When Mark Dayton ran for governor in 2010, he said he wanted to improve the state's economy, spend more on schools, make the tax system fairer and end the cycle of recurring state budget deficits.
Two years ago, Dayton followed through by raising income taxes on Minnesota's top earners. He used the money from the tax increase to balance the state budget, fund statewide all-day kindergarten and increase spending for schools.
During this year's session, Dayton pushed a billion-dollar public works construction bill. Lately he's been taking a victory lap to promote some of the projects it pays for.
Last week, Dayton was in Mankato to break ground for an expansion of the Mankato Civic Center. Dayton said projects like the Civic Center and the new Vikings stadium have helped lower the state's unemployment rate.
"This is a crucially critical project for downtown Mankato, and as the regional capital for this part of Minnesota, that means it's important for the region and the entire state," he declared.
Dayton will be at the Minnesota State Fair Thursday, an event that many consider the unofficial start of Minnesota's campaign season. He said he's not yet really campaigning, though, and won't begin doing so until Labor Day.
Four years ago, Dayton barnstormed the state, visiting 87 counties in 87 days. This year, he said, his day job has curtailed his campaign time. Instead, he's using public events like the Mankato visit to highlight his agenda.
"My campaign theme was a better Minnesota," he said. "And we have a much better Minnesota today than we did when I took office."
Dayton hopes voters agree with him. The 67-year-old is running for re-election for the first time in a career that includes one-time stints as state auditor and U.S. senator. And he said his next term, if he's re-elected, will be his last in office.
Dayton said his top priority for a second term is improving the state's current and future labor force. He said that he's committed to spending more money on education and that he wants the state's colleges and universities to better prepare students for work. The focus on the labor force is necessary, he said, to ensure that highly skilled older workers can be replaced when they retire.
"We have to find a way, for the sake of everybody in Minnesota as well as for those individuals, to get that lined up," he said.
Dayton's Republican opponent Jeff Johnson says the governor's tax policies have put Minnesota on the wrong path. On the night he claimed the Republican nomination, Johnson told supporters he'd put a check on government spending and tax increases.
"I have a vision of a state where politicians understand that taxpayers work really, really hard for our money, and we should treat it like it's coming out of our own pockets, which is not happening in St. Paul," he said.
Dayton said the tax hikes Johnson is criticizing helped pay for important things like job training and economic development. Johnson should spell out where he would cut spending if he rolled back the tax hikes, he said.
Dayton also said Minnesota's economy is doing better than that of many other states. But he's reluctant to push for future tax hikes, he said.
"I don't have anything right now that I would do," he said. "I think we need a period of stability in our tax system."
Republicans have also criticized Dayton for approving $89 million for a new office building for the Minnesota Senate and for the botched rollout of MNsure, the state's online health insurance exchange. Dayton said the building is a part of an overall Capitol renovation to accommodate legislators and the public. MNsure's rollout was problematic, he said, but it's doing better.
Dayton said he intends to run a positive campaign. But he also said he's going to point out where he differs with his opponent. Johnson would push for a budget that cuts government spending, stops a minimum wage increase and rolls back tax hikes on top earners, he said.
"I mean the kind of things we suffered through the decade before I arrived are going to come back right at us, and I think people will see that that's not in their best interest," Dayton said.
He and Johnson will have plenty of time to highlight their differences over the next 75 days. Dayton has committed to debating Johnson six times before Election Day.
MPR News' Elizabeth Baier contributed to this report.