Posted 9:52 am, July 28th, 2009 by Steve Perry
2010 Governor's Race
What makes them run
[This interview originally appeared in the July 24 issue of PIM Weekly Report.]
Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton (DFL)--the lone gubernatorial candidate to declare unequivocally that he'll run in next September's primary with or without his party's endorsement--sat down with PIM last week at his downtown Minneapolis campaign HQ.
Born: 1947, Minneapolis; Education: B.A., Yale University; Electoral record: Lost 1982 U.S. Senate race to Dave Durenberger, defeated Bob Heinrich to win 1990 race for state auditor; ran unsuccessfully for DFL gubernatorial nomination, 1998; won 2000 U.S. Senate race versus incumbent Rod Grams; campaign website.
[See previous What makes them run interviews with 2010 gubernatorial candidates.]
PIM: Why are you running for governor?
Mark Dayton: I don't want to be part of the first generation in our nation's history to leave our state and our nation worse off for our children and grandchildren and future generations. And that would be my verdict of my generation today. And also that would be my verdict on Minnesota, the state I love. I think we've been going profoundly in the wrong direction in the last couple of decades with the executive leadership that we've had, and I think Minnesota's election next year is a pivotal one. Just as last year's national election was.
Are we going to continue on this course, destroying the basic fabric that's made this great and successful in the past, or are we going to make the changes in direction necessary to create a better Minnesota? That's the theme of my campaign. A better Minnesota.
PIM: What are the two or three most important challenges facing Minnesota, and what would you do to solve them?
Dayton: Well, first, by all accounts we're going to face another fiscal crisis of the proportion of the last one. We've got to restore a progressive tax system to Minnesota. By Gov. Pawlenty's Department of Revenue's own account, the wealthiest 10 percent of people in Minnesota pay only two-thirds of their proportionate share of income in state and local taxes. I ran against Rod Grams in 2000, and at the federal level he was proposing a flat tax where everybody would pay the same percentage. Well, in Minnesota that would be an improvement. We don't even have that. We have 80 percent in the middle paying basically a proportionate share of 10.2 percent, and then we have the wealthiest people in the state paying about two-thirds of that proportionate share.
If they paid the same proportionate share as the middle class, that would be $3.8 billion of additional revenue for the next biennium. Gov. Pawlenty says revenues are fixed, so everything else has to be axed to fit within that parameter. I think we'll see even more in the next year just how drastic the consequences are of that. And it would be even more draconian in the next session.
So I say we've got to turn all of the cards face up. We've got to look at the income side, we've got to look at the expenditure side. We've got to see on both sides what we need to do.
Number two, I'd put revenues into K-12 education, early childhood, and higher education also. We've got one school district in Minnesota already operating on a four-day school week. We've got a couple of others who are following suit this fall. We've got teacher layoffs across the state.
My last two years in the Senate, I visited a couple hundred Minnesota schools and a couple thousand classrooms. I saw a lot of dedicated teachers working under difficult conditions with a lack of resources and basic educational tools. And classrooms with 30-35 students in the elementary grades and 45-50 students in high school classes.
We can't create the educational advantages that we've provided in this state that have made a critical difference in our social and economic success if we're underfunding public education.
Third is job creation. You know, I was commissioner of economic development for the last DFLgovernor, Rudy Perpich, and his mantra was Jobs, jobs, jobs. I think I know from firsthand experience how to go out there as a governor and work for Minnesota--go anywhere in the country and anywhere in the world, if necessary, and work with businesses here to help them solve their day-to-day problems and help them to expand and grow here and provide quality jobs.
Fourth is health care. I support affordable health care for every Minnesotan and every American. I hope that the president and the Congress can resolve that issue, because they have the financial resources that no state has to address those concerns. But I'm skeptical of their ability, without going to a national single-payer system, which is what I think we're going to have to eventually do. We're going to have to take this outrageous, obscene profiteering out of health care. I mean, United Health Group just announced a quarterly profit of almost a billion dollars. Well, they don't provide health services. They just take money from people for health care and pay less back than has been paid in.
