What prompted AFSCME union to back enigmatic Mark Dayton for governor? Electability, leader says

The leadership of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 5, is made up of hard-nosed realists.

So how was it that those leaders opted to throw their support to DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton?

After all, on paper, he would seem to be the most flawed of the current crop of candidates. As a U.S. senator, he gave himself an ‘F’ grade and left office after one term, in which he became known as the man who closed his D.C. office in the face of what he — and he alone — saw as a terrorist threat.

As a politician, he still is preaching the message of raising taxes at a time when most pols are very reluctant to make such a pledge. As a person, he is good-hearted but often seems uncomfortable in one-on-one situations.

So why did AFSCME, one of the state’s strongest unions, go with Dayton?

“We discussed the highlights and lowlights of all of the candidates,” said Eliot Seide, Local 5’s director, at a news conference today. “There are no perfect candidates.”

But Dayton?

Union says Dayton is ‘electable’
“Electable,” said Seide, who then went on to explain that the former senator has “Minnesota values” and that he supports “working women and men.”

Again understand: This decision was reached after 900 union delegates last weekend listened to all of the DFL candidates. This decision was made after the union’s executive committee spent 3½ hours talking about which candidate could win.

When the decision was made, Seide called Dayton via cell phone. During their conversation, Dayton, who was campaigning in greater Minnesota, lost connection three times with Seide.

Mark Dayton

Mark Dayton

That led to a pledge from Dayton: When he becomes governor, Dayton said laughing, any cell phone company that wants to do business in the state “will have to offer coverage throughout the state as a condition of operating in Minnesota.” People in greater Minnesota, he added, have a right to the same sort of cell coverage as people in the metro areas.

It’s a little thing, but that comment does show a Dayton strength that is often overlooked by so many of us. Despite his personal wealth, he has an empathy for everyday Minnesotans on life’s little things.

Also, despite the fact that he often has been seen as bumbling, he’s an experienced campaigner. He knows what he’ll be facing in the coming months.

Dayton defends controversial office-closing
Asked about how he’ll explain closing his office in October 2004 because of what he believed were terrorist threats, Dayton didn’t flinch.

“I didn’t explain myself well,” he said. “We didn’t close our offices — we moved them.”

But why? No other senators did.

“A confidential report showed a strong likelihood of attack,” said Dayton, who went on to note that he had seen the plumes of smoke coming from the Pentagon on that awful Sept. 11 when terrorists did attack.

“I didn’t want to put my staff, the sons and daughters of Minnesotans, at risk,” he said. ” … It was a stand-alone decision that was not popular.”

But, Dayton notes, his vote against the resolution to go to war against Iraq wasn’t popular, either.

“I’ll always do what I believe is right,” he said.

In a 2006 article, Time magazine cited the office closing as one of the reasons it rated Dayton as one of the country’s five worst senators.

“Fox would rate me low,” said Dayton. “Rush Limbaugh would rate me low.”

But, in truth, he rated himself low, giving himself an “F” for his first and only Senate term that ended with him stepping aside and opening the door for Amy Klobuchar.

‘F’ grades for everyone
“What’s seldom pointed out,” though, he said, “is that I gave the whole Senate an ‘F.’ I’m a hard grader.”

As a matter of fact, he said he’d give the current Senate an ‘F’ for putting political bickering ahead of getting meaningful health care passed. And he’d also give the man he wants to replace, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, an “F.”

Dayton says he is more suited to be governor than he is a senator.

“I want to lead,” he said. “The executive branch is where you can lead.”

It is when Dayton starts talking about the economic state of Minnesota that he goes on the offensive in compelling ways. In forums across Minnesota, he is the candidate who has garnered the big cheers with his promise to “tax the rich.”

The state budget crisis is created by a revenue problem, not a spending problem, he insists wherever he goes.

He was at it again today at a news conference with his AFSCME supporters in the background. He would raise the taxes, in a progressive manner, on the top 10 percent — the most well-off Minnesotans — starting with those making $150,000 a year. The more you make over that amount, the more in state income taxes you’d pay.

He called Tim Pawlenty “the best tax shelter” the wealthy have ever had. He said that people making a lot can afford to pay more.

“I can. Tim Pawlenty can,” said Dayton.

More than $3.5 billion could be raised under his plan. That, of course, might not be enough to close the deficit, which could be as high as $7 billion in the next biennium.

He knows his message of raising taxes will be easy fodder for his Republican foes.

“They will say I’m raising taxes on everybody,” he said, “but that’s just not true.”

He is, of course, one of only a handful of candidates to pay to get his message out to the public, though he noted that his wealth isn’t what it used to be.

“I’m a Dayton’s heir,” he said, “But that [the Dayton business] no longer exists.”

But this is one Dayton that simply will not go away. He “would like” endorsement of his party, but he’ll run in a primary if he doesn’t get it.

And AFSCME said it will support Dayton whether he gets endorsement or not. That’s unusual. It is, after all, the DFL, with that ‘L’ standing for labor. Traditionally, unions support the candidate who ends up with endorsement.

In fact, the union’s leaders seem to expect that House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher will win party endorsement. But, they note, the Legislature currently has about a 17 percent approval rating with the public.

