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‘I’m here to listen’: A Q&A with Gov. Mark Dayton

The governor explains how talking to voters at the State Fair suits his campaign style.

Gov. Mark Dayton: "People want a chance to be heard and be recognized for their concerns. I spend most of my time listening."
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

The Minnesota State Fair and the governor of the state of Minnesota form a match made in heaven. Fairgoers want to see and be seen with the leader of their state. And even a reticent campaigner like Gov. Mark Dayton has a contact with voters that’s assured to be welcoming.

In an interview early Friday morning, Dayton downplayed his drawing power. He was on his way to the DFL Party booth and suggested that, given the hour, there would few people there to greet him. He was wrong. The instant he appeared, a line of people two-dozen deep materialized. They talked, he listened, and then he explained to me how those interactions suited his campaign style.

How do you work the State Fair?
I’ve been coming to the Fair since I was probably six or seven years old. I loved the Fair as a civilian and I’ve done every campaign here. It’s part of the tradition. I stay at the DFL booth. I like the DFL booth because people choose if they want to come and encounter me. It’s not like the some of the county fairs or other events where you’re interrupting other people’s activities and space.

How do you connect with people?
I’m listening to people. They tend to be mostly DFLers, so I don’t get exactly a random sampling of the fair population. Usually people have something they want to say. So I listen. I’m here to listen to people. I certainly engage in the conversation but most of all — it’s true on the campaign trail, it’s true in serving in public office — people want a chance to be heard and be recognized for their concerns. I spend most of my time listening.

Have people brought up specific issues?
The conversations tend to be fairly brief, but education, very much so. All day kindergarten, a number of parents of children entering kindergarten are very appreciative of all day kindergarten. The economy in general, but most of the conversations are brief and not delving into major issues.

Have you learned anything at the Fair that may affect your campaign style?
I think there’s a sense of people that the state’s improving. And so that’s very reaffirming. And that people, they’re not confident in the future, they’re somewhat uncertain about the future. So there’s that balance between speaking of what has been improving, which I hope people will remember, and acknowledging that we have a long ways to go and a lot more work still to do. This really calibrates that sense of things.

What are some of the stranger or kinder comments you’ve heard?
One guy told me — paraphrasing here — that I was a vile human being and he would never vote for me in his entire life. … “Ungodly,” that was the word he used. “You’re ungodly. You’re an ungodly person and I’ll never vote for you.”  I’ve learned not to swallow those kinds of barbs, but it’s not something I particularly enjoy.

Dayton hesitated when asked to recall a nice comment. Later, at the DFL booth, he had one. Beaming, he said, “Here is the best comment I’ve heard at the Fair.”

Dayton was talking with Dean Sorby, a fairgoer who wanted to shake his hand and thank him. Sorby’s comment: “MnSure saved our lives.”