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 24 The Internet
Dayton now has a Facebook page. Updating it is his 1 to 2 a.m. campaign chore, which he fulfills from his condominium near Loring Park in Minneapolis, where he lives with two German shepherds, Mesabi and Dakota. He has a personal page and a fan page for the campaign. And on his personal page it’s possible that he goes a little too into depth, offering mini-reviews of his favorite movies: The Road Home—“Love triumphs over everything, even the Chinese Communist Party. And I am a hopeless romantic!” Animal House—“The funniest John Belushi. And he becomes a U.S. Senator!” Of his favorite television show, Superman, he says, “How I wished I could fly!” He proffers half a dozen favorite quotes—from Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam), the Bible, and elsewhere—including his father’s favorite, from the Gospel of Luke: “To whomsoever much has been given, of him shall much be required.”
For a shy guy, he uses a lot of exclamation points: “I like reading, reading & (even when I’m tired of it) reading! I also like campaigning for public office and serving in government!”
Within a few months, as the campaign gears up, all of this will prudently be scrubbed, save for some family background and the quotes.
× Day 75 Waseca
Dayton enters the Daily Grind coffee shop carrying a box of bumper stickers and a small plastic jar labeled “$1 for Dayton.” He sets the jar on the table in front of him and never mentions it to the 20 people who have come out for his meet-and-greet.
Dayton has always been shy about asking for political contributions, given his inheritance. “I still consider [my background] the major obstacle I have to overcome to be accepted as a public servant,” he told PBS during his last campaign. “The wealth, the privilege, the differentness.” This has meant, of course, that Dayton has largely self-financed his campaigns (about $21 million for all his various races), which gives him the desirable aura of not being bought and paid for—as well as the stigma of a dilettante.
“[Dayton] appears to be running (yet again) as personal therapy following his most recent divorce,” wrote a commentator for the liberal journal American Prospect during Dayton’s last Senate run. (Dayton is twice divorced; his first ex-wife is Alida Messinger, a Rockefeller heiress, mother to his two children, and, by far, Minnesota’s largest donor to political causes.) Dayton himself has spoken of campaigning as “a great antidote to any kind of mild depression or any kind of self-centeredness. Because I get out in the real world and meet so many Minnesotans whose life difficulties are so much greater than my own.”
Dayton has acknowledged that his reticence opens him to scrutiny: “I’m not particularly comfortable, and not particularly good, at the small, chitchat kind of politicking,” he has said. But after Robert Kennedy—like Dayton, born to privilege—gave his life in the name of progressive change, “I could never be comfortable,” he has said, “not being involved in social and public affairs thereafter.”
Dayton’s supporters argue his motivations shouldn’t matter so much as the results. He’s stood up for unions, often on the picket line. He set up a health-care hot line in his Senate office to help people deal with their insurance companies. He also has a long history of helping desperate strangers, sometimes after reading about them in the Star Tribune (which has often subsequently reported the good deed—“Senator-turned-angel does his part,” gushed a headline back in March).
In fact, Dayton seems more comfortable in one-on-one, instant-results situations than he did in the Senate, where he grew impatient, unable to push his agenda due to his junior ranking. (Such complaints earned him little sympathy and questions of whether he understood the way Washington worked; he claims he understands all too well—“Washington was a cesspool,” he says.) He wants to be governor, he says, because he believes an executive role better suits his temperament. “He’s a doer,” says his son Eric. Dayton has promised during this campaign that he will go anywhere—literally—to find a Minnesotan a job. And when he heard in one town that potential businesses were bypassing the place for want of better infrastructure, he promised the townspeople a stoplight if he has to dig the hole himself.
Bob Shrum, the campaign strategist behind Dayton’s second Senate run, as well as Al Gore and John Kerry’s presidential bids, says of his former client, “He’s not, even after all the times he’s run, a typical politician at all. …I think it’s a caricature of the voters to assume there’s one kind of pre-cast figure they respond to in politics. If someone’s on their side, will fight for what’s right, who cares if he wears the right two-button suit or not?”
