Mark Dayton has a thick wallet and the biggest name in Minnesota’s race for governor. The only question is why—10 years after he last ran for office, four since he fled Washington after a miserable single Senate term—the department-store scion is spending his days and remaining fortune running at all. We hit the campaign trail to find out.
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× Day 75 Le Center
A young woman in heels strides into Home Plate restaurant. She passes the men in camouflage caps and Carhartt jackets, passes the American flag tacked to the pine paneling, and sprinkles a long table with bumper stickers and buttons. The men see the shine of her shoes and the black SUV she arrived in and begin calling for their checks. But it’s too late. There’s the crunch of a handshake, the flash of a camera, and an eager voice—“Hi, I’m Mark Dayton!”—as the candidate plows into the restaurant.
Only one of Dayton’s guests has arrived so far, a seventy-ish woman who keeps her Blublocker sunglasses on indoors (“I don’t know why they called me,” she confesses).
In fact, she’s here because Mark Dayton’s staff asked her to come. Because Dayton is campaigning to become Minnesota’s first Democratic governor in 20 years, and these small, personal meet-and-greets are how he’s always campaigned. He’s been running for one office or another for nearly three decades now—U.S. senator in 1982 (lost), state auditor in 1990 (won), governor in 1998 (lost), senator again in 2000 (won). He has now spent nearly as much time campaigning as he has in elected office, having served one term as auditor and another as senator, a fact not lost on his opponents. “I don’t know if he gets bored or frustrated or what,” says Tony Sutton, chair of the Minnesota Republican Party. “He’s almost become a perennial candidate.”
In the Senate, Dayton struggled to pass any meaningful agenda. With Republicans then predominate in Washington, Dayton’s influence was limited by his viewpoints. He became persona non grata in the White House after voting against tax cuts and the invasion of Iraq, as well as vociferously opposing the reappointment of Condoleeza Rice as secretary of state, saying, “I really don’t like being lied to repeatedly, flagrantly, and intentionally.” He also famously closed his Senate office for a few days after reading a classified intelligence report that he felt implied a new terrorist threat. It didn’t. And when no other politicians followed his lead, the media mercilessly lampooned him, with TIME magazine dubbing him The Blunderer. By the end of his term, sinking approval ratings marked him as the second-least popular senator of 2006. He graded himself (and every other sitting Senate member) with an “F,” declared he was not the best Democrat to keep the seat, and opted not to run for re-election.
Any other politician might have hung it up after this, following the example of Rod Grams, the former anchorman Dayton bested for the Senate seat, settling on a farm in peaceful obscurity. But Dayton isn’t just any pol. He’s a Dayton, begotten of Bruce, begotten of George, who, more than a hundred years ago, begat Dayton’s department stores, which live on as Target. To recognize his main opponents in next month’s primary election—Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Mark Entenza—you’d have to be a student of local politics; to know Dayton, you’d just have to be a Minnesotan.
Nine people eventually trickle into Home Plate for Dayton’s meet-and-greet, all of them Democrats, most of them retirees.
Seniors were Dayton’s core constituency during his last run for office—he even donated his Senate salary to bus seniors into Canada to buy prescription medicines—a good strategy considering that more 65-year-olds vote than 25-year-olds. But that was 10 years ago. As one longtime DFL strategist points out, “People who were 70 in 2000 are 80 now, and they might have Alzheimer’s or they might not even be around.”
As Dayton runs through his agenda with the Le Center seniors, he often has to speak up or repeat himself. When he rolls out his signature campaign pledge to “tax the rich,” making Minnesota’s income-tax code more equitable and raising billions in the bargain, he’s greeted with nods of approval that quickly die away. His message is agreeable, yet it may not be clear, after all these years, why he’s the one delivering it. Why he’s committed to spending his remaining fortune on this. Minnesotans may have forgotten Dayton’s gaffes by now, but they may also have forgotten his virtues, his drive—everything but the name. After a bit of silence, a woman in an embroidered sweatshirt tells him, “I think you should open a new Dayton’s. We miss those stores.”
× Day 1 State Capitol
Dayton announces his candidacy in a side-room of the capitol perhaps a hundred yards from the governor’s office, as though he’s in the on-deck circle, warming up.
He reels off an unapologetically liberal agenda: more education funding, more public services, tax increases for the wealthy. He’s flanked by members of the country’s largest public-employees union, which has endorsed him—not surprisingly, given his plans to expand the public sector. It’s as if Scott Brown, the Tea Party—indeed the last 10 years—never happened.
For no discernible reason, he takes just three questions from reporters. The press, miffed and confused, files out.
× Day 5 State Capitol
Dayton holds a second press conference to discuss his nascent campaign—an amends to reporters, a do-over. He answers every question they have for 45 minutes. And in case they have more, Dayton gives them his home phone number.
× Day 86 Mark Dayton’s Car
Because I’m in the car, Dayton isn’t listening to the Beatles or the Stones or any of the other 1960s music to which he usually subjects his entourage. Instead, he’s talking about the 1960s. “We really thought we were on the cusp,” he says of his generation, meaning the cusp of a revolution. By now, he figured, social justice would have turned poverty and racism into anachronisms. Instead, Richard Nixon happened, then Ronald Reagan, then George W. Bush. The rich just got richer. “If someone had told me [the country] would go in the opposite direction,” Dayton says with a sigh, “I’d have bought a one-way ticket past Pluto.”
Dayton is 63, with deep-set eyes, a heavy brow, and an earnest delivery that can make him resemble Edward R. Murrow without all the cigarette smoking. At other times, he can appear almost beseechingly kind, smiling a little too broadly, as though he’d been kidnapped and forced to pretend that everything is okay. He has a nervous habit of rubbing the fingers of his right hand together, like the legs of a cricket. He’s shy, say his friends; he’s socially awkward, say his critics. “I’m not a good phrasemaker,” he says, and sometimes he overcompensates by talking too much. His staff counteracts by keeping him moving, good-naturedly invoking the name of Roger Moe, the long-winded former majority leader of the Minnesota Senate and failed gubernatorial candidate. “Roger,” they tell him at campaign events, “time to move.”
Heading north out of Minneapolis, Dayton sits in the back seat of his Ford Explorer—“the only car still made in Minnesota,” he notes—driven by Dana Anderson, his campaign manager and longest-serving employee, who began working for him right out of college during his last Senate run. Gregory Joseph, Dayton’s communications director, occupies the passenger seat. A New Yorker most of the time, Joseph is a C-SPAN junkie who chooses a new campaign every winter to hire onto. He began working in politics as a tracker—someone who follows opposing campaigns with a video camera, recording their gaffes for future attack ads.
Dayton began his political life very much a Dayton, which is to say he was raised in Long Lake, near Wayzata, in the company of businessmen who voted Republican. He was pre-med at Yale University when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy’s sacrifice to social justice so inspired Dayton, the story goes, that after graduation he became a public-school teacher in New York City and then a social worker, living with a family on welfare. He had long hair and a mustache then. And because he marched against the Vietnam War and financially supported the Black Panthers, he wound up as the only Minnesotan to make Nixon’s infamous enemies list. “If I died tomorrow,” Dayton says, “that’s what I’d like to have on my tombstone.”