When he was the GOP Senate minority leader, Dick Day was often full of surprises. He no longer is a senator, but his candid folksiness remains unchanged.
The man who once declared Tim Pawlenty the greatest governor in Minnesota history now waxes rhapsodic about Pawlenty’s DFL successor.
“I guess I’m kind of impressed with Mark Dayton,” Day says. “First of all, he can’t be bought off. So he is not in the pocket of anybody, period. That’s number one and that is really important.”
It’s both a heartfelt and, for a Republican, a potentially intemperate thing to say. Especially when Day also asserts that most state legislators have been bought off by the state’s casino-enriched Native American tribes, which foiled Day’s own 17-year bid to establish revenue-generating “racinos” — non-tribe-owned slot machines at Canterbury Park in Shakopee and at the Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus.
But there is nothing unusual in Day’s candor. When he was Owatonna’s conservative populist in the Senate, intemperance might have been his middle name.
This is the man who once publicly declared that St. Paul and Minneapolis schools “suck.” He appointed former state Sen. Michele Bachmann to a leadership post, only to oust her months later, saying she had surrounded herself with a disruptive “cult following.” He was the minority leader who rang up the sergeant at arms and frog-marched Independence Party Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, a recently deposed Republican, out of her State Office Building digs and into the arms of the DFL caucus.
At times, Day could get personal. He once openly declared his disdain for former GOP Minority Leader Dean Johnson, after Johnson observed in print that Day was at heart “a moderate and a centrist.” It’s ambiguous, but Day might have challenged the mild-mannered Johnson to a fistfight.
“I would be lying to you if I said that I liked [Johnson], because I don’t,” Day told the Star Tribune in a 2004 interview. “But that’s beside the point. I would meet him anyplace.”
Johnson’s response? “I kind of like Dick Day.”
Shoot from the hip
That’s the thing. His Jesse Ventura-like impertinence notwithstanding, most everyone seems to like Dick Day.
“I think Dick is a genuine guy,” says Sen. John Marty, the liberal Roseville Democrat. “He is not a phony.”
“We didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things,” Marty says. “But I think one thing that you can say about him is that he really did care.”
Sen. James Metzen is a South St. Paul DFLer who served as Senate president during Day’s minority leadership and was an ally of Day’s on racino legislation.
“He would work across party lines quite easily,” Metzen says. “We worked together and got things done and we weren’t always at one another’s throats — which occurs a little more often now than it should.”
Day could be abrasive, Metzen admits. “He’d be a little theatrical, at times, and put on a show,” the senator says. But for the most part, Day’s legislative colleagues took that in stride. “They knew what he was doing,” Metzen says.
“I just had a way of throwing the flames in there, just to the point of not making them dislike me,” Day says. “I just did it in such a nice way.”
Day’s constituents found much to like, says Tim Penny, the former DFL congressman whose huge southern Minnesota district encompassed all of Day’s. Day is such a garrulous personality that he quickly became well known and liked by voters, Penny says. His propensity to shoot from the hip actually played well back home, Penny says.
“They knew Dick well enough to kind of know what he really meant to say,” Penny laughs.
Little known fact: In 1986, Penny recruited Day to run for state Senate — not as a Democrat, but as an independent. Day was a Steele County commissioner at the time.
“I was convinced that Dick could be a good senator, I knew that he had a very independent streak,” Penny says. “I also knew that a Democrat was not likely to win in the district as it was drawn at that time. So I thought it would be prudent to have someone like Dick run.”
Day was game to do it and filed to run against incumbent Mel Frederick. But he knew the plan would only work if no Democrat entered that race, Day says. When DFLer Janis Ray entered the fray, Day bailed out.
He returned four years later, this time as a Republican, and beat Frederick — the Republican minority’s second-ranking member — by 57 votes in a primary. Frederick was targeted by anti-abortion forces during that campaign and later filed a complaint with the Steele County attorney charging that Day was really a Democrat whose campaign literature misrepresented Day’s stance on abortion. Nothing came of it, and Day was elected that November.
Day says he spent his first few years in the Senate flying under the radar, keeping quiet, learning the ropes. That state of affairs did not last long. He learned fast, climbed quickly. By 1997, Day was Senate minority leader, a position he would hold for the next 10 years.
