Dayton frustrated as he leaves Senate

Mark Dayton
Mark Dayton was one of just 23 senators to vote against the Iraq War resolution. He consistently opposed tax cuts for wealthy Americans like himself.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

In his last speech in the Senate, Mark Dayton offered a pessimistic assessment of national affairs.

"It has pained me deeply to see the Senate's majority lead our country in what I consider the wrong direction," Dayton said.

From tax policy to education spending to the war in Iraq, Dayton chastised President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress for failing average Americans.

"Thus, I leave the Senate with strong feelings of frustration and disappointment," Dayton said. "I've been unable to pass most of what I believed was most important to Minnesota, to our country and to the world."

When Dayton got into the race for Senate, the U.S. was not battling a war on terrorism or facing record deficits. In 2000, Congress was looking at how to spend a more than $200 billion budget surplus.

Dayton ran for office promoting a long list of issues, but focused on expanding access to health care and reducing the cost of medicine for seniors.

It's one of those deals where he wanted to be there, but I think when he got there it wasn't exactly what he thought it was. In many respects he was kind of a placeholder.

Dayton defeated Republican incumbent Rod Grams. Nine months after he took office, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks took place. Washington's focus shifted to the war on terrorism and propping up the economy.

Dayton was one of just 23 senators to vote against the Iraq War resolution. He consistently opposed tax cuts for wealthy Americans like himself.

And despite campaigning so much on the issue of Medicare drug prices, halfway through his first term Dayton voted against the Medicare prescription drug program. Among other objections, Dayton was unhappy the legislation delayed drug coverage for two years. He also said drugs would still be too expensive for seniors.

Three years into his term, Dayton sat for an interview in the Senate dining room. He gave no indication that he would not seek a second term. Instead, he talked about a plan to raise his profile among voters -- along with millions of dollars he would need for re-election.

"If I happen to have my most critical political problem being that I am not visible enough -- I wouldn't choose to have any problem, but it's a good one to have -- and I believe if people knew more about what I was doing that would inure to my benefit," Dayton said. "So I'm quite delighted to be taking that on as something I'm going to try to accomplish."

The next year, Dayton attracted international attention when he shut down his Washington office a month before the November 2004 presidential election.

Dayton said he made the decision because of the threat of a terrorist attack.

"I'm just literally scratching my head," said Washington D.C. Mayor Tony Williams in an NBC news report at the time. "I'm trying to figure out, I mean, you know, figure out what frequency the senator's on in terms of what he's thinking."

Dayton was widely ridiculed for the shutdown. Time magazine later labeled him "the Blunderer," and named him one of the nation's five worst senators.

In an interview last week, Dayton stood by his decision to temporarily close his office. He called the way in which he communicated the decision his "greatest regret."

Lee Graczyk
Lee Graczyk, executive director of the Minnesota Senior Federation, credits Dayton with raising awareness about the high cost of prescription drugs for seniors.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"I didn't explain the decision well to people, and that will be the epitaph of my Senate term which, again, I regret because it will overshadow a lot of the things that I was trying to accomplish," Dayton said.

In the Senate, Dayton spent most of his time voting against the Republican majority. On issues from foreign policy to health care and taxes, he's convinced history will show his votes were cast in the best interest of his constituents.

"I feel that I will be ultimately vindicated in a lot of the positions that I took," Dayton predicted.

Particularly on the issue of Iraq. When he voted no, polls showed a majority of Minnesotans supported giving the president authority to invade Iraq.

"I said at the time I thought it was a mistake," Dayton recalled. "It's a mistake that's now turned into a catastrophic disaster, and it's unfortunately getting even worse. I take no satisfaction in saying, 'I told them so,' but I did. Same with voting against the budgets and the huge tax giveaways to the rich and super rich. We're looking at chronic budget deficits now that are going to plague this country."

Among his legislative victories, Dayton counts securing more than $40 million in funding for the northern border patrol, helping to bring new aircraft to the Minnesota National Guard Air Base in Duluth and getting $3 million for a new Minnesota Army National Guard soldier reintegration program.

In early February 2005, with about two years remaining in his term, Dayton held one of his weekly telephone calls with reporters. He made a surprise announcement that he would not seek re-election.

"I do not believe that I am the best candidate to lead the DFL Party to victory next year," Dayton told reporters. "I cannot stand to do the constant fundraising necessary to wage a successful campaign, and I cannot be an effective senator while also being a nearly full-time candidate."

Former DFL congressman and Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny says he doesn't think Dayton knew what he was getting into.

"It's one of those deals where he wanted to be there, but I think when he got there it wasn't exactly what he thought it was," Penny said. "In many respects he was kind of a placeholder. He didn't embarrass the state -- I wouldn't buy into that line of criticism -- but he really didn't become any kind of a player on the really big issues."

Dayton acknowledges that serving in Congress was not necessarily what he expected.

"If somebody gave me a piece of paper today and said, 'Sign on the bottom line. You can have another six years,' I would't sign it," Dayton said. "I am more of an activist. I am much more fulfilled and, I think, effective being proactive in government or whatever else I am doing. And Congress -- the legislative branch -- is much more of a reactive institution. So I have no regrets."

Over each of his six years in the Senate, Dayton donated his salary to charity.

The money, more than half a million dollars, went to the Minnesota Senior Federation to help cover the cost of prescription drug buying bus trips from the Twin Cities to Canada.

The head of the Minnesota Senior Federation, Lee Graczyk, said Dayton should be credited for raising awareness of the cost of prescription drugs for seniors.

"It certainly brought incredible attention to the issue of prescription drug prices across the world, and that's really priceless in terms of moving the political agenda," Graczyk said.

Beyond offering to help Hillary Clinton's expected 2008 presidential campaign, Dayton, who turns 60 this month, is offering little information about what the next chapter of his life will hold. But he is not ruling out running for public office again.

"I hope to be active in public life somewhere in Minnesota or somewhere where I can do some good, whether it's in elected office or appointed office or the nonprofit sector," Dayton said. "I define my career broadly as public service, and I intend to continue that for as long as I'm drawing breath."

Dayton said one thing he will not do is try to give advice to his successor. He said Amy Klobuchar ran an impressive campaign, is well qualified and arrives in Washington with a lot of credibility.

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