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

"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.”


“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.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Patrick Wells on 04/25/2011 - 06:08 am.

    Mark Dayton is a great governor in the making. Kudos to Arnie Carlson for his bipartisan support.

  2. Submitted by Eric Larson on 04/25/2011 - 08:11 am.

    Dear Doug-

    I can honestly say I agree with sooo little of anything you write or speak of. But I do read. I call it good blood pressure excercise. Today’s offering brought a big smile. Going to Glen Sonmor to help make a point for a political article!……What pure joy it is to be a Minnesotan!! It’s days like this, that I think the internet did wonderous things to the printed news industry. That might have been hard to sneak past an editor in the old days. Keep up your journalism.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/25/2011 - 08:50 am.

    Part of it is just the contrast with Gov. Pawlenty, who was just such a bad governor, and one who openly displayed his contempt for the political process, and really for legislators and politicians of both parties. As one who has been known to lurk in the capitol’s shadows, and who admittedly is a devoted DFLer, the mood I sense on all sides with respect to the governor is relief, that the absentee negativism that characterized the Pawlenty administration is finally gone.

  4. Submitted by Andrew Richner on 04/25/2011 - 10:16 am.

    I guess when you don’t have anything thoughtful to add you can always just attack the governor for seeking treatment for depression or attack the columnist for going a little on a limb in the last couple paragraphs.

    It seems the governor’s biggest test will be whether he can get the Republicans in the legislature to back down off the ledge on the all cuts budget.

  5. Submitted by John Edwards on 04/25/2011 - 11:13 am.

    The laudatory article might be just a bit premature. Dayton has been in office about four months. The big issue of the budget is far from resolved. I think what excites liberals like Doug Grow and Arne Carlson is that the governor has not yet gone off a deep end. The test would be if Grow can write the same column in 2012.

  6. Submitted by Jim Roth on 04/25/2011 - 11:16 am.

    Good article. Like everyone, Governor Dayton has pluses and minuses. I personally am not too critical of his record as a Senator in the minority during the Bush/Cheney years, which I view as a very negative time in many ways. And he has been very candid about his personal problems during those years unlike most politicians. So far, as Governor, he is a breath of fresh air and seems to be energized and revitalized in this role. More power to him. And, I have not been reluctant to express my admiration for former Governor Arne Carlson who I greatly respect. I think his views on Governor Dayton (and on former governor Pawlenty which is a totally different story) are worth listening to. Nice story overall.

  7. Submitted by Becky Schultz on 04/25/2011 - 11:25 am.

    Gov. Dayton has brought true Minnesota spirit back into politics– he’s honest, selfless and more interested in others than in his own ambition. He gives me hope for our political process, and makes be very proud to be a Minnesotan.

  8. Submitted by Jean Schiebel on 04/25/2011 - 11:30 am.

    Pawlenty had the opposite problem..he wanted to be Senator and gotthe call from Her Cheney asking him not to run, they wanted their golden boy, so he went for a job he didn’t really want..then proved it, by doing the worst job possible.
    Worst Governor ever, makes Jessie look good.
    Now he wants to be President ?

    Mark Dayton loves his state, and the people, he only wants what is best for them..I am so proud of him and I think he will make everyone else proud too.

  9. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 04/25/2011 - 11:48 am.

    Whatever the psychological reasons, Mark Dayton is turning out to be a joy and a blessing as Minnesota’s governor. I am very glad we have him.

  10. Submitted by Alicia DeMatteo on 04/25/2011 - 12:34 pm.

    After seeing Dayton’s performance in the Senate, I was a bit skeptical as to how he’d handle the governor’s office. While I’d say I align with Dayton on policy issues about 85% of the time, there’s much more to a politician (especially a head of state) than casting a vote or signing/vetoing bills. It really does feel like Dayton has finally found his calling in politics and is enjoying his role.

  11. Submitted by Bryan Dohla on 04/25/2011 - 12:39 pm.

    It’s way to early to judge Dayton on his performance. Didn’t we learn our lesson from judging performance based on very little accomplishments from the Obama administration?

