Mark Dayton was in Rochester for a routine physical at the Mayo Clinic when his doctor noticed something was off — a test showed a high level of prostate-specific antigen in his blood, which could mean a tumor.
He quickly scheduled a biopsy, and by Friday, Jan. 20, the results were in: “It is cancer, almost certainly,” Dayton said.
There were reasons to be positive. It looked like the cancer hadn’t spread outside his prostate, and treatment options had improved dramatically over the last decade. Plenty of people faced something similar and lived to tell the tale, including Dayton’s father, Bruce, who had a successful prostate cancer surgery at Mayo Clinic 25 years before he died. Former Secretary of State John Kerry also had the surgery, Dayton added, “and he’s been flying all over the world.”
But Dayton has a high profile job too — 40th governor of the state of Minnesota — and things were busier than usual at work.
He’d spent weeks writing his seventh State of the State address, a whopping 7,024-word retrospect on his last six years as governor and his vision before he leaves the office in 2019. He was scheduled to deliver that speech in front of a joint session of the House and Senate on Monday. The next day was the deadline to present his $40 billion plan for the state’s budget over the next two years.
Dayton, a Democrat, had some big ideas in there that he knew Republicans in control of the Legislature weren’t going to like. He wanted to raise gas taxes and increase government spending to fund some of his priorities, as well as add a public health plan option to the state’s private individual insurance market, something that hadn’t been done in any other state in the nation.
What’s more, Dayton’s 70th birthday was coming up on Thursday.
State of the governor
Dayton wasn’t ready to talk about his prostate cancer with the public immediately. He wanted to wait until he had more information about his treatment options, and he had his State of the State address to focus on. Dayton writes his speeches himself, which are usually loaded with numbers and stats that take time to gather. He was working on the delivery right up until showtime.
On Monday night, Dayton entered the House floor promptly at 7 p.m. from the back of the chamber instead of the traditional long walk from the governor’s office. Dayton, who often walks with a cane, had two spinal surgeries in two years, and he’s dealt with frequent back and hip pain.
He immediately gave everyone a scare. As he climbed up to the lectern in front of the entire Legislature, Dayton tripped into the people immediately surrounding him. Legislators gasped, but Dayton got right back up and diffused the situation as he often does — with joke, delivered in a practiced deadpan.
“I knew I should have shown up for the walkthrough,” Dayton said.
It didn’t take long for him to gather his bearings and get back to what he wanted the night to be about: a look back at his time in office and ahead at his final two years.
When he was elected in 2010, the state was facing a $6 billion budget deficit, but a lot’s changed since then, he said. The state now has a $1.4 billion budget surplus, while the unemployment rate has dropped dramatically.
But it’s not enough. Dayton said the state should be spending even more on education, and he proposed to increase the per-pupil formula for education by 2 percent each year for the next two years, for a total cost of about $371 million. In his speech, he pushed for money for roads, bridges and train lines to unclog the “arteries” of the state. He touted money in his bonding bill to clean up small-town sewage systems and water treatment facilities and called on everyone to join the effort to protect the state’s waterways, which have been polluted by agricultural runoff. “What does it say about ‘The Land of Sky Blue Waters,’ when families can’t swim safely in nearby lakes?” he asked.
Then, as he was getting to his plan to try to stabilize the state’s insurance marketplace in 2018, Dayton’s voice wavered. He stopped to take a drink of water, but his hands were still shaking. He didn’t have the strength to brace himself on the lectern, so he fell, hitting his head.
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and Secretary of State Steve Simon tried to catch Dayton and lower him to the floor. Legislators gasped and sat silently as paramedics gathered around the governor, who lost consciousness for five seconds. Republican leaders quickly adjourned the joint session.
Dayton eventually walked out of the chamber on his own and back to his residence, where he got a checkup from an EMT. Dayton’s staff did their best to assure the public that the governor was OK, sending out a statement that he still planned to release his budget the next day. Dayton’s son Eric, who attended the speech with his son Hugo, tweeted that his dad was doing great and putting together a puzzle with his grandson.
No one, however, commented on the content of Dayton’s speech. The focus was singularly on his health.
‘I’ve been underestimated politically for years’
The next day, Dayton knew people would have questions about what happened when he collapsed, but he wanted to focus on his budget first.
In a hearing room in the Capitol, he finished the remarks he wanted to make Monday night, proposing a new “public option” in the individual health insurance market, allowing Minnesotans who earn between 200 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level — a family of four earning from $49,200 to $97,200 per year — to purchase coverage from MinnesotaCare off of MNsure.
MinnesotaCare covers about 100,000 low-income individuals in mostly rural Minnesota, a number that could double if people had the option to buy into the program on MNsure. The program is funded by a state tax on Minnesota hospitals and health-care providers that’s set to sunset in 2019. Dayton wants to repeal that sunset, and after an initial $12 million to add staff to the program, Dayton said premiums would cover the costs.
Dayton delved into other big parts of his $45.8 billion budget plan, which is about 10 percent higher than the last two-year state budget. In his proposal, he calls for an increase in gas taxes and fees to pay for improvements to the state’s transportation network. He also adds about $1.2 billion in new state spending, using up most of a $1.4 billion budget surplus. That new spending includes:
- $280 million in tax cuts and credits
- $609 million for per-pupil funding increases and other education-related initiatives, including $75 million to expand his signature free preschool proposal
- $318 million for higher education
Then, Dayton opened the discussion up to what happened the night before, when he collapsed on stage. The governor said he was fine during the entire speech until about a minute before his collapse. He felt hot and thirsty so he took a drink, but it didn’t help. He felt weak and blacked out for a brief period of time.
When he was asked why he fell, Dayton joked: “The speech was too long.”
The topic of his health was already on the table, so in the interest of “full disclosure,” Dayton dropped a bomb: He was also diagnosed with cancer last week.
“I think I gave up my medical privacy about six years ago, as I should,” Dayton said. “My health is a legitimate public issue. People deserve a governor who is on the job, who is qualified to perform the job intellectually and physically. I think I am.”
Attention shifted completely to Dayton’s diagnosis. He plans to return to Mayo Clinic next week to talk about his treatment options for the cancer. “It’s grim, but it is what it is and it’s not that uncommon,” he said. “You have to do what you have to do in life.”
It was a week of bad news overshadowing Dayton’s political priorities, but there could be better things on the horizon.
Dayton is continuing a busy and full public schedule this week, including a town hall at the University of Minnesota Campus in Morris to talk about one of his top priorities, clean water.
And Republican leaders said a deal on a health care premium relief for more than 120,000 Minnesotans could be finalized yet this week, and it might look a lot like Dayton’s plan. Dayton proposed a 25 percent rebate for anyone on the individual insurance market who did not qualify for federal subsidies but still saw their premiums skyrocket last year.
When asked how he expects his final two years in office to go with Republicans in control of the entire Legislature, Dayton said, “I’ve been underestimated politically for years, but here I am.”