This is likely Dayton’s last campaign, at least as we’ve known him—and as he has known campaigning. His wealth is presumably not what it once was, estimated at between $3 million and $12 million while he was in the Senate, just before the recession. In fact, without naming names, he says he believes another gubernatorial candidate will likely outspend him this time around. (Former state representative Matt Entenza, whose wife cashed out of UnitedHealth Group a few years back to the tune of many millions, is the likely suspect.)
At the end of the Waseca gathering, I count less than $30 in the dollar-for-Dayton jar. Several women write personal checks to Dayton, and, not knowing what to do with them, try to hand them to me.
× Day 41 The Internet
Dayton has a superfan! She’s no Lewinsky, no ingénue. She’s a middle-aged romance novelist from White Bear Lake (pen name: April Knight) who, on her Twitter page, describes Dayton as a “hero.” Anytime Dayton is mentioned in the media, she is the first and sometimes only person to comment on the story, extolling his political virtues. She’s even made a video tribute, a 25-minute opus that she’s posted to the Internet, featuring images of Dayton set to Rossini’s William Tell overture—the Lone Ranger theme. Dayton’s campaign has tentatively thanked her.
× Day 85 Fridley
The party room of Broadway Pizza is full of local politicians and their wives along with 70 or so men in Teamsters hats and jackets, their mustaches slick with the grease of free pizza. When Dayton walks in, he’s given a standing ovation.
Dayton is feeling his oats, invigorated by the reception. “There’s right and there’s wrong, there’s good and there’s bad!” he shouts and goes on to bash Republicans, especially current Governor Tim Pawlenty. He points out that Pawlenty’s refusal to raise state income taxes, along with cuts in municipal funding, has resulted in the raising of city property taxes to make up the difference—a more regressive form of taxation. If he’s governor, Dayton announces, he’ll increase education funding every year, paid for with increased taxes on the wealthiest 10 percent of Minnesotans, who, under Pawlenty, have paid less as a percentage of their income than everyone else. It’s an appealing idea, to everyone who’s not a millionaire. “I’ve got the right message,” Dayton says, “and I’m going to win!”
Dayton has good reason to be confident: He’s predicted to trounce his Democratic rivals in the primary, according to every poll so far. He is the only candidate in the bunch, Democrat or Republican, to have run—and won—a statewide race. And he’s the only Democrat matching up favorably against Republican candidate Tom Emmer.
Dayton’s long track record, however, is both boon and bane: No candidate is dragging more baggage into this race than Dayton. Last December, before announcing his candidacy, Dayton revealed what media and political insiders long suspected: that he suffers from mild depression and that, during a brief period of his Senate term, he had relapsed into alcoholism. Former employees of Dayton often describe him as “mercurial,” meaning he has good moments and bad, marked by extreme kindness on the one hand and bouts of shouting on the other. Dayton was sued during his Senate term by a former staffer who claimed he was fired after requesting time off for heart surgery. “You’re done,” Dayton allegedly told him after a brief discussion. (Dayton disputes this account, and the case petered out after Dayton appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled it had no jurisdiction in the matter.) The large number of staffers employed at one time or another by Dayton during his Senate term—as much as a third more than most senators—suggests a quickly revolving door.
Yet Dayton has never experienced the sort of public flameouts, such as drunk-driving arrests, that have dogged other politicians. Personal issues also don’t seem to have affected the raising of his two children, now 29 and 26. Messinger, their mother, has continued to help fund Dayton’s campaigns. His record is clean. “I’m far from perfect,” he has said. “But I look at the spectrum of people, many of whom have been more successful than I have been in public life, and it’s very apparent to me that their emotional stability and predictability and self-awareness and treatment of others and the like fall far short of my own.”
Republicans have said they won’t make an issue of Dayton’s personal issues during the race. But few DFLers, including those at Broadway Pizza, believe this. “How are you going to counteract the right-wing smear?” a man asks Dayton. For a moment, his shirt soaked through the armpits with sweat, the shy guy—the candidate who keeps coming back for more—looks like the toughest guy in the room. “I’ve been through the hellfire before,” he says, “and I’ll be ready for it this fall.”