with Dayton on the Agriculture Committee, credits him for giving agriculture “a foothold in the renewable-energy industry” by championing befouls. Still, Dayton was in the minority, and complained about not being able to get much done.
“Mark tended to hold the line for working people when the other side was trying to put insurance companies in charge of Medicare and turn Social Security over to Wall Street, so it was harder to find common ground on some of the things that he cared most about,” Harkin said in an e-mail provided by his office.
Time Magazine labeled Dayton “the blunderer” as one of the five worst senators in an April 2006 story that criticized him for the office closure, an insult to neighboring South Dakota and a tendency to push doomed bills. Speaking that month at a high school, Dayton gave himself an “F” for his performance, according to a story in the West Central Tribune.
The job was a poor fit, and Dayton felt he would be more effective as governor, said Gellman, 53, who ran his Minnesota offices and now is deputy secretary of state.
Friends describe him as reserved. As Gellman put it: “Given his introverted nature, he’s probably in the wrong profession.”
Dayton, the twice-divorced father of two grown sons, has been open about bouts with alcoholism and depression, and voters elected him governor because they know him, Gellman said.
“He was a known commodity, and I think they trusted him as a person, they trusted him as a leader,” said Borman, the bank owner and supporter.
In Dayton's Feb. 9 State of the State speech, he recited economic indicators, including real median income falling by 9 percent from 1999 to 2008 and 10 school districts adopting four-day weeks for lack of money.
“To progress, we have to invest,” the governor said, according to prepared remarks.
Dayton campaigned on raising taxes and has pursued that agenda as Republicans nationwide have made an article of faith of cutting them, said Jacobs of the University of Minnesota.
“For liberal Democrats frustrated that Barack Obama is not more stalwart and aggressive in promoting a progressive agenda, Mark Dayton is the antidote,” Jacobs said.
Still, after declining to seek re-election in posts when he was unable to achieve his goals, Dayton finds himself in another frustrating situation, Steven Schier, a political-science professor at Carleton College, said in a telephone interview from Northfield.
“His career is one of trying to make a big policy impact but being repeatedly frustrated in the attempt to do so, and this is the latest example of that,” Schier said.
Mark Dayton at a glance:
- Born: Minneapolis, Jan. 26, 1947 (Age 64), raised in Long Lake
- Party: Democratic-Farmer-Labor
- Family: Divorced; children, Eric, 30, and Andrew, 27
- Education: Yale University
- Career: New York City public school teacher, 1969-1971; legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Walter Mondale, 1975; Minnesota commissioner of economic development, 1978; Minnesota commissioner of energy, 1983-1986; Minnesota state auditor, 1991-1995; U.S. senator, 2001-2007; governor, 2011-present
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