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Mark Dayton: No one can guarantee sobriety

Mark Dayton
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Mark Dayton: "Anyone involved in recovery knows that no one, regardless of length of sobriety, can guarantee its permanent continuation."

Mark Dayton acknowledges that there is no way to reassure the voters of Minnesota that he will not suffer another relapse in his alcoholism. Dayton recently disclosed that one such slip occurred toward the end of his U.S. Senate term. He asks that voters think about the question in the full context of his long career in public service and the long duration of his sobriety before the lapse.

In an email exchange on the subject, Dayton wrote: “Anyone involved in recovery knows that no one, regardless of length of sobriety, can guarantee its permanent continuation.”

I’ll publish his full response at the bottom of this post.

As you probably know, in late December, Dayton — who had acknowledged years earlier that he is a recovering alcoholic who had been through treatment at the Betty Ford Center in 1987 — disclosed that he has suffered from depression during his entire adulthood and has controlled that condition with medication since 1993. He also revealed that he had suffered a relapse from his recovery from alcoholism during the latter part of his term in the U.S. Senate.

I was away and MinnPost was on hiatus the week the news broke. As I’ve caught up, I’ve been struck by the fact Dayton seemingly wasn’t being asked this reasonable question: If you lapsed from sobriety under the stress of your Senate term, how should voters think about the possibility that you might slip again as governor?

So I put the question to Dayton and he graciously answered (full response below), although he did so without disclosing any new details about his relapse (how long it lasted, how much he drank, whether it was brought about any particular circumstances) that might help voters think through the chances that, under the likely stresses that the next governor will face, Dayton’s alcoholism might create problems.

Dayton still declines to provide any details about the nature or duration of his episode of drinking, although he called it “brief” and said it had no impact on any senatorial decisions he made. I pressed on a second email exchange, not for gory details but for information that a concerned voter might reasonably want to know. Dayton demurred, saying he has concluded “that no matter how much I disclose, there will always be some who want to know more, and who will criticize my supposed ‘unwillingness’ to satisfy them.” I’ll append that in full context below as well.

It’s worth acknowledging that no candidate for governor can give an ironclad guarantee that he or she will remain healthy and fully able for the length of a four-year term. But on the other hand, if a candidate had been treated for cancer, gone into remission, then had a recurrence of the cancer, it would not be unreasonable for voters to consider the question of the candidate’s future health.

Here is the full text of Dayton’s reply to my email:

“Your question is one that Minnesotans will be assessing in the months ahead, as they consider me for their Governor.  Anyone involved in recovery knows that no one, regardless of length of sobriety, can guarantee its permanent continuation.  I went through treatment in January 1987.  My overall record in my recovery has been a very strong one.  I’m not perfect, as I indicated with my disclosure.  Since then, I faced my problem directly again by spending a week at Hazelton’s Renewal Center in February 2007, almost three years ago.  I have not had an issue with alcohol thereafter.

"I hope that Minnesotans will consider my personal disclosures in the context of my 34 years of dedicated public service to our state and my candor about my personal conditions, which many other leaders have faced and led with successfully.  In the coming months, voters will have many opportunities to see me, listen to me, and assess my performance during the demands of a very competitive statewide campaign.   After that, they will decide about me, in comparison with the other candidates, as is prerogative in a democracy.  I gladly submit myself to, and will accept, their decision. 

"Best regards — Mark”

 And here is what Dayton said on the second round about his unwillingness to provide a fuller description of his bout of drinking:

“What I have said, Eric, is that I slipped briefly in my recovery, late in my Senate term and after I had made the decision not to seek re-election.  I have said that it did not affect any decisions I made, while I was in the Senate.  I believe that further details are rightfully private.

"I have disclosed far more about my personal life and its challenges than most other public figures.  I have done so upon my own initiative, because I believe people have the right to know about those matters, as they consider me for Governor.

"I have learned again in the past week that no matter how much I disclose, there will always be some who want to know more, and who will criticize my supposed 'unwillingness' to satisfy them.  I believe that decision should ultimately be made by the people of Minnesota in the primary and general elections.   My best regards — Mark”

What think?

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Comments (39)

The problem for Mark Dayton is that at certain times during his political career, his behavior has been widely characterized as "erratic". That has always been a serious and legitimate concern with Mark Dayton.

Under almost any other circumstances for almost any other job, I would agree that in the scheme of things this is a relatively small matter and wouldn't automatically eliminate him.

However, we're choosing a person to lead a state of four million people - a governor is one of the most powerful people in the country. With a whole host of other highly-qualified candidates, what is in it for us as voters to choose a self-admitted alcoholic whose behavior is historically erratic? We can afford to be picky. Why does he think anyone in their right mind would choose him?

Dayton's real problem is that he is much too honest for a politician.
Any guesses about how many Senators have abused alcohol (and other legal drugs)?

