Friday, April 24, 2009 By Aaron Brown
My conversation with Mark Dayton ranged from policy, to message, to strategy and explored Iron Range and state economic issues.
For regular readers of this blog, it probably isn't a coincidence that Dayton opened the talk with a pledge to make dramatic improvements to rural high speed internet access. "I will appoint a Public Utilities Commission that will protect the public interest in rural internet," said Dayton. This could include provisions to demand universal internet access from private providers.
The bulk of the interview focused on jobs and the economy. Dayton, the former Commissioner of Economic Development under DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich, has broad experience in state economic development policy. He hearkened Perpich's famous priorities: "Jobs, jobs, jobs."
"Rudy Perpich is my model," said Dayton. "He made things happen. He would get on a plane and talk to people who could bring jobs to Minnesota."
In fact, two unique aspects of Dayton's candidacy that he promotes are that he is the only candidate to run a state agency (he ran three different agencies) and he is the only one with a long term working relationship with the last DFL governor (and Iron Range favorite son) Perpich. Economic recovery through job creation was his dominant message.
"The difference between me and the others is that this is not just rhetoric," said Dayton. "These are not just words. I believe the role of a governor is to pursue opportunity for the state. Start with the real life possibilities and go from there. I've helped put people to work and receive health benefits."
He later put his job creation approach into terms familiar to the political activists who will dominate the early caucuses.
"It's like Get Out the Vote," said Dayton. "One vote plus one vote and so on adds up. Well, one job plus one job and so on adds up too."
When asked his primary message for this campaign, Dayton joined the chorus of many DFLers:
"My plan is to change the terrible misdirection the state has taken," said Dayton. " I see Minnesota heading profoundly into the wrong direction. We're hearing about a western Minnesota school district going to four days a week. That is a canary in the coal mine. We need to increase funding for public education and return to a tax system that was part of the Minnesota Miracle (under Govs. Wendell Anderson and Perpich)."
Dayton directly addressed current budget proposals before the state legislature, saying that the DFL State Senate plan to return tax rates to 1985 levels -- amounting to a tax increase on all Minnesotans, including the lower and middle classes -- was a bad idea.
"Middle income taxpayers are already seeing tax increases from property taxes," said Dayton. "Under my plan, the wealthiest 10 percent would pay more." The goal, said Dayton, is to restore a progressive tax distribution that includes state and local taxes in the equation to ensure relative equity.
On health care, Dayton joins the common DFL cause of universal coverage. His initial strategy would be to explore the viability off single payer coverage by pooling state plans together to bring down costs and helping uninsured people buy into that plan.
"The (current) health care system is terribly flawed," said Dayton. "Profits are more important than people and denying care is more important than providing it."
Dayton suggests one bargaining unit for the state health plan. By doing so, he predicts that patient costs will be reduced. By combining what people already contribute to their private insurance plans and the state taxpayer contribution to health care, he believes some form of a single payer system could become viable over time.
Dayton's most difficult hurdle in this race might be to address concerns over how he left the Senate after just one term. For many, Dayton is best known for temporarily shutting down his Senate office amid concerns about terrorist threats in October of 2004, attracting criticism from some quarters. Later, citing frustrations with the office and serving in the minority, he would announce that he wouldn't seek re-election. Dayton did not shy from discussing the matter.
"I acted to protect my staff," said Dayton. "The intelligence I saw made 9/11 pale in comparison. The likelihood of an attack against Washington was heightened. I didn't communicate my decision as well as I should have, but we senators were leaving for the recess anyway and it would have been immoral and unethical to leave the staff members there unaware of the threat."
Dayton pointed out that other public officials have recently made decisions to evacuate amid threats of natural disasters when those disasters would later not manifest as predicted.
"Everyone else played Russian Roulette with the lives of their staff members," said Dayton. "I'm willing to stand alone in a decision and accept criticism later."
On his prospects in this election, Dayton claims some advantages. He's won five of seven statewide elections (including primaries) when no other current governor candidates have won any.
"I'm going to build a broad base of support," said Dayton. "This is a big state ... I always campaign on what I believe in, what I hear from the people and then come to believe."
Dayton is running in the primary and will not aggressively seek the DFL endorsement, though he does ask for the support of DFL activists.
"I believe in a democracy," said Dayton. "The people should decide and the party leadership should make a recommendation. We should direct our criticism at Gov. Pawlenty or his would-be successor."
Dayton concluded the talk with some details about his spending priorities (education and transportation). He suggested using extended federal bonding to modernize the state's transportation system (which would include the completion of four lanes on the cross-Range expressway Highway 169, a pet issue of this blog).
"Insufficiency (in transportation infrastructure) breeds resentment across the state," said Dayton.
Ultimately, Dayton suggested that Minnesota needs to do more than close the current budget gap.
"When your car is running out of gas it seems OK at first -- 55, 50, 45 mph -- but then it stops," said Dayton. "...We need to get caught up with where we should be. We need to become an attractive place for economic growth, especially in greater Minnesota because we are jeopardizing our future otherwise."
Don't rule out Mark Dayton. My initial impression of the Dayton candidacy was that he was a boring candidate who would struggle to explain why he only served one term in the Senate before bowing out. It's true that Dayton is not Barack Obama or Bill Clinton on the stump. Almost anyone who's seen Dayton campaign would agree. But that's the thing. Almost all DFL activists (and primary voters) have seen Dayton in action over his long career in Minnesota politics. While many may criticize his style, few criticize his motives or competence. And from my vantage point Dayton seems comfortable with who he is. (He dresses exactly like me -- rumpled khakis and button shirts -- so I might be biased).
A friend of mine recently commented to me that Dayton treats his elected offices like "Christmas toys," leaving them when he becomes bored (he also served one term as State Auditor). Dayton may have become disillusioned with the Senate and Auditor's seats, but it could be argued that his experience has always been far more suited for the office of Governor. As an economic development and energy commissioner, Dayton has far more experience with the minutia of state government than the other announced candidates. While that's not the only important aspect of being governor, it is vital.
Dayton's biggest "strike" in my book was the widely publicized and panned decision to close his Senate office in 2004 amid terror threats. In our talk, he not only addressed this matter but stuck with his decision. You could argue that this is his only option but it jives with what I've heard from two other people I know who have worked for Mark Dayton -- he takes care of his staff. That's a character thing. If he explains the issue correctly he can turn this big negative into a big positive.
Fact is there might be a half dozen people in the primary, just like 1998. Dayton is a well-known, widely respected former Senator. Most people know him as a policy guy, not a campaign guy, but if there is no clear frontrunner or if the endorsement battle is contentious or yields an unpopular or unknown candidate, who knows? I can easily imagine a scenario where Dayton uses a well financed campaign, name recognition and basic geniality to coast around a contested primary field. I don't think he's the favorite -- not yet -- but he is in the running and could find himself the last candidate standing under the right circumstances. Ultimately, like many candidates in the field right now, he could do the job well.
For more information check out Dayton's website and his biography.