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Dayton's retirement marks end of 40-year career that saw as many losses as wins

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U.S. Senate candidate Mark Dayton waves to his supporters.
U.S. Senate candidate Mark Dayton waves to his supporters in 1982 at his primary election night headquarters as the returns came in showing his lead and eventual victory over former Sen. Eugene McCarthy. He would go on to lose the general election to Dave Durenberger.
Jim Mone | AP 1982

This is the second of a two-part look back at Mark Dayton's life and political career. Part one looked at Dayton's time as governor of Minnesota.

Mark Dayton's path toward politics started with him lying face up in a hospital bed in New Haven, Conn.

He was hooked up to an oxygen tank with a tracheotomy pipe nearby in case his windpipe closed up. A fellow hockey player had just glided over his throat, slicing it from ear to ear, tearing open his windpipe and voice box.

Mark Dayton made the varsity team at Yale University
Mark Dayton trained for years to be a top-level goalie, earning all-star status in at the prestigious Blake School in Minneapolis and making it to the varsity team at Yale University.
Courtesy photo

Dayton was never a natural athlete.  He trained for years to be a top-level goalie, earning all-star status at the prestigious Blake School in Minneapolis and making it to the varsity team at Yale University. He had one dream, which died when that skate crossed his neck: to play on the United States Olympic hockey team.

He would get up and start again, and the experience would set the pattern for his career in politics.

"If you're in public service for that long, you're going to make missteps and fall down, literally and figuratively," Dayton's youngest son, Andrew, said recently. "But he's always picked himself up."

He won four statewide races, but lost two, and his life was punctuated by personal struggles that threatened to derail his political career. And for someone who sought out a life in politics, Dayton never had the natural qualities of a politician. A born-introvert, he wasn't a back slapper or a smooth talker, and he wasn't known for rousing speeches. His signature move: a mumbled blunt assessment, washed down with a self-deprecating joke. 

"Mark Dayton is the antithesis of slick," Dayton's friend and former AFSCME chair Elliott Seide said. "Coming from the background and the family he did, he could have been that way."  

But Dayton proved tenacious, leveraging his family name and spending millions of his personal fortune in his quest to serve in public office. His populist streak and straightforward-personal brand helped him hold the favor of voters over the years, his contemporaries say.

"There's no question he marches to the beat of his own drummer," said Mike Erlandson, the former chair of the DFL Party. "Even when people were frustrated with him, they couldn't quarrel with the fact that he was grounded in his beliefs and that he was sincere."

'Outside of the mainstream'

After his injury on the ice, Dayton certainly had the privilege of options for his future. Dayton's great-grandfather founded a department store chain and his father, Bruce, was the CEO of Dayton Hudson Corp., which would eventually become the $62 billion Target Corp. 

But he never really took to the family department store business. After college, he spent his first few years as a teacher in tough districts in New York City and working at a nonprofit in Boston for runaway teens.

In his first brush with politics, Dayton was considered radical by other Democrats. He protested the Vietnam War, donated to the Black Panthers' legal defense fund and landed a coveted spot — as he sees it — on President Richard Nixon's enemies list. He was subpoenaed to a grand jury, considered part of a conspiracy.

When the Watergate scandal that eventually led to Nixon's resignation broke, Dayton said he was "transfixed."

"I wasn't in the Democratic Party, I was outside of it," he said. "I felt that I was excluded from the mainstream political life in this country, but then I just watched these guys who said we were the crooks and investigated us, and suddenly they were the ones who were the crooks. It put me back in the mainstream."

Politics as a career

In his late 20s, Dayton wanted to take his work to the next level — shaping public policy — and took advantage of his family connections

Mondale, Dayton
Former U.S. Sen. and Vice President Walter Mondale with future Sen. Mark Dayton during the Minnesota Senate campaign in 1982.
Dayton official Senate website

His father put in a word with his friend, U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale, to give the young Dayton a job in his office. Not long after, he landed on the staff of DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich, who eventually appointed him state economic development commissioner at the age of 31.

Bill Blazar met Dayton in the early 1980s after he'd left the Perpich administration and started a rural economic development nonprofit called the Minnesota Project. Blazar, who would eventually go on to work for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, was always more conservative than his friend Dayton, but the young idealist was always down for a good debate.

"You'd better just be prepared as he was," Blazar remembered. "You can disagree with him, but you've got to respect the fact that he has a clearly defined set of beliefs."

In 1982 Dayton launched a challenge to incumbent Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger. He prevailed in the primary, but the general election campaign was grueling. Durenberger accused Dayton of trying to buy the election and likened the 35-year-old heir's pursuit to rich guilt.

