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Mark Dayton entered the Capitol in January owing its inhabitants very little. The DFL governor spent $3.9 million of his own fortune to win the primary and the narrow election in November, and for the most part conducted his campaign with little help from special interest groups or Democratic legislators.

As budget showdown looms, Dayton remains an unknown quantity at the Capitol

 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Despite holding political office repeatedly, Gov. Mark Dayton has developed few ties to legislators. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Mark Dayton entered the Capitol in January owing its inhabitants very little. The DFL governor spent $3.9 million of his own fortune to win the primary and the narrow election in November, and for the most part conducted his campaign with little help from special interest groups or Democratic legislators. Most of the latter supported former House Speaker and DFL endorsee Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s campaign from the start.

“He got to the governor’s office, really, on his own,” said DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, who also ran for governor. “It is a real luxury for a governor not to have that baggage of having to reward some people for helping get him into his position.”

Despite holding political office repeatedly – as state auditor, commissioner, U.S. senator – Dayton has never developed extensive ties to the cast of characters that comprise the Legislature, and he has proven to be an independent political operator since moving into the governor’s office. He has reached across party lines to work with Republicans on issues that have made some DFLers and labor groups cringe. He has also avoided entanglements with the DFL legislative caucuses, both in his office’s day-to-day workings and in his choice to largely pass them by in his Cabinet appointments – moves that have rubbed some veteran Democrats the wrong way.

Preparing for showdown

By most accounts, Dayton’s strategies have been enormously effective, even as a newcomer to the Capitol’s long-entrenched political battles. “It’s invaluable to have knowledge of how any institution runs that you’re taking part in,” noted House GOP Taxes Chairman Greg Davids. “But I think the governor has been a quick study.”

Capitol watchers say Dayton has made a few moves early on that will put him in a good position when the budget showdown comes. The first was to hold local government aid (LGA) harmless in his budget. While the governor insists he did so to hold the line against increasing property taxes – the most regressive tax, Dayton has asserted repeatedly – some say the decision also reflected a canny political calculation. LGA cuts are a sticking point in the Republican caucuses – particularly in the House, where many rural GOP members rely heavily on the aid in their districts.

House Republicans whacked LGA by $487 million in their early-session “phase one” budget omnibus, a move that was tempered for rural members in the House by making the cuts a one-time reduction. When it came time to present their main budget bill, they charted a different course on LGA cuts by concentrating them in the DFL strongholds of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. But the Senate, meanwhile, kept extensive statewide LGA cuts in its final taxes proposal.

By holding the line on aid to cities and counties, a longtime lobbyist points out, Dayton is apparently bidding to pit rural Republicans against suburban Republicans. Down the road, that friction could cause internal dissension on tough budget votes. “For someone who hasn’t been around the Legislature for more than a decade,” the lobbyist said, “he sure knows where its weak points are.”

Within the first week of March, Dayton also put his signature on two major pieces of legislation long desired by Republicans: alternative teacher licensure and expedited environmental permitting for businesses. Republicans celebrated the moves, and they painted a public portrait of Dayton as someone who was willing to compromise, the lobbyist said.

“When everyone is getting sick of politicians and wants the budget to be resolved,” the lobbyist noted, “[Dayton] can tell the media and the public that he is someone who is willing to work with the other side and point to those examples. Republicans don’t really have anything like that to point to. In fact, the leadership and these freshmen have been quoted in the media regularly saying they won’t compromise.”

Some DFL legislators critical

Some DFLers are not so keen on Dayton’s cozy relationship with Republicans. DFL House Rep. Mindy Greiling said he caved too early on both bills. “Any of us who have been around the block here know that when you’re negotiating a conference committee, you never give a freebie of something they really want unless you get something for it,” she said. “Obviously he is trying to get good will, but it hasn’t worked for [President Barack] Obama, and it won’t work for Dayton.”

Greiling said in the end, Dayton needs to be a “hard bargain driver” and can’t give in to Republicans on certain issues. “The more he shows [himself] not to stick with his own edicts, the better off the Republicans are who want to roll over him.”

Greiling and other caucus members also say there is a “perception” in their caucus that he is “available to everyone and their mother more so than he is to actual Democratic legislators.” That sentiment is echoed by DFL St. Paul Rep. Alice Hausman, who said it’s unclear what their role in the minority will be.

“I would say my sense is he is working very, very well with the Republicans on their bills,” Hausman said. “He has been very proactive on that; they have access to his office. In terms of the people he thinks he is going to negotiate with, he apparently has a very open door policy, and that’s working quite well.”

But Hausman argues that there is also value in having working relationships with your own party in the Legislature. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty came from the House, so he maintained close ties with the Republican minority. And Kelliher, had she won the primary and the governorship, would have been close to the DFL minority as well, Hausman said.

“That’s really the reason to use your own party – so somebody has your back,” she said. “He doesn’t have those relationships, and maybe it’s because he feels he doesn’t need them.”

Bakk says the Senate DFL caucus has a good working relationship with Dayton, but he acknowledges the governor’s closeness with both Republican caucuses. Had Kelliher or GOP gubernatorial candidate and former House Rep. Tom Emmer won the executive job, Bakk said, the Legislature would have been much more involved in creating the governor’s budget proposals. Under Dayton, Bakk said DFLers had “little or no” involvement in the development of the governor’s budget plan released in mid-February.

GOP Rep. Pat Garofalo, who authored the alternative licensure bill that Dayton signed, said the governor is smart to “sit outside the zone of traditional Democrats.” “I think he is being shrewd and staying above the fray,” Garofalo said. “He doesn’t need anything from the legislative Democrats except to uphold his vetoes.”

DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler said he thinks Dayton is staying out of the Legislature’s day-to-day skirmishes and keeping to the big picture. Kelliher, he said, would have been more tempted to seek advice from legislators and get in the middle of its battles, some of which reach far back and can be personal.

“He stays out of the small battles and lets the Legislature look like the squabbling politicians,” Winkler said. “[Dayton is] not thinking about what happened in the 2007 tax conference committee and out to get someone who did something he didn’t like to the bill at that time,” he said. “He doesn’t have that baggage.”

Negotiating advantage?

The true test of Dayton’s political savvy, however, will be behind closed doors in negotiations with the Republicans near the end of session, an area in which most GOPers think they can top the first-term governor. GOP operative Ben Golnik contrasted Dayton unfavorably with Pawlenty, whose experience in the Legislature made him an adept negotiator with the DFL caucuses and leadership.

Golnik thinks Dayton’s past performances in political positions, namely his one term in the U.S. Senate, offer signs that he will cave in the negotiation process. “It’s one thing to have a little vibrato in a press release,” Golnik said. “It’s another thing to be sitting at the negotiating table.”

But one DFL lobbyist who backed Kelliher for governor says Dayton’s performance as a senator has little bearing on how he will perform in St. Paul. “He has done way, way better than anyone expected,” the lobbyist said. “He was frustrated and didn’t seem to enjoy the Senate much. Governor is just a better job. You have so much more latitude, and you can control the message.

“So far he hasn’t stumbled, and I think that’s what has surprised people. I think he enjoys being in charge.”

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