Politics and Government

With portrait and new posts, Dayton edges back into public view

Former Gov. Mark Dayton
Former Gov. Mark Dayton relaxed at his Minneapolis condo this week, a few days before the unveiling of his official portrait at the Capitol.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

The best advice Mark Dayton says he got as he wound down nearly four decades in public life was to take six months to decompress. That meant not jumping into another job or making a bunch of commitments off the bat.

The former governor has largely abided, with the exception of his weekly date with his grandsons. They take him on in Chutes and Ladders and lessons in chess have begun with the six-year-old.

“He’s just getting started, so he’s not encumbered by the rules of chess,” Dayton said. “He usually has my queen on about the third move.”

“They get back from school and we hang out and play and do whatever they want to do and play games, romp and have a good time,” he said.

They don’t ask why their grandfather suddenly has so much time. And Dayton is in no hurry to be busy again, having spent more than half his life serving in public office or plotting his next move toward the next perch.

“I don’t feel an urgency to do anything. I’m 72 years old, I can call myself retired and do little or nothing, which doesn’t appeal to me,” Dayton said Monday in his first interview since leaving the Minnesota governor’s office after two terms. “But I don’t feel pressure or time urgency that I have to be doing something, I have to get something put together.”

Gradually, however, Dayton is picking up part-time assignments.

Last week, the University of Minnesota announced him as a fellow at the Center for Integrative Leadership. The unpaid role will involve classroom presentations and participation in research and special projects.

And later this week, his official portrait will join those of other former governors at the State Capitol.

Dayton said he has also agreed to serve on some boards. That includes Alight, formerly the American Refugee Committee, and for a women’s basketball booster organization.

Neither of those come with financial compensation, and he says he’s only interested in aligning with groups he philosophically supports.

“But I don’t have a public role. I’m not trying to create one,” Dayton said. “So, I’ve kind of faded into irrelevancy.”

Dayton’s penchant for self-deprecation remains intact. His gray hair has thinned, but so has he. Dayton still moves about with a cane as he continues to rehabilitate from a major spinal surgery at this time last year, which hampered him during his last months in office.

In his condominium not far from the Walker Art Center, he passes time reading about history. He’s two volumes into Winston Churchill’s six-book account of World War II. He keeps up on the news through the internet and occasional calls with friends and former aides.

“It’s a big transition certainly to go from being governor to a private citizen again. But by all accounts he’s making that transition well and taking his time,” said Sen. Tina Smith, who was first appointed to her job by Dayton and had served as his lieutenant governor.

Smith said Dayton is sparing with his advice to her and others.

“He always appreciated that when he became governor — even though it was a different party, Gov. [Tim] Pawlenty gave him a wide berth and never said anything publicly to get in his way. I’m sure — I know — Mark feels this way as well,” she said.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton announces replacement for Sen. Al Franken
Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith fields questions after being named the replacement to Sen. Al Franken by Gov. Mark Dayton in December 2017 at the Minnesota State Capitol.
Stephen Maturen | Getty Images 2017

Dayton said he misses being where the action is, traveling the state and working on policy problems. But he’s intent on giving ample space to DFL Gov. Tim Walz, whom he’s spoken with a handful of times since January.

“You know, I’ve really stayed out of politics,” Dayton said. “I’m not going to be an appendage.”

He’s remained neutral in the race for the 2020 presidential nomination despite requests for contributions and his endorsement.

“I’ve told them I’m just not prepared to support anybody now,” he said.

Among the candidates, he says he only has deep history with former Vice President Joe Biden from their Senate days and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who holds the seat he once did.

“I’m not that important in the scheme of things,” Dayton said. “I’m not any longer somebody whose name matters on a manifest.”

As for Dayton’s official portrait, which will be unveiled Thursday, it shows him in front of the Capitol building, which underwent a $300 million restoration on his watch.

“I think anybody wants a strong supporting cast and I couldn’t do any better than the Capitol,” Dayton said. “The portrait artist said that people almost never like their own portrait, although I think he did a wonderful job and we worked very well together. He did a superb job given the subject matter he had to deal with.”

Paul Oxborough, the Excelsior artist who painted it, said the Capitol was the element Dayton insisted on.

“I think if he could have made the Capitol the star instead of a co-star he would have,” Oxborough said. “I think he was a little bit shy about the whole process of getting the portrait painted.”

Dayton said he’s excited for his two grandsons — and a third on the way — to see the painting when they’re old enough for customary school field trips to the Capitol.

“Maybe some year, one of their classes will come over and they’ll see my portrait and the guide will say, ‘That’s your grandfather.’ And one of them will say, ‘That’s not my grandfather, that’s Boompa.’”

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