As long as you've got a third of every health care dollar going for insurance company profits and pharmaceutical industry profits, you're never going to be able to afford to pay for health care for everybody in this country. So that's going to be a case where the states have to react to whatever the federal government does to work things out over the next six to nine months.
You can go the gamut of issues, and I always hesitate to single out a few issues, because I think one of the roles of a governor--and, as I learned, a senator--you've got a very diverse state with statewide concerns. What's critical in northeastern Minnesota in terms of the mining industry, and an unemployment rate there of greater than 30 percent, does not directly impact southwestern Minnesota. Although it does, because it affects the whole state economy. But the agricultural part of southwestern Minnesota then affects the industrial area of northeastern Minnesota. So you've got to be a generalist to be effective as a statewide leader.
I would just quickly add also, transportation. We've let our highway system deteriorate. Our public transit system has deteriorated. That's one of the basic, essential functions of government in terms of creating a productive, successful society and one that fosters economic growth--having good education, productive people, a sound transportation system and other infrastructure. Those are the ingredients state government can provide, first and foremost, to encourage business growth and expansion.
PIM: How many campaign events have you attended so far?
Dayton: I don't know. A couple thousand. See, I mean--others may get into, I've been to this number of events or this number of counties. We've got people running who haven't been in every county in Minnesota. And if they've been there, it was to hold a campaign fundraiser. I'm in a different league from anyone else in this campaign in the fact that I've been traveling all over this state for 30 years. I've held thousands of events around this state. More importantly, I've been in thousands of meetings and worked on thousands of projects, rolling up my sleeves and helping people with thousands of problems around the state.
I'm steeped in [this state]. That's what my campaign is based on. They asked Picasso once how long it took him to produce a certain painting. He said, all my life. What I offer Minnesota is a career in public service. I'm the only person [in the governor's race] who's run a statewide general election campaign and won. I've run seven statewide elections and I've won five of them. More importantly, I'm the only person who's run a statewide agency. I've run three of them over nine years.
I know how government works and how it should work. I know how to make it work. That's what I want to bring to Minnesota. If other people want to think the measure is, how many campaign events have they put on?, I just respectfully disagree. I don't think that's what this is about. I don't think that on September 14 of 2010, people are going to vote based on how many campaign events somebody has had. They'll vote based on what [candidates] have done in the past and, most importantly, what they offer for the future of Minnesota.
PIM: What are the main messages you're hearing from Minnesotans as you campaign around the state?
Dayton: I think people are really worried about the future. I think people are torn--on the one hand, I think they're very tax-averse, because even people who have jobs are feeling the insecurity, as well as flat or declining [wages]. Obviously, now, with the unemployment what it is, and some areas in double-digits, you've got serious economic concerns.
And people are also really understanding that what we're entering as a nation is a profoundly different era from the past, where we won't have that sole economic supremacy that our economy and production and jobs and services were all based upon. So how we grapple with that is going to be a huge challenge facing whoever is the next governor, just as it is facing President Obama today.
I think people on the other hand also recognize that our roads are worse, our highways are worse, they're concerned about the quality of education, they're concerned about public safety--so they're also concerned about the quality of services the government provides.
So you've got this tension between what people want and need and also what they feel they can'tafford to pay for.
PIM: If you don't receive your party's endorsement, will you run in the primary?
Dayton: Yes. I've said that from the outset. I wrote a letter to the party leadership back in 1997 when I was running for governor before. At that point I'd been endorsed twice before, for senator in 1982 and for auditor in 1990. But I said [in the letter] that after a lot of soul-searching and reflection--and this was almost a year before the convention of '98--I said that I believe, in a democracy, the legal and ethical responsibility resides with the voters. With the people. And that the proper role of the convention endorsement should be for the party leadership to recommend to voters who the nominee should be. But that, again, legally and morally, the people should decide who the nominee is.
I can't say it any more articulately than you wrote it the last time. But I'm saying the same thing.
PIM: Who, or what, would you say are the most important influences on your life and outlook?