As senator, Day credits himself and former Sen. Ted Mondale with helping keep the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport where it is, instead of moving it to a 28,000-acre Dakota County site. He helped lead the charge on a decade-long effort to approve a new Minnesota Twins stadium, which finally broke ground in 2007. He also peevishly challenged MnDOT’s deployment of metro freeway onramp stoplights, more than 100 of which were eventually removed.
In 2008, Day decided to challenge incumbent First District U.S. Rep. Tim Walz for his congressional seat. That campaign never gained much traction, a fact Day now blames on a feud with Bachmann’s supporters. That started when Day backed Gary Laidig, Bachmann’s incumbent opponent, in her 2000 GOP state Senate endorsement fight.
After the day in 2005 when he booted Bachmann from her assistant Senate minority leader post, Day says he was forever branded in the eyes of delegates as a Republican in name only — a “RINO.” The image dogged him in his brief congressional bid.
“When I went to the 1st District delegates, it was amazing,” he says. “I would go and meet with people in their homes and they would say, ‘Well, Dick, you’re not pro-life enough.’ And I would go, ‘Well, what do you mean? I voted pro-life 100 times. So it’s 100-0!’”
Penny, now president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, thinks Day probably has a point. But he thinks Day’s loss to untested Rochester physician Brian J. Davis in that primary also happened because of Day’s Senate voting record, which could be used to paint him as a moderate.
Plus, there was also the matter of Day’s incorrigibility. Though it played well in his home district, it did not go over so well in places like Rochester, Penny suggests.
“They’ll cut you some slack at home because they know where you are coming from,” Penny says. “But some of those same things can cause some larger problems when you try to step onto a larger stage.”
Transition to lobbying
In December 2009, Day announced he would retire from the Senate to lead a lobbying coalition aimed at passing a racino bill. He had championed the issue since the late 1990s, initially to pay for a Twins ballpark. More recently, he pitched it as a way to raise between $125 million and $250 million for everything from roads to education to more sports stadiums.
Racino, of course, never happened. But even today, Day refuses to totally give up. “There are ways that I would like to resurrect it,” he says.
Metzen, however, thinks the idea was killed for good when the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, owners of Mystic Lake Casino, kicked in $75 million over 10 years to increase purses at Canterbury Park. “I just don’t think that is going to happen,” Metzen says.
In a way, it doesn’t matter, because Day has other causes. During recent sessions he has lobbied on behalf of RIA Services Co., a subsidiary of the former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., on behalf of e-cigarettes. Two years ago, he successfully lobbied for pro-fireworks legislation, only to see Dayton veto it after a Republican Legislature passed it.
At present he only has four clients — none of whom are involved with racino. He says he likely will pick up a few more in the coming session. But he isn’t concerned about amassing paying clients.
For one thing, Day says, he doesn’t need the money. He has pensions from his old job at IBM, from the 12 years he served as a city and county elected official, and from his 19 years in the Senate. “And then I am old enough and the wife is old enough to get Social Security,” he adds.
As much as anything else, he says, he does the job for fun, to keep his feet in the Capitol and his head in the game.
Ronald Jerich, the longtime lobbyist who supplies Day a good portion of his lobbying accounts, says that staying connected to politics is all Day really wants. Besides, Jerich says, he is a good lobbyist.
“He works hard,” Jerich says. “You give him a little task to do and he gets
it done. Some of these other guys, they’re around for the money. Dick is around for the pleasure of being around people.”
Day doesn’t dispute the point. Lobbying the Capitol, he says, gives him a good reason to get up and get moving. “I’ve always said that if you get up in the morning and you feel good, you’ve got the world by the ass,” Day says. “There is nothing else. You have it.”
The Day File
Name: Dick Day
Job: Independent lobbyist, Day and Associates, former longtime Senate minority leader
Grew up in: Rochester
Lives in: Owatonna
Family: Wife, Janet; four adult children
Education: Rochester High School; B.A., business and political science, Winona State University
Hobbies: Walking, lobbying
Dick Day likes (almost) everyone: “There are probably about three people at the Capitol that I don’t really get along too well with and I would just as soon stay away from — Sandy Pappas, Dick Cohen, Ann Rest,” Day says. “The rest of them, I get along fantastically.”