Hiram--
The main basis for Dayton's being 'erratic' is that he took a Security warning seriously.
Naive maybe, but not erratic. Erratic is flip-flopping on the issues (see Lieberman; McCain, et.al.).

If a potential voter would take a serious rational look at Mark Dayton's entire career -- including what he tried to accomplish in the Senate (and failed only because the GOP ruled at that time) -- his behavior would be characterized as anything but "erratic".

Even though I disagreed with almost everything George W Bush did and said, I would not have racked his behavior up to the fact that he was an alcoholic. Alcoholism does not disqualify someone from serving in public office.

Good reporting to follow up on what Dayton's lapse may mean for his decisionmaking capacity as a future governor: it's unusual to see these personal issues taken to the level of scrutinizing implications for job performance.

On the other hand, this whole thing feels like Dayton trying to explain away an uncomfortable part of his personal history, and in doing so, he is blaming his condition, not truly taking responsibility for his action. In 2001, I admired him for making a tough decision and standing by it. Now, it feels like waffling. He is serving the public whether or not he is using and that's issue, not part of the calculations of whether or not he deserves support in his current campaign.

I think Senator Dayton represents today's Democrat party as successfully as any other contemporary Democrat has or could.

"The main basis for Dayton's being 'erratic' is that he took a Security warning seriously."

That's a big one and obviously a politically disastrous one, and powerfully suggestive that his personal problems were interfering with his judgment. But Dayton has always been a difficult and somewhat self absorbed politician to deal with.

Dayton has disclosed his situation and it's up to voters to respond. While I'm not always satisfied with his performance in office, I have been very impressed with his honesty and his ongoing desire to rise above his personal limitations and difficulties and serve others and the public good. His will to rise above self and to serve others is most likely a key element AND the best indicator of his recovery and health. I'm not sure I would vote for him, but I do like and respect him.

I think (and hope) Minnesota voters tend to respond well to politicians who show sincerity and honesty -- at least I think we're more prone to this than other states. And this is quite a nice piece of sincerity on Dayton's part.

Although I'd be happy to read from anyone who disagrees with my hypothesis.

I feel quite sure that Mr. Dayton’s career as a statewide public officeholder is over, even without columns like this one.

I hope he will find another role in public service. He has a great deal to contribute.

What I'd expect and want to hear about the subject at hand is that he is connected to a program of recovery, that he has a group of people in recovery to whom he is accountable, that he has become willing to help others who identify with the same disease, that he is committed to avoiding a drink today, and that he knows he relies upon a power greater than himself. Absent that, chances are pretty good that he will drink again.

Here's the situation. Mark Dayton is a recovering alcoholic, by his own admission. He has informed the public that he had a lapse. I suspect his full disclosure at this juncture may have been precipitated by word that he was going to be "outed" for this. It is likely that the pressure came from Democratic operatives who are absolutely ruthless, but that's another story for another time. And yes, Democrats have a few of those, too.

Right, wrong or otherwise (and I lean strongly toward "wrong"), Dayton's enemies in and out of the Democratic Party have, with great malice, planted seeds of doubt in the minds of potential voters. And be assured they will nurture doubt at every possible opportunity so that it flourishes like kudzu. It's what they do.

Mark Dayton is a fully human being who has become the target of politics of personal destruction. I find it appalling.

Do we have a right to know the truth about our elected officials? Yes, we do. But I will tell you that I am far more concerned about the politicians whose private lives and backroom deals are monumentally more destructive than Dayton's, and they continue to run amok among us.

Perception is reality, we are told. Political hacks are top-drawer at playing to that truth. They are masters at manipulating perception. Political candidacy is not a venue for the faint of heart, as we all are learning.

Meaning no disprespect, but I would love to see Jim Ramstad speak out on this issue. It is time to smack down stereotypes and hacks, and bring an informed perspective to the whole matter of alcoholism. Especially alcoholism among those who are brave enough to confront it, speak of it and take it on.

Is Mark Dayton toast? Maybe. Maybe not. Just be aware that there is malicious intent in this onslought that masquerades as protecting the public.

Full disclosure: I am not an alcoholic and also I have made no decision about whom I will support in the governor race, though it will absolutely be someone from the DFL side.

Why are we so concerned with electing people that are nothing like us? There seems to be this perception that the majority of us are pure spirits that go about our days without a single misstep. Alcoholism is a serious personal issue, but if we seek out persons that have no personal faults, then we will likely find those that are good at hiding the truth.

I would venture to guess that all of us have something in ourselves that could be politically damaging.

I would rather have an honest elected official who notes that he may be imperfect rather than the typical hyper-conservative who suffers from Dunning–Kruger effect, somehow thinking they are competent when they clearly aren't. Like Gov. Pawlenty.. See the link.

