Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton is showing just why he will be a formidable primary opponent for whichever DFLer comes out of next week’s convention with the party’s endorsement.
Dayton, who is bypassing the entire endorsement process, held a news conference Tuesday morning to talk about the need for Minnesota to re-apply for federal Race to the Top education funding. But mostly what he did was tear into Gov. Tim Pawlenty with a gusto seldom shown by DFLers in recent years. Most of the DFL candidates have been less confrontational in dealing with Pawlenty, who they see as a Teflon-coated pol.
While he was blasting Pawlenty, Dayton surely picked up friendships among members of Education Minnesota, which has been Pawlenty’s punching bag of choice. Even some DFLers have been lobbing a few shots at the teachers union this year.
The union, it should be noted, has not yet endorsed a gubernatorial candidate, a fact that certainly hasn’t escaped Dayton’s notice.
Dayton said the governor’s threats not to resubmit Minnesota’s Race to the Top bid unless the Legislature passes bills that he wants – ones that Education Minnesota opposes – show that Pawlenty “is busy running for president instead of worrying about the education of our children.”
A few hours after Dayton laid the whole Race to the Fund failure at Pawlenty’s feet, DFL legislative leaders and the governor met to discuss what needs to be done to get back into the competition for the federal cash. The tone of that meeting was dramatically different from Dayton’s tone.
“This governor doesn’t care,” Dayton said. “He’s just running for president. … To pin this [the failure of the first Race to the Top application] on teachers is irresponsible. He goes around preaching how people should be accountable. Everybody’s supposed to be accountable except himself.”
Step back a moment.
Two Mark Daytons?
Sometimes it seems there are two Mark Daytons. There is the Dayton who stumbles as a public speaker. But then, there’s the Dayton who is passionately focused. Throughout this campaign so far, the focused Dayton has been on display. You may not like his message, but it’s sure not hard to understand.
The Tuesday morning briefing was a classic example of the on-point candidate.
He came to praise teachers and bury Pawlenty, and he did both.
Minnesota failed in its first submission for Race to the Top Funding, he said, because “the New York consultants”who wrote the first application for the Department of Education, didn’t emphasize the right things about Minnesota education.
Much, for example, has been made of the state losing 11 points on the federal application because it doesn’t have an alternative licensing procedure to bring new teachers into the system. In fact, Dayton said, Minnesota does have alternative licensing processes that do allow for people with non-traditional education backgrounds to end up in the classroom. St. Paul, he noted, has 40 people from the much-praised Teach for America program in its classrooms.
“That we need a new law is the governor’s fictional claim,” Dayton said.
Instead of demanding changes in law, Pawlenty should be working with all education stakeholders, including Education Minnesota, he said.
In Pawlenty’s nearly eight years in office, Dayton said, funding to K-12 education has fallen “in real dollars” by $1,400 per pupil.
“I’ve been all over the state,” said Dayton, “and they’re laying off teachers everywhere because of drastic funding cuts. … I recognize that you teach through teachers. They have a stake in this.”
He kept ripping on the gov. Minnesota, he said, has the 11th-highest per-capital income in the country but, during the Pawlenty years, teachers’ salaries have fallen below the national average.
And he kept pounding on the theme that Minnesota must re-apply for Race to the Top funding to help make up for education funding lost in the Pawlenty years.
“Instead of courting Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the governor needs to return home and get down to the hard work that will place Minnesota’s schools back on the right track.”
While Dayton was throwing big, roundhouse punches, other candidates were doing more understated things.
Kelliher and Seifert pick up high-profile support
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, for example, landed the prestigious support of former Vice President Walter Mondale, who will be co-chair of her campaign. She also announced endorsements from two more House colleagues – Erin Murphy of St. Paul and Maria Ruud of Minnetonka.
Sen. John Marty, meanwhile, proudly was pointing out that the Duluth City Council had passed a resolution, supporting his universal health care plan.
On the Republican side of the divide, Rep. Marty Seifert also received a substantial endorsement, picking up the support of former Gov. Al Quie. It’s hard to know, though, just how important that will be to the super-conservative elements of the party that both Seifert and Rep. Tom Emmer are trying to attract in their bid for endorsement.
But it was Dayton who stood out Tuesday, as he lavished praise on teachers and, indirectly, their union. He promised that in a Dayton administration, K-12 funding would increase each year.
How would he pay for it?
“Tax the rich,” he said.
That, of course, has been his virtual slogan – and big applause line — since he entered the race. That may not be so popular a line in November, but right now, Dayton’s aiming everything he’s got at that smaller segment of the population that will vote in the August primary.
Dayton said he will stop by the DFL convention in Duluth next week “to shake hands and see old friends,” but he will play no official role.
He can’t throw the lavish party that he often throws on the Saturday night of state conventions. Those parties, where liquor, food and entertainment all are free, delight DFL delegates.
But Dayton said he checked with Minnesota Campaign Finance officials, who said he would be in violation of state law if he threw the bash this year while an active candidate.
“It would be like buying votes,” he said. “I’m sure, if they had a choice, a lot of DFLers would prefer that I’d throw the party instead of being a candidate.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.