One important contribution by Minnesota to American politics has been a series of unconventional politicians at the highest levels of state and national office. Gov. Mark Dayton, judging by his behavior during the 2015 state legislative sessions, fits comfortably into that category.
He has lots of company. Former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachman and U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, for example, defined the ideologically purist factions of their parties with their florid and polarizing rhetoric. Many recent governors have displayed rather “interesting” character traits as well.
Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich (1976-79 and 1983-91) had his share of quirky enthusiasms such as backing funds for a chopsticks factory in Hibbing. In fairness, however, one of his big ideas, the Mall of America, has proven viable and profitable. His successor, GOPer Arne Carlson (1991-99) was subject to some formidable fits of temper. Then came Independent Gov. Jesse Ventura (1999-2003), a professional snark merchant, who referred to state legislators as “butt-kissing gutless cowards.” Tim Pawlenty (2003-2011) had perhaps the most conventional personality of the recent governors, but was not above sharply partisan charges that Democratic tax raising schemes were “colossally stupid.”
Mark Dayton’s recent comments and behavior regarding the state budget give considerable evidence of gubernatorial quirkiness. This personal tendency previously was suggested in his office hopping from state auditor to U.S. Senate and then to the governorship. And while in the Senate, he was alone among his colleagues in closing his office because of the threat of terrorism, the sort of behavior that got him labeled as one of the least-effective members of that august institution.
All that is consistent with the erratic and self-defeating behavior of Dayton in the budget battles this year. His top goal, universal state-run education for 4-year-olds, got nowhere, and he was forced to relent on a number of other agenda items as well. Why? Through a number of tactical mistakes.
First, Dayton failed to build initial legislative support for his top agenda item. The key opportunity for that lay in the strongly Democratic state Senate, which under Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, failed to demonstrate comparable enthusiasm for the governor’s top issue.
Second, Dayton’s stance in initial budget negotiations served to sharply limit his influence over its outcome. The tactical imperative for gubernatorial success lay in reaching agenda agreement with the Democratic majority in the Senate. Then both the Democratic Senate and governor could present a united front against the GOP House and its chief negotiator, Speaker Kurt Daudt. Dayton’s counterproductive public attack on Bakk in February, however, helped to ensure the governor’s isolation. To quote Dayton: “I can’t trust him, can’t believe what he says to me and that he connives behind my back.” Smart tacticians work out disagreements with potential allies in private, not over the airwaves.
Third, the governor did little to smooth relations with GOP rivals with his intemperate public attacks aimed at Republican legislators. Dayton claimed, “I realize they hate the public schools . . . and they are loathe to provide any additional money for public schools and public school teachers because of all of the good programs . . . contradict what they say, which is public schools do everything badly.” Publicly impugning the motives of others with which one must negotiate hardly wins a person the benefit of the doubt with them. This probably helped GOP House Speaker Daudt keep unity among Republicans by creating great partisan distance between them and the governor.
Fourth, the governor managed to so alienate legislators in budget negotiations that the House speaker and Senate majority leader worked out a separate, bipartisan budget deal that ignored the governor’s top priority of universal pre-kindergarten public education. This left Dayton with little leverage as the regular legislative session moved toward its mandatory adjournment.
Fifth, the governor signed a bill limiting the state auditor’s ability to audit county governments and then asked for that provision of the bill, now law, to be repealed in the special session. Dayton made removing that provision a top agenda item in the special session bargaining. Lesson: Don’t sign into law legislation with provisions you strongly oppose and cannot accept.
During this time, special session bargaining ended up involving Daudt, R-Crown, and the governor. Where were the Senate Democrats, who might have come to the governor’s aid? Dayton had sidelined them through his previous behavior.
Daudt, meanwhile, proved more than a match for the governor. As Dayton indulged in vituperative public comments, Daudt radiated optimism about the negotiations and kept GOP legislators unified behind his agenda. His time as a car salesman seems to have provided him with bargaining skills that Dayton lacks.
Daudt understood that Dayton very much wanted to avoid another government shutdown. The 2011 shutdown, the only shutdown in the nation that year, was a very uncomfortable experience for Dayton, and he clearly wanted to avoid another one. One of the reasons Dayton signed the bill with that objectionable state auditor provision was that he didn’t want to trigger shutdown layoffs of state employees by a veto.
Daudt persistently opposed universal pre-kindergarten public education and balked a removing the revised responsibilities of the state auditor now in law. As negotiations concluded, the Star Tribune noted that Dayton found himself in a “weak negotiating position.” It was a position largely of his own making.
Daudt kept his GOP caucus firmly in line during the special session and faced down an effort by liberal DFL senators to alter the language in the agriculture and environment funding bill. Of course, Dayton and Bakk had already agreed to those provisions. The unified GOP, facing divided and bickering Democrats, refused to budge. The Senate finally caved and accepted the bill.
As the dust cleared from the special session, spending increases were far below those desired by the DFL and Dayton. Dayton thus did himself no favors with his actions, burnishing his reputation as an “unconventional” politician.
Minnesotans might summarize the governor’s recent behavior with the phrase: “That’s different.’’ It is not a compliment.
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.