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Dayton, a year left in first term, says he has the job he wants -- and will seek again

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Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton in his tiny state Capitol office that used to be a closet, on Sept. 19, 2013. It's adjacent to the formal governor's office where some of Dayton's key staffers are stationed.
Mark Zdechlik / MPR News

Sen. Mark Dayton once gave himself a failing grade for his time in Washington. He'd spent millions of his own fortune to get elected but left after one term, frustrated by his inability to get things done.

It's an altogether different story for Gov. Mark Dayton. He's found the job he wants.

He's already made big changes as governor, most notably turning his predecessor's staunch opposition to tax increases on end. He intends to seek a second term next year and some analysts say the battles he's fought and won in his first three years have him well-positioned to win in 2014. 

Today's Question: Does Mark Dayton deserve another term?

Health problems -- he had back surgery last year and tore a hip muscle in the summer -- have slowed him a bit, leading some observers to suggest his health may still lead him against running again. But in an extended interview with MPR News, Dayton insisted he is seeking re-election. 

And though he's proud of his efforts to raise taxes to pay for state programs, he suggested he's open to cutting income taxes across the board if Minnesota's finances continue to improve.

"I am who I am. I am 66 years old," he said. "But I think with age comes a lot of experience and wisdom that I hope people will decide has held the state in good stead."

Elected by a slim margin in 2010, Dayton got off to a rough start. Halfway into his first year, a showdown with the Republican-controlled Legislature led to a government shutdown.  On the eve of the shutdown, Dayton accused Republicans of protecting the wealthy.

"Instead of taxing their friends, they would prefer very damaging cuts to health care, K-12 and higher education, state and local public safety, mass transit and other essential services to the people of Minnesota," he told reporters.

A MinnPost poll found Minnesotans sided with Dayton by a two to one margin.

The shutdown lasted nearly three weeks. It set the stage for a Democratic takeover of the Legislature in the 2012 election.

Gov. Mark Dayton
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton addresses the press regarding several issues including MNSure during a conference in the Governor's Reception room at the State Capitol, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013.
Elizabeth Flores / Star Tribune via AP

In 2013 with the House and Senate on his side, Dayton signed into law the pillar of his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, an income tax increase on the state's wealthiest residents.  

"I'm very proud of what we accomplished working together in the legislative session; raising taxes on the wealthiest two percent, making the tax structure in Minnesota less regressive than it is."

Same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota. Dayton also won increased spending on education, including funding for all-day kindergarten, and more spending for local governments.  And he signed a controversial bipartisan bill for a $1 billion state-subsidized Vikings stadium.  His tax plan made cigarettes significantly more expensive and Dayton went all in on the Affordable Care Act creating a state health insurance exchange.

All of those moves drew strong opposition, but University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson said Dayton's standing with Minnesotans appears to have improved.

A poll released this fall showed Dayton's approval rating among Minnesota voters at 48 percent. It also showed Dayton had at least a 10 point lead over all of his potential Republican challengers.

Dayton's record as governor has answered concerns he faced in his 2010 campaign, Pearson added. "There's no question that Gov. Dayton is in a better position now than he was one year before the 2010 elections."

Unlike many politicians who cling to carefully crafted talking points, Dayton rarely comes across as scripted. That's led critics to mock the governor as "erratic."

Dayton's sometimes clumsy demeanor works in his favor, however, and resonates with voters, Pearson said.

Dayton's work life reflects that unvarnished approach. 

He does much of his work in a modest space next to the formal governor's office, a six-and-a-half by eight foot room that used to be a closet. Despite its opulent surroundings, there's nothing fancy about Dayton's tiny office, just a basic L-shaped desk, some family pictures, a Minnesota map and a poster of Bobby Kennedy -- his first political hero.

Creating jobs is a top priority for the governor, although the state's business groups haven't embraced his approach.

Business people applauded Dayton early on for education reforms, including alternative teacher licensing, and directing state regulatory agencies to speed up environmental permitting. But they soured on the governor after he unveiled plans to tax business services, said Minnesota Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Bill Blazar. 

"A lot of businesses statewide, they're trying to sort out their views on the governor and figure out if he really is on their side," Blazar added.

The chamber is taking a pragmatic approach to Dayton. They know the governor won't budge on the higher tax for top earners he won in the last session. 

"I think asking him would be frankly just a dumb move on our part," said Blazar. "Let's ask him for stuff that he can deliver. He can deliver a spending reform proposal, a substantial one. He can deliver eliminating the three business-to-business sales taxes."

Dayton did reverse an early 2012 proposal to tax a wide range of business services.  And, now that the state faces budget surplus, Dayton says he supports repealing the three business-to-business taxes he did sign into law. If Minnesota's finances continue to improve, he'd like to cut incomes taxes for everyone.

The governor has faced ongoing criticism for the Vikings stadium deal and the MNsure website which has been riddled with technical problems that finally forced the resignation of the insurance exchange's executive director.

Dayton has labeled the 2014 legislative session the "Unsession."  He wants lawmakers to remove unnecessary laws and regulations to simplify government. But Dayton says what he calls the right-wing extremists who control the Republican Party, don't understand that government can also shape economic growth.

That message -- that government is a key lever in putting people to work -- is likely to be central to Dayton's re-election campaign.

At a recent news conference Dayton was asked about prospects for re-election.

"Next November Minnesotans will access the pluses and the minuses as they perceive them in my performance," he replied. "It's premature for me to say what that judgment will be."