A confident Mark Dayton is ending his first year as Minnesota governor.
The Democratic governor of today is far different than “socially awkward … inept at the game of retail politics” that a top aide once said about him.
Political observers recall times when Dayton seemed more comfortable standing alone in the back of a room rather than glad-handing like other politicians.
“I was myself then and I am myself now,” Dayton told Forum Communications in a year-end interview. “As governor, you are expected to be front and center. You are expected to be not off on the side. … The expectation is different and I respond to that reality.”
Dayton, who turns 65 in January, faced many realities in 2011 that he would have preferred not to face: a massive budget deficit, Republican legislators who were further to the political right than ever and a state government shutdown among them.
The governor, who has won three statewide elections and lost two, failed in his bid to raise taxes on the rich, spend as much on public works projects as he wanted, get a Vikings football stadium approved, settle the Crystal Sugar lockout and other goals.
But Dayton said he is proud about what he and his administration accomplished in a difficult year. “I feel good about what we have established and started and I am very mindful of how very much more there is to try to accomplish.”
Even Republicans can praise him, although they certainly don’t embrace most of his policies.
“His heart is in the right place for the state of Minnesota,” said a prime budget negotiating opponent, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.
Dayton, whose family started Dayton’s Department Store and Target, has developed a more take-charge attitude than he has shown in the past, and sits in the governor’s office as someone who owes no special interest groups for his job, freeing him to make decisions with little outside influence.
Political science professor Paula O’Loughlin of the University of Minnesota Morris explained Dayton: “He comes in without favors owed, but he also comes with a long line of policy experience and an experienced staff. He is not new to state government. … He likes this stuff.”
His background of mostly financing his own political campaigns means donors cannot demand to have their way, which gives him more freedom than most governors who rely on outside donations in political campaigns.
“Dayton has nothing to lose,” O’Loughlin said.
Dayton has bucked some strong Democratic groups, especially the Education Minnesota teachers union when he sided with Republicans in a new law to give mid-career professionals an easier path to getting teacher licenses. And liberal-leaning environmentalist groups did not like him working with the GOP to speed some environmental permits.
Saying he is suited to be proactive, Dayton said that he has no problem fighting for an issue, even if it goes against DFL-supported policies.
“I will work day and night and go through fire and brimstone to accomplish something I believe in,” Dayton said.
The governor disagrees with Republicans who say that he stands alone, without Democratic support. Republicans cite his refusal to abide by a state convention endorsement last year when he was running for governor.
But Dayton and the two DFL legislative leaders, both of whom he defeated in the governor’s race, say they are on the same side.
“He is growing into it more all the time,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said about Dayton and his job.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that “Republicans underestimate this governor.”
“Dayton did as good a job as you could expect a governor to do with a Republican Legislature, especially with a Republican Legislature with so many new people,” Bakk said. “It takes a while for political officials to get grounded. … People are generally surprised in a favorable way about his leadership.”
Dayton said 2011 failures on his record can be blamed on Tea Party right-wing legislators who expected “that I agree with them 100 percent.”
“I have never experienced that in my 36 years in politics and government…” the governor said. “The unwillingness to compromise is what caused the shutdown.”
While he fell short on many of his goals, Dayton said that is called compromise.
“We ended up finally, after the shutdown, pretty close to middle ground,” he said as an example, nearly halfway between what he and Republicans wanted to spend.
“He is a pragmatic politician with liberal ideals,” O’Loughlin said.
Dayton has “no future political goals, so he is actually more ideally suited to compromise, to get things done,” she said.
“The one thing that probably is why we have developed a good friendship is he is his own man,” Zellers said, adding that Dayton is willing to listen to other ideas.
Still, political fights were no surprise.
“I think it is fair to say it has been a rocky first year for the state, but also for our relationship with the governor,” said Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, a Senate GOP leader. “Compared to what we believe and what we campaigned on it was pretty hard not to have a clash over those two competing philosophies.”