Dayton hopes 'tax the rich' policy will bring him through primary

Mark Dayton at a July 3 parade
DFL candidate for governor Mark Dayton marches in a parade in Forest Lake, Minn., on July 3, 2010.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

DFL candidate and former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton is hoping his 'tax the rich' message will set him apart from his rivals Matt Entenza and Margaret Anderson Kelliher and propel him to the governor's office.


On a recent sweltering July Saturday, Mark Dayton marched in a parade in downtown Forest Lake. In front of him there was a float filled with loud, Christian youth rockers.

Dayton said his parade strategy is simple: meet as many people as possible.

"It's great when it slows down because then I shake hands and really make contact with people," Dayton said.

Along the parade route, Dayton was generally well received. Senior citizen Erma Grygelko of nearby Stacy shook Dayton's hand and said she plans to vote for him.

"Well, I like that he's trying to help a lot of people, you know? It's hard now-a-days," Grygelko said. "You don't know who to believe and you can really trust him."

A couple of blocks down from Grygelko, a few parade watchers yelled, 'No more taxes' and tell Dayton to 'Go home!' Dayton, however, saw this as confirmation that his campaign is working.

"That's good. That means they see the commercials anyway," Dayton said. "They may not agree with me on everything ... there aren't any easy answers to these policy questions. I hope people will realize I'm the one candidate who's making the hard decisions."


Dayton has spent much of his adult life either serving in public office or trying to get elected.

Mondale, Dayton
Former U.S. Senator (DFL-MN) and Vice President Walter Mondale (left) with future Senator Mark Dayton during the Minnesota Senate campaign in 1982.
Dayton's official Senate website

A wealthy department store heir, Dayton has spent more than $20 million of his own fortune on campaigns starting nearly 30 years ago when he first ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate. Dayton has also given large amounts of money to the Minnesota DFL party.

According to new numbers released on Tuesday, Dayton has invested more than $3 million of his own money on his campaign for governor so far.

Dayton, 63, lives in Minneapolis and grew up in the western Twin Cities suburb of Long Lake. A Yale graduate, he said he had planned to move on to medical school, but choose a different path following assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968.

"There was something about seeing my political hero die for the causes he believed in that just lit a spark inside of me and I could never be comfortable being comfortable in my parent's comfortable home again," he said.

Dayton then moved to New York City and taught in a public school. He also spent a summer living in a housing project with a family on welfare.

He said seeing the poverty framed forever in him a commitment to equality.

"It really goes back to that founding principle of this country," Dayton said, "that we're all created equal and that we all ought to have equal opportunities, equal rights and protections in our society and the chance for each one of our citizens to realize, through their own efforts, the American dream."


After Dayton lost his initial Senate bid in the early 1980s, then-governor Rudy Perpich appointed him Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Energy and Economic Development. In 1990, Dayton was elected state auditor and served one four-year term. Dayton then ran for governor in 1998, but lost in the DFL primary.

Two years later Dayton made it to the U.S. Senate. He launched a primary challenge to the DFL-endorsed candidate, won, and then defeated Republican Rod Grams in the general election.

In his victory speech, Dayton pledged to bridge partisan divides in Washington. But Dayton's six years in the Senate turned out to be a disappointment. He drew widespread ridicule when he temporarily shut down his Senate offices in the fall of 2004 citing a threat of a terrorist attack. Time magazine labeled him "The Blunderer" and would rate Dayton as one of America's "Five Worst Senators."

He said he thinks being governor would be a better fit.

"Well, I said before I went to Washington that I thought it was a cesspool," he said. "After I got there, I realized I underestimated how bad it really is in Washington."

In the Senate, Dayton consistently voted against tax cuts for the wealthy. He said the most important vote he cast was his vote against the Iraq War resolution. Dayton said his time in the Senate largely involved opposing Bush administration proposals rather than pushing forward his own priorities such as universal health care.

Mark Datyon at the nurses strike
Mark Dayton assists nurses on the picket line earlier this year.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"I just felt very frustrated by my inability to make much of anything happen along a course of what I believed in and realized that I was better suited for the executive branch," Dayton said.

Dayton said he feels the executive branch is where you can lead from day one and really make a difference. He lists Barack Obama leaving the Senate after four years to seek the presidency, Hillary Clinton leaving after six years, one-term, and Joe Biden giving up 36 years of seniority to go to the executive branch as examples.

Retired University of St. Thomas political science professor Nancy Zingale said the examples Dayton gives don't apply.

"Dayton just quit," Zingale said. "He wasn't moving on to something else. So I think it's a somewhat different situation and it's perhaps a little disingenuous for Dayton to make that argument that he's just like all of these other people who moved on to do other things."


Dayton has been a recovering alcoholic since the 1987. Late last year, weeks before formally launching his campaign for governor, Dayton told reporters that, after he decided not to run for a second Senate term, he suffered a relapse.

Mark Dayton
DFL candidate Mark Dayton makes a phone call from his office while working on his campaign.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"I can't determine how people will react," he said.

He said he has been sober ever since he went into treatment in early 2007 when he left the Senate. Dayton also said he has struggled with depression for more than 40 years. He said people had a right to know about the depression and the drinking, given his candidacy for governor.

"I hope that they'll see this as a part of me, a small part of me, that I'm somebody they can trust to be honest with them and forthcoming," he said.

Now, Dayton said Minnesotans haven't been asking him about his medical issues.

"Really no one does. I feel great," he said. "I feel healthier and stronger than I ever have and I'm lucky to be in a state where people are very broad-minded and understanding about those issues."


Political analysts said the well-known name and the fact that his DFL opponents are focusing on Republican Tom Emmer rather than criticizing him are benefiting Dayton. They also said Dayton's 'tax the rich' message might play well in the primary, but could hurt him in the general election.

Zingale said if Dayton wins the primary, Republicans will be tougher on him than his DFL opponents have been.

"I think the gloves will come off and a lot more negative things probably will be said about Dayton's past service and maybe his personal difficulties as well," Zingale said.

Even so, Zingale believes Dayton could win the governor's race. She remembers writing him off as something of a has-been 10 years ago when he was running for Senate. She said she won't underestimate Dayton again.

Dayton's next appearance, with House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and former House Democratic leader Matt Entenza, will be a debate at 7 p.m. on Friday night at Minnesota State University's Ostrander Auditorium in Mankato.

The 90-minute debate will be a different sort in which candidates can respond to their opponents' comments instead of being restricted to answering questions.

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