Running Man

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.

× 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.”
 

 

× 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.”
 

 

× 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.

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