Hiram Foster at #7 said: ""The main basis for Dayton's being 'erratic' is that he took a Security warning seriously."

That's a big one and obviously a politically disastrous one, and powerfully suggestive that his personal problems were interfering with his judgment. But Dayton has always been a difficult and somewhat self absorbed politician to deal with."

So, the logical conclusion from your comment would be that since taking a security warning seriously was disastrous, that he should have known that the security warning itself was BS and everyone knew it, and if he had any sense, he would have ignored it.

I remember thinking at the time that his was a smart move, it subtly showed that the people making the warnings were not serious, and that the whole system was a fraud. Unfortunately, it was too subtle for most. He should have made more noise about it.

Re Barbara Miller's hope that Jim Ramstad would speak out on this (Comment #12), the Star Tribune printed this letter today:

DAYTON'S CONFESSION
Minnesotans shouldn't hold it against him

While I do not plan to vote for Mark Dayton for governor, I do admire his recent public disclosure concerning his relapse inthe disease of chemical addiction (Opinion Exchange, Dec. 27). Mark's admission shows he is back on the road to recovery, as absolute honesty is requisite to recovery from addiction.

Like many other diseases, relapses for people with chemical dependency are not uncommon. In fact, the relapse rate for addiction is approximately the same as for diabetes and hypertension.

As a grateful recovering alcoholic of more than 28 years, I know firsthand that the people of Minnesota are intelligent, fair-minded and compassionate and that they will judge candidate Dayton on his record. His relapse and public disclosure should not disqualify him from serving in public office.

JIM RAMSTAD, WAYZATA

It's just the governor job, people, not like he's going to get behind the wheel of a school bus.

Thanks, Susan!! I so hoped he'd do just that! It is a measure of my current news preference that I go to MinnPost first and generally don't get to Strib until much later in the day, if at all. Sad, really. But there you have it. Rhetorical.

I think its commendable that Mr Dayton has been open with voters regarding his history of substance abuse. I think that the reactions we're seeing are a good explanation of why that kind of honesty is rare.

Like former Rep Ramstad (thanks for the post Susan), I think there are other reasons not to vote for former Sen Dayton.

On Tom Hauser's Sunday morning show this past Sunday, Annette Meeks dragged out the old lie about Dayton closing his office, implying that it was done out of fear for his life.

She should remember that the Senate was closed that week and that Dayton and all the other Senators were in their home states. When the security warning came, Dayton was the ONLY senator to close his office, which he did out of fear for the safety of his staff.

The right-wing spin of Dayton-as-coward has followed ever since, making something "true" by repeating it as many times as necessary to make it "common knowledge."

"So, the logical conclusion from your comment would be that since taking a security warning seriously was disastrous, that he should have known that the security warning itself was BS and everyone knew it, and if he had any sense, he would have ignored it."

Well, yes.

Leave him alone. Good grief. I'll bet half of us took drugs back in the 1960's. My drug of choice in 1968 was LSD. I never took anything at all after 1970. Look at Mark's record instead. He was a good senator who had to deal with a Republican Senate. He had to deal with 911 and with the death of one of his best friends, Paul Wellstone. I think many of us would have crumbled after all that. Mark's obviously a very strong person. He's also honest. How many honest politicians do you know? He's really sincere about wanting to make Minnesota better for everyone. Why should he have to tell us all the details of his medical issue, which should only be between him and his doctor and maybe his family if he chooses to tell them. Are we all reporters/fans for the National Enquirer? Just leave him alone. Just vote for him, since he would very well be the best governor that Minnesota has ever had.

A lot of us knew Paul Wellstone, and a lot of us went through hard times on September 11th. Some of us crumbled, some of us didn't.

What do I think? I think it is refreshing to have an honest candidate willing to tell us as much as he has.
How nice it would be to have a Governor who wouldn't play political games with us and just be willing to work for the good of the State.

I'm sick of this blathering on and on about Mark Dayton's drinking. It is getting to me so much that I may be driven to drink myself.

T u r n t h e p a g e !

I believe that the comment from Congressman Ramsted puts things into perspective. I admire Senator Dayton's honesty and wish him well.

"Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don't want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone."
Miller Williams

There have been many effective public servants who have done good things while in recovery. Maybe even a few that did good while using. Mark's right. There are no guarantees.

Set that issue aside. Judge him on on his record and what he says he wants to do, just the same as you would any of the other fine candidates who may well have problems they have not told us about. Seems pretty simple to me...

Rebecca has the right idea: move along. Public figures affiliated with both major parties have their foibles.

If this is one of the new "litmus tests," we would have blank ballots in November.

When I first saw this article, I thought the headline read, “No one can guarantee safety.” A timely thought in light of the latest airport scares. We can do our best to plan, we can carry out the plan to the best of our ability, and we must do our best to be resilient when a force beyond our control upends that plan. Addiction can be that force beyond our control. So can terrorism. Nowadays the word “recovery” often means recovery from terrorism rather than recovery from alcohol or other drugs.