    Dayton is keeping his mouth shut on a lot of issues which is smart. It creates a much better political environment for compromise because you aren’t backed into a corner right out of the gate. This is something Pawlenty abandoned quite quickly when he first became governor and it proved to be a political liability (amongst other things).

    Abandon ideology. Use facts. Ignore party cheerleaders. Honestly understand the criticisms to your policy. Everything will work out just fine.

  12. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 04/25/2011 - 01:53 pm.

    “Off to the best start in my lifetime” – it has to be because of such low expectations because as some previous posts have said – he hasn’t had to do anything yet. We’ll see if he’s a great leader if he’s able to get legislators to support ideas they otherwise would not.

  13. Submitted by Debra Hoffman on 04/25/2011 - 04:30 pm.

    I was listening to Governor Dayton being interviewed on MPR this morning and I was very impressed with one of his answers to a question concerning his budget proposal. Kerri Miller asked him if, since Republicans say there is no way they will support his tax on high income earners, he has come up with alternative sources of revenue and if he would state what those sources would be. Governor Dayton said that he has put forth his proposal and it is up to the legislature to submit their proposal. He said he will not negotiate with himself. When she asked him again, he repeated his answer. A good negotiator starts out asking for more than what they hope to get and the final result will be somewhere in between the two positions. That’s just common sense and our President could learn from our Governor.

  14. Submitted by Ann Richards on 04/26/2011 - 08:19 am.

    The article didn’t mention Gov Dayton’s good appointments. He has star quality in so many of his department heads, and he gives them a lot of support and freedom for new innovation. Unlike Pawlenty, he didn’t use those positions for political payback. He has professionals with track records and expertise. I would add that Norm Coleman changed from a good working mayor to a rubber stamp Senator. Had he served longer, I don’t know that he would have found his feet. He locked himself in to being the Bush water carrier. I am sure that when he sees Dayton’s strong start, and an admiring public, he wonders what might have been.

  15. Submitted by Brad Robinson on 04/26/2011 - 09:04 am.

    It is a telling reflection of our current day politics that has people like John (#5) characterizing Arne Carlson as a liberal.

  16. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 04/28/2011 - 03:07 pm.

    The only people who said Dayton was “failing” were the hardest core Republicans and Dayton himself, who has always been hard on himself.

    In addition, being Governor is a very different job than being Senator. My guess is he looked at the butt-covering collection do-little Senators at the time and was frustrated by the pride of doing so little and taking so much credit for it.

  17. Submitted by William Pappas on 04/30/2011 - 06:39 am.

    Great point about Dayton’s indebtedness to any one special interest, he certainly isn’t. Couple that with his lack of ambition for any other job and his focus really sharpens. This is in obvious contrast to Pawlenty who structured his entire second term on running for President and Coleman, who thankfully we do not have to watch use the governor’s office as a step to higer office. Dayton’s willingness to find middleground resembles Obama’s drift to the center that has enabled some really tough but critical legislation to be passed. Hopefully he’ll get the same results.

  18. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 04/30/2011 - 04:19 pm.

    This sounds like an obituary.

    Not having the DFL in control of either the House or the Senate, Gov. Dayton controls his party far more than he would have had if it were not the case.

    But what has he done other than make some appointments at a time where budgets will be decreasing and there is no option for major projects? The Republicans seem to be controlling the agenda. And they seem to be ignoring the governor. There might be two or three constitutional amendments proposed for a vote in 2012 that won’t need his signature, either.

  19. Submitted by Jamie Henderson on 04/30/2011 - 05:53 pm.

    Good article, Mr. Grow. I am very proud of Mark Dayton and the job he’s done so far. I was also proud of his work in the Senate. I heard his constituent service in particular was excellent. And I fully supported his closing his office because of the terrorist threat (we so often wait for people to get hurt to take any corrective or defensive action — and just guess at how crucified he would have been had there been an actual terror event and some of his staff had been hurt!).

    I am afraid, though, that I’ll be disappointed when he finishes compromising with our short-sighted Republican legislators over the budget. He’s already compromised so much in his own budget proposals. It’s almost always Democrats who lose the most when politicians compromise. I’m really tired of that.

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