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 79 Minneapolis
The campaign wants me to meet with Eric Dayton, Mark’s oldest son, in order to get his take on his father. We meet in a Warehouse District coffee shop in Minneapolis, where Eric, a budding developer, having recently bought a historic building around the corner, talks about how he grew up. He recalls his 50-cents-a-week allowance, half of which he’d save to give away at the end of the year to one charity or another. He discusses his father’s alcoholism and depression: “I’m not hiding anything,” he says, looking me in the eyes. “It didn’t impact him being a dad to me or my brother.” He sums up his family’s broad and lasting impact on the state: “It’s hard to know where to draw the line,” he says, “between Minnesota’s values and my family’s values.”
He’s just getting used to this, speaking on his father’s behalf. So he’s invited Joseph, the campaign’s communications director, to join us—not to interject, he says, but because he’ll be doing more interviews on his father’s behalf and he’d like Joseph to evaluate his performance. “Afterward,” he tells me in all seriousness, “I’d be grateful for any feedback you have, too.”
And so, when we’re done, I offer some. The bit about his family’s values and Minnesota’s values being indistinguishable, I say, is a keeper.
× Day 64 The Internet
Dayton has lost his superfan. Poof. Gone. Ctrl-Alt-Del. She’s rebooted her allegiances.
She still comments on every Dayton story in the media, but now she argues that he’s bound to lose. When I ask her about it, she says she had a falling-out with Dayton. Seems she posted a video of a speech he gave to his Facebook page and when it was deleted (only official campaign messages are posted there) she was put out. All the more, she says, because she went to bat for him with the public-employees union, Dayton’s most important endorsement to date. Her day job is working for the state as an administrative assistant and she attended the endorsement meeting, where she helped sway union members to support Dayton. And now she’s having second thoughts. And she’s writing about it all over the Internet.
× Day 94 Duluth
The DFL convention is ramping up at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, the candidates frantically working the floor, hoping to pick up a few more delegates. Dayton is stuck outside in the mostly deserted hallways.
From the start of his campaign, Dayton vowed he would compete in the primary no matter whom his party endorsed. He’s argued that 1,400 party insiders shouldn’t hold greater sway than the many thousands of primary voters, and he never sought the endorsement. But now, hoping simply to partake of the convention festivities, Dayton has been denied a floor pass.
“Very petty,” he says. “This party is big enough for everybody.” He says this is the first time in 18 conventions, going back to 1976, that he’s been denied a pass, even when he wasn’t a candidate. Speaking to reporters, he reminds the DFL of the hefty donations he’s made to its coffers over the years. (More than $400,000 between 2001 and 2008 alone, according to campaign finance records.) “Certainly the senator is a great friend of the DFL,” the party’s chair says later. But it’s not enough to get him in. After an hour-and-a-half of greeting friends in passing, Dayton heads home.
× Day 98 State Capitol
Two days after the convention, Dayton holds another press conference in a side room of the capitol and more reporters than usual drift up from the media ghetto in the basement. The DFL, of course, has endorsed Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the current speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives. She endeared herself to DFLers with her defiance of Pawlenty, mustering overrides of his vetoes and such. But polling at the start of the race showed that Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak would have given Dayton a better run for his money. Dayton has consistently led Kelliher in the polls by double digits.
Dayton enters his press conference with a little more swagger than usual, though not without self-deprecation. “I’m glad they let me into the room,” he jokes. He launches into another call to raise taxes on the wealthy, in order to fund education, only this time he asks the legislature to do it now—“right now!” he demands.
When he’s done, a hubbub drifts in from the hallway and the media exit rather quickly. Michael Brodkorb, deputy chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, has been lingering outside the press conference and now he’s hijacked the attentions of the press corps. He’s already attacking Dayton’s latest tax-the-rich plan, claiming it would hurt businesses. “Mark Dayton,” he says, “is one of the most out-of-touch politicians I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
The hellfire, as Dayton called it, has been ignited. It feels like a show, a spectacle, and, of course it is. It’s the waving of arms, the look-over-here, the snagging of last words in the endless Twitter feed of modern media. It’s contemporary campaigning, now just another form of entertainment. A reporter turns to me, his eyes wide. “Is this the capitol or a nightclub?” he says and imitates a techno beat: inz-inz-inz-inz.
“My idealism, in the ’60s and ’70s, has been supplanted by heavy doses of realism,” Dayton tells me afterward. “Modern politics is butchery. I’m running on the basic goodness of human nature, the idea that we can do better by each other, and I think there are still enough people out there who feel the same. I hope so, because that’s what is really at stake.”
Brodkorb is drawing a bigger crowd now, as passing legislators stop and watch. Dayton’s staffers stand a few feet from the blaze, arms crossed, watching the bright lights of the TV cameras illuminate Brodkorb’s unsmiling face.
Tim Gihring is senior editor for Minnesota Monthly. He wrote about Mark Dayton’s last run for governor, in 1998, for The Associated Press.