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Mark Dayton’s turnaround: How can a ‘failing’ senator seem to have the makings of a star governor?

Politicos and pundits offer their theories, and former Gov. Arne Carlson flatly declares: “In my lifetime, I’ve never seen a governor get off to a better start.”

"This seems to be the job [Mark Dayton]'s always wanted," said Carleton political science professor Steve Schier.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
“This seems to be the job [Mark Dayton]’s always wanted,” said Carleton political science professor Steve Schier.

With the Passover/Easter break ending and legislators returning to the Capitol, we’ll now get our best view yet of the sort of governor Mark Dayton will be.

To date, Dayton has surprised nearly everyone, except perhaps his closest supporters, with his professionalism, his openness, even his humor.

“In my lifetime, I’ve never seen a governor get off to a better start,” said former Gov. Arne Carlson. “He’s earnest, focused, on message. Just a great start in the way he’s handled every situation.”

Surprised?

“Yes,” Carlson admitted. “But I shouldn’t be. I’ve always known he’s smart and hard-working. He’s found himself where he belongs.”

Gov. Mark Dayton. It all seemed so inconceivable just a few months ago. After spending millions of his own money to win election to the U.S. Senate in 2000, he had stumbled out of Washington six years later, calling himself a failure.

Four years later, he defeated Margaret Anderson Kelliher by a percentage point in the DFL primary and Tom Emmer by far less than that in the general election, and suddenly he was governor who appears to be excelling.

How can this be? How can a bumbling senator seem to have the makings of a star governor?

The job he always wanted?
“This seems to be the job he’s always wanted,” said Carleton political science professor Steve Schier. “He shows a zest and focus lacking from his previous officeholding.”

The huge problem Dayton inherited — the staggering deficit — has only served to lift him, Schier said.

“I think the magnitude of the state’s problems adds fuel to his fire,” the prof said.

His success also shows that although U.S. Senate campaigns and gubernatorial campaigns are similar — vast amounts of money spent for glitzy television ads, speeches filled with promises, smiles and waves in every parade in the state — the two jobs are hugely different.

Governors are THE executive. Senators, most of whom have massive egos, must work within the group to accomplish anything.

“Show horses,” said Carlson, disgustedly, of most U.S. senators. “If we’re ever to get real accomplishment, real reforms from Washington, it won’t be because of the show horses. It will be because of the work horses. Work horses aren’t spending all their time running for president.”

Arne Carlson
Arne Carlson

Former Sen. Norm Coleman takes a more charitable view of the U.S. Senate than Carlson. As a former mayor of St. Paul, he also has a unique understanding of the differences between being a chief executive and a senator. Ultimately, he says the differences aren’t that great — and that’s why it’s too soon to make any judgments of Dayton as governor.

“The main similarity is that you have to have the ability to work with different groups of people,” Coleman said. “As mayor, I had to be able to count the votes on the City Council if we were going to get things done. You have to be able to find common ground. When we were going for the Xcel Center, we had to bring together unions, the business community, Gov. Carlson and find that common ground. That’s what you’re doing in the Senate. You’re looking for common ground. We haven’t seen if he has the ability to do that as governor yet.”

Norm Coleman sees able administrator
But Coleman is not surprised that Dayton has been successful at being focused on his message and an able administrator.

Coleman said that he believes Dayton, who headed the Department of Economic Development under Gov. Rudy Perpich, always has defined himself as an administrator. And as a political candidate, Coleman said, Dayton always was able to mount highly focused campaigns.

So nothing Dayton has done so far comes as a big surprise to Coleman. The hard stuff — “finding common ground” — lies ahead.

Norm Coleman
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Norm Coleman

“Right now, I’m not judging at all,” said Coleman.

Certainly, Dayton’s not achieving perfect scores.

Republican legislators have ridiculed Dayton’s budget proposal, which calls for raising taxes on the rich. (“From another planet,” they said.) But they have also always praised the man, if not the policy.

DFLers, too, have been critical at times. His $1 billion bonding plan, calling for the Legislature to come up with half of the projects, has been a giant dud.

“He should have laid out his vision,” said Rep. Alice Hausman of what she believes has been a lost opportunity for bonding and jobs.

Environmentalists have been critical of the governor’s willingness to work with Republicans in streamlining some environmental regulations.

But Dayton has expressed that willingness to compromise from the moment he became governor. Over and over again, he’s said that Minnesotans sent a “bifurcated message” on Election Day. Neither he nor the Republican-controlled legislature will get what they want, Dayton has said.

“I was so impressed when he said, ‘We’ll have to meet at the 50-yard line,’ ” said Carlson. “He comes across as so mature in that regard. So earnest.”

No one is surprised about Dayton’s earnestness. Born into wealth, he’s always earnestly believed that he owes a great deal to those not so blessed. His political career often has seemed to be an expensive effort to assuage the guilt he carries for having been born rich.

Overlooked political and personal skills
But what has been surprising so far are political and personal skills most of us overlooked in the past.

For those of us who always thought of Dayton as stiff and distant, there’s Mingo, the German shepherd pup that has its own Facebook page. What can be more human than a man and his puppy?  

For those of us who thought Dayton couldn’t be quick on his feet, there was that stunning moment just two days after he took office. To the surprise of all, the governor’s reception room at the Capitol was filled with protesters who didn’t want the governor to sign an executive order moving Minnesota into a federal Medicaid program. Dayton diffused the tension in the room by allowing protesters to share the microphone with supporters of the move. All Minnesotans, he explained, have a voice “in the people’s house.”

For those who thought we wouldn’t see the introverted Dayton much after he assumed office, there’s been a flood of appearances and roundtable discussions. He’s everywhere, listening intently and taking notes. He often brings a commissioner or two with him.

Improbable as it seems, this mixing with everyday Minnesotans is the part of the job he likes best. Typically, much to the consternation of his aides, he often stays long after the scheduled time, shaking hands and listening.

This is “the zest” Schier, the college prof, was speaking of.

“He probably views this as his final legacy role in Minnesota’s public affairs,” Schier said, “and as a result, is more engaged, more active and more energetic than in the past.”

Obvious problems lie ahead. For all his talk of willingness to compromise, the Republican-controlled Legislature has repeatedly said, “No new taxes,” in the most uncompromising of terms. It’s hard to hear even the hint of a breakthrough in their rhetoric.

But Dayton also has a number of things on his side.

He has no future political ambitions. This is not a stepping stone office.

He has no real political debts, even to his own party. Remember, this is the man who didn’t seek endorsement; who wasn’t even allowed on the party’s convention floor. Unlike his predecessor, there are no political promises — such as “no new taxes” — hanging like an albatross from his neck.

He’s used to going it alone.

A hockey goalie’s perspective?
Allow a personal theory here: Dayton is enjoying more success as a governor than he had as a senator because in his hockey days, he was a goalie, never particularly comfortable playing with others, particularly those flashy-skating centers.

I bounced this theory off former Gopher and North Star hockey coach Glen Sonmor, who was both mystified and intrigued.

“Goalies are a different breed of people,” he acknowledged. “Think about it. They sit back there all alone while others pepper shots at them. You let in one of those shots, and it’s all your fault, even if it really isn’t. It’s not at all unusual for goalies to be loners who sort of go off by themselves.”

In fairness, Somnor didn’t know if the U.S. Senate has a large number of flashy centers and a paucity of goalies. Nor did he know if goalies would always make good governors.

“There are a lot of goalies who can be pretty erratic people,” he said.

And now that the legislative break is over, the pucks will start flying at Dayton faster than before.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.