Yvonne Prettner Solon’s decision not to remain on the Democratic gubernatorial re-election ticket is perhaps the least surprising political development of the week. For months, Prettner Solon had acknowledged that she was not pleased with her minimal role as Gov. Mark Dayton’s lieutenant governor. Last week, Prettner Solon told reporters that she had privately already made her decision, a surprising admission that led most observers to expect her to opt out of a re-election campaign.
Prettner Solon made it official in a Monday afternoon meeting with Dayton, and took it public with a Tuesday morning press conference. In announcing her choice to leave that office after a single term, Prettner Solon said it had been a “great privilege” to serve in that capacity. She spoke of working for better services for seniors and the state’s disabled. (Changes to the state’s policies regarding people with disabilities are the subject of the administration’s Olmstead Subcabinet, which she has chaired.)
“I thank Gov. Dayton for presenting me with this opportunity to serve,” she said, “and I thank my staff for their tremendous efforts to help me in my efforts to build a better Minnesota.”
Dayton, for his part, returned the gratitude, praising his second-in-command’s “invaluable service to our state” in a Tuesday afternoon tweet. Also adding supportive, thankful statements in the wake of the not-so-sudden departure were DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen and DFL Party chairman Ken Martin, who said Prettner Solon “had a good sense of what is most important to the state and its citizens.”
Even before the pleasantries had stopped, though, politics was rearing its head. First came a denouncement from Republican gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert, who said Prettner Solon’s exit was further evidence of Dayton’s “war on rural Minnesota.” Later, a press release from the Minnesota Jobs Coalition included the decision among a number of seeming missteps, including controversies with MNsure and the Senate office building, as part of a trend that seems to show Dayton has been “missing in action” in recent weeks.
Names emerge as possible successors
Seasoned political observers, including those closely tied to the DFL Party, said the episode is indeed a crisis, but see it as one that Dayton could actually turn to his advantage in efforts to win over Minnesota voters this fall. The chance to replace Prettner Solon with another, more politically vibrant choice is not likely to be lost on the incumbent and his campaign staff, they argued.
Capitol Report spoke with a number of politicos to get their take on Dayton’s most politically advantageous options. Among possible choices for Prettner Solon’s successor, insiders mentioned four names in particular.
• Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, is seen by most observers as the obvious favorite for the selection. Though relatively young, Sieben has proven herself a careful, politically adept operator over more than a decade of experience in the Legislature. Her joining the campaign could also register with suburbanites and women, two key constituencies for Dayton.
• Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board Commissioner (IRRRB) Tony Sertich would also add obvious value for Dayton. The former House majority leader represented a rural constituency, and would likely hold appeal for northern Minnesota’s DFL mix of liberals and labor. But the Iron Range calculus is seen as less important this time around for Dayton, who is thought to have chosen Prettner Solon for similar reasons in 2010. At that point, Dayton was trying to win a DFL primary against Margaret Anderson Kelliher; this year, his own popularity with Iron Rangers is expected to be more than enough to carry that crowd.
• Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is still a popular figure in the Twin Cities, and managed to leave that office without any major scandal. But, as with northern Minnesota, Dayton can probably turn out urban liberals without the need for Rybak’s energy and connection with young activists.
• Least likely, it is thought, is Dayton’s chief of staff, Tina Smith. Smith is a close confidant of the governor, and insiders think she has more power in her current role than she would in holding an office that many — including its most recent tenant — think of as little more than a figurehead position.
University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs professor Larry Jacobs said Dayton will look to make a safe choice, noting that a running mate’s chief job is not to make a mistake. Multiple close viewers of the situation referred to the bad example of Judi Dutcher, the former state auditor whose botched answer to a seemingly simple question led to a 2006 run-in between DFL candidate Mike Hatch and a reporter that is thought to have damaged Hatch in that election.
Jacobs added that Dayton, and those in his inner circle, have probably used the months since Prettner Solon’s initial expressions of discontentment to strategize, and will probably seize on the moment to strengthen his re-election effort.
“I think,” said Jacobs, “it’s one of those things where he’s not happy, outwardly. But I think it’s an opportunity for him.”