So they’re going with Dayton. He’s twice won statewide election, AFSCME leaders point out, which is something no other DFL candidate has accomplished. Dayton was elected state auditor in 1991 and was elected to the Senate in 2000.

But this should also be noted: Dayton has been a frequent loser in statewide campaigns. In 1982, he lost a Senate race, and in 1998, he finished fourth in the DFL primary for governor.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 10/26/2009 - 04:19 pm.

    Most ridiculous endorsement ever. Why the Hell is Dayton running for something again after having two shots at office and getting bored with them partway through?

    AFSCME is stupid if they think Dayton is electable.

  2. Submitted by Patrick Coleman on 10/26/2009 - 05:21 pm.

    The good news is that the union will have another chance to endorse a candidate after Dayton drops out.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/27/2009 - 06:47 am.

    I think there are only a couple of electable candidates in the race and Dayton is one of them. Entenza is electable because he is glib and has all the money in the world but he is also known for his poor political skills and lack of political discipline. As an urban DFLer, I don’t think Anderson Kelliher has a chance despite her recent turn to farmer’s daughter affectations. Thissen is very much a work in progress. And the rest are mostly vanity candidates.

    While Dayton is a likely loser, his track record, unlike Entenza’s, is of a candidate who can actually make it to election day and sometimes even get a plurality of votes.

  4. Submitted by William Hansen on 10/27/2009 - 08:40 am.

    I believe almost any of the DFL candidates can beat the strongest Republican candidate this time around, especially after Pawlenty’s unallotments come home to roost over the next year. But, it isn’t the Republican candidate that the DFL needs to worry about. It’s the Independence candidate. Pawlenty likely won twice because Penny and Hutchinson siphoned off just enough DFL votes. If the DFL doesn’t come up with a strategy to deal with the effect of an Independence candidate, history is likely to repeat itself. Maybe this is AFSCME’s unspoken agenda?

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/27/2009 - 10:02 am.

    Do you feel that any of the candidates in the race as special appeal to people who would otherwise tend to vote for the independence party candidate?

    My own sense is the the Independence Party’s strength in gubernatorial elections is due to a lack of confidence in either of the major party’s candidates ability to run things. Hence the hapless Hutchinson. I don’t see a strong business-managerial candidate in the race right now.

  6. Submitted by Colleen Morse on 10/28/2009 - 04:57 am.

    I attended the AFSCME candidate interviews and endorsement. I spoke up in favor of Mark Dayton. Why? Because I think he’s the best candidate for governor. He’s got lots of experience with state agencies. He knows how Minnesota government works. He knows how to fix the major problems that a Republican administration has left. He’s got decades of public service experience in Minnesota. And most importantly, he loves Minnesota and wants to see it bloom again. He can fix the budget deficit, education, roads and transit. I think people should quit obsessing about closing or moving his senate office. The legislative session was in recess. There was a serious anthrax threat. He was concerned about the safety of his young staff. I’m certain their parents were very grateful that he gave his staff the highest priority. My question is, why didn’t the other senators care about their staff? Mark Dayton obviously stood alone in caring for others. Also, Dayton goes out of his way to help those who are less fortunate than himself. Remember how he took the seniors to Canada to get prescription drugs? Remember how he replaced a braille computer for a blind woman? Remember when he paid for a woman’s surgery when her insurance company denied her? I think that Mark Dayton should get the DFL endorsement. He should definitely be Minnesota’s next governor.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/28/2009 - 07:53 am.

    The problem is that a governor needs political skills to make things happen. He can’t just send out an executive order saying “fix the budget deficit” or “repair the roads”. He has to patiently work with a legislature to make that happen. One upside with Mark is that he is a lot smarter than most of those legislature, but one very significant downside with Mark is that he doesn’t miss many opportunities to say it.

    People do obsess about the office closing thing. That’s because it’s a metaphor for a perceived lack of political judgment, and unfortunate quality of self absorption people see in Mark. A governor, particularly a DFL governor who will have a positive agenda to get through the legislature must be able to work well with others. Mark Dayton, in his political career, has not given many signs that he is willing to do that.

  8. Submitted by Colleen Morse on 10/28/2009 - 10:10 am.

    Be that as it may, I don’t think the way people perceive political judgement should neglect the safety of the political staff. How many lives would have been saved in 911 if the managers of the various offices in the two buildings had told their staff to get out. People just sat there wondering what was going to happen next. Haven’t 911 and Hurrican Katrina taught us anything about the safety of people? To heck with political correctness when lives may be at risk. Sometimes you make the decision to vacate and then nothing happens. Still, it’s far better to be safe than sorry.

    As far as Dayton’s ability to work with the legislatures, it should go fairly well with a predominately Democratic crowd, don’t you think? Also, I think he’s more than willing to learn to improve on any areas that might need improving, which is a lot more than you can say for the current governor. With Pawlenty it’s “my way or the highway.” He just vetos everything he doesn’t like, legislators or no legislators.

    In view of the DFL candidate lineup, I believe that Mark Dayton is the best candidate. I think that Kelliher is too young, Entenza has too much baggage from the Mike Hatch issue, and Thissen isn’t quite ready yet as far as electability. Everyone knows Dayton and everyone I talk to likes him. He’s very electable.

    Colleen Morse
    White Bear Lake, MN

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