Considering where Walter Mondale’s honesty about taxes got him, I think Mark Dayton is too honest to be elected governor. But his honesty will serve him well in his recovery, which is what really matters.

If the dems were to drop Dayton over this, I believe the fallout would be much like when McGovern turned tail on Eagleton back in the day.

So Susan, are you saying you think MN should have a dishonest governor? I don't understand that. Honesty is ALWAYS the best policy. I would love to have an honest politician as governor. I used to think that was an oxymoron, but with Mark Dayton, John Marty and Paul Thissen, I can see that I was wrong.

Colleen, absolutely not. But a dishonest governor is probably what we'll end up with. Because to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, "We can't handle the truth."

Mr. Black: seems some have raised questions about whether political reporters in the Twin Cities have provided cover for Dayton for years on these issues of his. That is, veteran political reporter who knew much about Dayton's personal foibles, including the drinking and the depression, but never reported it. The implication by those who have raised the questions is that such cover was the result of bias, and that similar knowledge of a Republican's personal issues would have been reported much more much earlier.
Can you comment on this?

What think? I think that Mr. Dayton should hang up his political spurs and find a place on a lake with a view of the sunset.

He's in a no-win situation with both his depression and his sobriety (or lack thereof). Neither can be guaranteed not to resurface. The average voter is most likely to have little information on clinical depression, its causes or cures, and only slightly more about alcoholism. I know a reasonable amount about both, directly and indirectly and wouldn't be averse to voting for a gubernatorial candidate who's been forthcoming about his experiences. (I wouldn't feel the same way about a presidential candidate, because the irrational acts of a president can kill people immediately or soon thereafter.)

More important, in my opinion, is that Mr. Dayton's time has passed. His single term in the Senate was of no significance, other than to the extent it has exposed him to ridicule for one thing or another.

Fortunately, I understand there are any number of lake places on the market these days and Mr. Dayton likely has the resources to buy one.

Jim Ramstad:

"Like many other diseases, relapses for people with chemical dependency are not uncommon. In fact, the relapse rate for addiction is approximately the same as for diabetes and hypertension."

What the heck are diabetes and hypertension relapse?

Mark Dayton was not an ineffective Senator. He did a lot of good things. Time Magazine did some very ineffective reporting about him, though. The reporter was the blunderer, not Mark. Read about his Senate years here:
http://aprilknight.blogspot.com/2009/12/mark-dayton-senate-years.html

The thing that concerns me about any candidate that has some sort of skeleton in their closet is not regarding their ability to do their job as a recovering alcoholic. My concern is that they will somehow over-compensate on issues where they can "prove" just how "recovered" they are. Ramstad chiming in is example #1. He is a recovering alcoholic which adamantly supports the "war on drugs," and cites his own demons as some sort of justification for such policies. So much so that it cost him a cabinet position with the current administration. Dyaton's admission was damaging to Ramstad as well, and it is no surprise he chimed in to do damage control.

Happy New Year 2011! Some of us greet the new year without the haze of a hangover.

After a long campaign season, we have the clarity to know that we Minnesotans will have a new governor in a mere two days!

The people have chosen the candidate that has revealed that he has battled alcoholism and depression, and provided no guarantee that he is immune to relapses.

The candidate has a history of public service, including one term in the U.S. Senate. For this, he was recognized as one of the "Ten Worst," by Time Magazine. Isn't it ironic that Time cited his inclusion in this group for Senator Dayton's closing his D.C. office in response to a threat, and for supporting formation of a federal "Department of Peace?"

These actions were performed in response to concern for staffers, and requests from constituents. So isn't it amazing that the senator's actions make him a "Worst?"

[So if concern for his staff, and responsiveness to his constituents makes Mark Dayton a "worst" (as defined by Time Magazine), we may do well to have him as a "Worst Governor!"]

So why did Minnesotans choose Governor-Elect Mark Dayton to be our next governor? Perhaps his honesty stands in contrast to our outgoing incumbent governor. We defied "tradition" by not voting for the tallest candidate in the DFL Primary, and selected perhaps the oldest. At age 63, Dayton will turn 65 during his first term as governor.

This "seniority" perhaps gives us some reassurance that Mark Dayton is not intending to use the office of governor to seek a higher office, and that his decisions made in the governor's office will be in the best interests of the People of Minnesota, and not on what might foster his political profile on a national stage.

As a military veteran, I appreciate that Governor-Elect Dayton has battled alcoholism and depression, since these are also problems experienced by many Minnesota veterans. To live it is to know it, and to understand the resources required to deal with it.

Happy New Year to all Minnesotans, and to all a Good Year!