When he entered Yale University in the 1960s, Mark Dayton planned to become a doctor. An heir to the Dayton’s department store fortune , the pre-med student and starting goalie for the school’s varsity hockey team seemingly had his future mapped out.
Nearly four decades later, Dayton isn’t an M.D. and has never worked in medicine.
The combination of college life and the turbulence of the Vietnam War era changed him, he said, and shifted his attention to the world around him. When he returned to his Republican parents’ home in 1968 after his junior year in college, Dayton watched on TV as Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Dayton said the event “sparked” his political consciousness and was the catalyst for his political career.
Now Dayton, a former U.S. senator, is seeking the DFL endorsement in the 2010 Minnesota gubernatorial race. Dayton was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000 after defeating Republican incumbent candidate Rod Grams for the seat and retired after one term.
Dayton’s campaign focuses on what he calls the “core four,” which include job creation, increased public education funding, progressive taxes and single payer healthcare.
“The state of Minnesota is heading in profoundly the wrong direction and is in desperate need of stronger leadership to change that direction,” Dayton said.
He proposes raising taxes on the wealthiest 10 percent of Minnesotans and using that tax money to increase funding for public education, a move Dayton said would make taxes progressive instead of regressive.
“Tuition has gone higher and higher and our public colleges and universities are increasingly unaffordable to Minnesota students and their families,” he said.
Dayton has been endorsed by one of the state’s largest employee unions, AFSCME Minnesota Council 5, which could prove an influential backing in a full field of DFLers.
Eliot Seide, the union’s executive director, said the union spent nearly $1 million on the last governor’s race and about 70 percent of the group’s 43,000 members voted along with its endorsement.
An anti-Vietnam War activist, Dayton was the only Minnesotan named to President Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List” of his political opposition, targeting Dayton with wiretaps and audits by the Internal Revenue Service.
Dayton’s days of anti-war activism influenced his life and carried over into his political career. Dayton was one of 23 Senators who voted against the Iraq War Resolution in 2002 and was a strong critic of the Bush administration’s policies.
“Under President Bush, the Republican version of bipartisanship meant we did it their way,” he said. “I’m for genuine bipartisanship. I’ll reach across party lines and work with anyone who can work with me.”
In 2006, Dayton was named one of the five worst U.S. senators by TIME Magazine, which called him “The Blunderer.” The magazine highlighted Dayton’s “erratic behavior,” citing his decision to shut down his Washington D.C. office for about a month in 2004 due to an unspecified terrorist threat. The magazine said Dayton had limited success in the Senate because his bills were too liberal for the largely Republican-controlled body.
Tony Sutton, chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, said he doesn’t believe Dayton’s campaign represents the values of Minnesotans, and said Dayton’s TIME Magazine ranking reflects his undistinguished record in the Senate.
Sutton said Dayton’s proposal to raise taxes would kill economic growth and kill jobs and not help to make the state more attractive economically.
“You can’t love employment like the Democrats claim and hate employers,” he said. “He [Dayton] doesn’t get it.”
After graduating cum laude from Yale in 1969, Dayton took on what he calls the toughest job he ever had — teaching science in an inner New York City high school.
“Those students taught me a lot more than I taught them,” Dayton recalled.
Dayton ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat in 1982 and from there went on to serve as a legislative assistant to Sen. Walter Mondale. He was the Minnesota state auditor from 1991-1995 and served as commissioner of both Economic Development and Energy and Economic Development.
In 1998, Dayton sought the DFL gubernatorial endorsement but lost to Skip Humphrey.
While he said he would like to get the party’s endorsement this time around, he will run in the September primary election regardless.
“All those years of public service have given me a detailed understanding of the state and its people and their problems that no other candidate has,” Dayton said.