In the end, Dayton sunk roughly $7 million of his own money in the race — the most of any campaign in state history at the time — and still lost by 6 points.

Dayton's scars

In 1989 Dayton attempted his first political comeback by taking an unusual step: he called up reporters to arrange an interview about his struggle with addiction.

He had returned to Perpich's administration after his loss to Durenberger, but he left unexpectedly in 1986. Behind the scenes, Dayton had recently lost a close personal friend, and was going through a divorce from his wife, Alida Messinger, a Rockefeller and the mother of his two sons.

He eventually checked himself into the Betty Ford Center in California. He spent nearly a month there in 1987 and enrolled in a Christian ethics course the following year.

As other politicians were painting portraits of their idyllic lives, Dayton was opening up about his family's history with alcoholism, depression and his own efforts to get sober.

"That is who I am," Dayton said. "I think people have a right to know that about their public officials and make their own judgments about whether that is a disqualifier or not."

Emmer and Dayton
Republican Tom Emmer, left, and DFLer Mark Dayton, right, greet each other before participating in a gubernatorial debate at the 2010 Minnesota State Fair.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2010

It was a risky move and wouldn't be the last time he would air his flaws publicly.

A populist streak

Dayton ran a modest race for state auditor in 1990 and handily won his first statewide victory. As auditor he went after school districts, state employees and even his political mentor, Perpich. He was near the top of most Democrats' lists of potential candidates for governor in 1994.

But he surprised everyone when he didn't run for governor or a second term as auditor, instead remarrying and moving to a plot of land to raise cattle and horses. He resurfaced in 1998 to seek the governor's office alongside a group of Democratic luminaries but came in fourth out of five candidates in the DFL primary.

By the following year, after a second divorce, he decided to run again for U.S. Senate in 2000.

And for someone who grew up in the top 1 percent, he had uncanny ability to zero in on populist issues. Dayton made the rising cost of health care and prescription drug prices the centerpiece of his campaign, driving senior citizens in the "Mark Dayton Rx Express" to Emerson, Manitoba, to buy cheaper drugs.

"People doubted whether or not offering bus trips to Canada for people to buy prescription drugs was something that the voters of Minnesota would take seriously, but it became a really important symbol of his election," Erlandson, the former chair of the DFL Party, said.

In his second quest for the Senate, Dayton was successful, defeating Republican Rod Grams.

But his time in the Senate was roundly considered a failure, even by Dayton, who famously told a group of high school students that he and the entire chamber deserve a failing grade. He served one term, during which he dramatically shut down his Senate office because he heard classified information that it was under threat of a terrorist attack. No one else corroborated that.

He voted against the resolution authorizing the Iraq War, one of the few senators to do so, and he struggled with the bureaucracy and slow pace of the Senate. His approval ratings sunk and he didn't seek another term in 2006.

Before leaving Washington, he relapsed into alcoholism for the first time in decades.

'People were betting against him'

It was from this low point that Dayton staged his most dramatic political comeback.

He announced his campaign for governor in January of 2009, more than a year and a half before Election Day. Dayton felt he had to disclose his relapse early, informing his fledgling campaign staff that he had independently set up an interview with a Star Tribune columnist to discuss it.

Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters today that he has prostate cancer.
Gov. Mark Dayton tells reporters Jan. 24, 2017, that he has prostate cancer but remains up to doing the job and plans to finish his term.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

He didn't seek the DFL Party's endorsement, a move that led party officials to ban him from the convention floor that year. He didn't have D.C. advisers and his staff was just a handful of people who mostly drove him around the state.

From the outside, his campaign looked like a longshot, but Dayton had a clear vision for what he wanted to do as governor. The last Democrat to serve in the office was his old boss, Perpich, who lost a 1990 re-election bid.

"It had been such a long time since a Democrat had been governor," said Katharine Tinucci, one of his campaign staffers. "From the very start it was about tax fairness, it was about restoring the fiscal stability of our state and it was about education."

It was the first midterm in Barack Obama's presidency, and Democrats were expecting losses across the nation. In that environment, Dayton's campaign slogan was considered bold: Tax the rich.

"People were betting against him," Tinucci said. "Friends of mine were urging me to find another job. They said he was never going to win."

Dayton managed to prevail in a close, three-way primary. And he pulled off a win in the general election, too, defeating Republican Tom Emmer by just 9,000 votes despite a tea party wave.

He would go on to win a second term and is about end his political career after 40 years.

Asked recently what a younger version of himself would think of his time in office, Dayton said he hoped "that young man back then would have said that I stuck it out and I persisted."

"I started out as a progressive Democrat," he added. "I hope I've continued to be true to my values."