Dayton: Well, again, I'm shaped by a life experience that goes back to 40 years of what I call public service--teaching in New York City, learning firsthand about real poverty and what that does to people's lives. Working for a couple of outstanding public leaders--Fritz Mondale when he was senator, and Rudy Perpich as governor. Winning elections and losing elections and traveling all over this state for all those years, both in campaigns and in public office. Fifteen years of state and federal office, and being steeped in the real life experience of millions of Minnesotans. And rolling up my sleeves and working with local governments when I was state auditor and when I was commissioner of energy and economic development.
That's what ultimately, especially as a public servant, has made me who I am, if that's your question.
Growing up, my father was certainly my personal hero. He's just about to be 91, and he's still living an ethic of public service. His favorite saying from the Bible is, "To whomsoever much has been given, of him shall much be required"--that sense that our family was extremely fortunate in what we'd been given, and we had a responsibility as well as an opportunity to give back. That was certainly influential.
My first political hero was Robert Kennedy. I was a junior in college back in 1967-68, and I was pre-med in college. I worked three summers as an orderly in surgery at the old Abbott hospital. So my first career interest, I thought, was medicine. So I was pre-med and playing ice hockey for Yale.
Then the Vietnam War impinged on my consciousness and broadened my political and social horizons. I started looking at the world around me and realizing what was going on. I was still in college, and I followed that campaign closely. I can still remember--not only was Robert Kennedy against the war, he cared about people less fortunate than he. He had a social conscience that I just thought was so genuine.
I can remember I had just finished my junior year in college and gone home. I was sitting in the basement of my parents' home in Long Lake. They had gone to bed, because they didn't even like the Kennedys. They were Republicans.
I watched the California primary, and there's Kennedy on the television declaring victory and saying, "Now it's on to Chicago!" I was reaching forward to turn off the television, and suddenly there he was lying in a pool of blood. He'd just been assassinated. That scene was replayed over the next few days, and there was just something about seeing my political hero die for the causes he believed in that lit a political flame inside me. I could never just be comfortable being comfortable in my parents' comfortable home again.
So I went back, withdrew my medical school applications, and decided that I needed some real-world experience. So I got the job teaching at a public school on the lower east side of New York City. Ninth grade general science. I always said they taught me a lot more than I taught them. That was the beginning of the broadening of my own social awareness. The contrast between the life that I was brought up in and the good fortune I had just by virtue of where I landed on the planet--there was nothing I'd done to deserve that; it was just where I'd arrived--versus what these guys were having to endure.
In my view, the enormous injustice of that contrast in a society that had the resources to provide for everybody, just really seared me and shaped my social and political conscience.
PIM: What's the first thing you can remember wanting to be when you grew up?
Dayton: I wanted to be the starting goalie on the U.S. Olympic hockey team [laughs]. But my junior year, my throat got split open with a skate. I was sitting in a hospital bed at Yale-New Haven hospital in an oxygen tent with this ice all over my neck, and they had this tracheotomy kit right next to me in case my windpipe closed, because it tore my windpipe and cracked my larynx.
I was coughing up blood. They had this tracheotomy kit sitting out there because they figured I didn't know what it was. Well, I'd been an orderly in surgery [laughs]. I knew exactly what it was. At that point, I assessed that my goals-against average was going [up] and my grade-point average was going [down], and I came to realize my future was not going to be as starting goalie for the U.S. Olympic hockey team.
Then, as I said, there were three summers I spent as an orderly in surgery at the old Abbott hospital on Stevens and 15th. That to me was just a fascinating experience. You know, [they're] saving lives. Back in those days, before they had liability insurance issues like today, I could scrub in and hold retractors. And the doctors appreciated a young person with interest. They took the time to tell me what they were doing. I could watch a Caesarean and watch this blue mass appear and take a breath and become a human being. It was just miraculous. Unbelievable.
That was probably my first pragmatic career decision. I worked one summer at Dayton's and it didn't take me long to realize I wasn't meant to be a retailer. Nothing wrong with it, it just wasn't what stirred my soul.