Before his last year in office, Dayton reflects: Governor, 70, discusses his health challenges, policies, the race to replace him
ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton is about to enter his last year in public office after more than four decades in Minnesota public life, but he says senioritis, the feeling of just coasting along, has not yet set in.
"I'm so immersed in things that are alive and important and urgent," he said, ticking off health care policy, Fargo flood-diversion, major economic development projects and the next legislative session.
"I really don't think about much of anything else. I have not given much, if any, thought seriously to what I might do after I leave."
Still, in an interview with the Pioneer Press, he reflected on his physical limitations, his time in office, the campaign ahead and political civility.
On feeling his age ...
The governor is 70 years old and has had a series of health concerns — spinal problems, hip surgery and recent treatment for prostate cancer. He said he certainly feels like a "senior," and acknowledged that he sometimes cancels events.
"My staff accuses me of overloading my schedule, and occasionally they are proven right," Dayton said. "I don't have pain from my spine, but I still have issues, I have issues walking, which is not a good characteristic for a politician or someone out in public life, like I am, but as Popeye said, 'I am what I am.' "
But he insisted — as he has many times before — that his mind is sharp and the physical challenges do not stop him from actively doing the job Minnesotans have twice elected him to do.
On the whispers ...
Still, the health concerns have caused Minnesotans, particularly those in political insider circles, to whisper about him.
"Well, you know Minnesotans have been whispering about me for over 40 years. If they stop whispering about me, then I'm really, you know, off the deep end," Dayton said with a laugh. "It doesn't affect my performance other than getting up and down stairs to give a speech. I have 15 more months and I expect to be robust through that time."
On mending rifts within the DFL ranks ...
Asked about the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party rifts over gun policy and environmental policy, Dayton acknowledged that he has not been able to mend them during his terms.
"I'm not, I guess, skilled enough to know how to bridge those divides, so I'll accept my share of responsibility for that failure," the governor said.
He did disclose during the interview that he now supports the PolyMet mining proposal for northern Minnesota. For a decade or more, that project and others have divided many labor organizations from environmentalists, two important factions in the Minnesota DFL Party. But he did not say similarly supportive words on other major projects.
On gun policy, he said that if Minnesota were two separate states — one Minneapolis and St. Paul and the other greater Minnesota — the two would have dramatically different gun laws. But Minnesota is one, so the divide continues. He said he personally is for universal background checks when buying firearms, "including gun shows and the like — that's the one most egregious loophole."
But, he said, changing gun laws is not a realistic goal with the makeup of the Legislature. With Republican control of the House and Senate, gun-control legislation now has little chance. Neither did Democrats approve universal background checks on gun-buying when they were in complete control at the Capitol in 2013.
On the race to replace him ...
Dayton is not using much of his time right now to attend political events, he noted, and he has not endorsed any of the Democrats vying to replace him. He said he would have backed his lieutenant governor, Tina Smith, had she decided to run. But she did not.
"I don't feel the need to get engaged at this point," Dayton said. "A year is a millennium in politics, and we're still a millennium away from next November."
But it may be tough for any Democrat, depending on the voters' desires, he said.
"As Hillary Clinton learned, it is difficult to succeed someone after eight years," the governor said. "And if the mood is what it was a year ago, which was 'we want big change, we want something very different,' in a general sense, then that is going to make it more uphill for a DFL successor."
Should Democrats campaign saying, 'I will be the next Dayton'?
"I think it will be 'I will go beyond Dayton.' I've told the candidates who have talked to me, 'I expect you to differentiate yourself from me. You have to. I'm not going to be offended if you say, you disagree with such and such and we should be or shouldn't be doing something else,' " he said. "I don't think people want four more years of the same. I think they want a new endeavor."
But, Dayton noted, there may be a limit.
"I think I'm still fairly popular with the DFL and my policies are pretty popular with the DFL, so if they want to criticize me, they do so at their own peril," he said with a laugh. "Of course, Republicans will have no problem differentiating themselves, so I expect nobody will have anything good to say about me over the next year."
On civil debate ...
Dayton has called Republicans "extreme right-wing," questioned their integrity, said the former Democratic Senate majority leader stabbed him in the back and used other strong language to describe his opponents. Asked if he has played a constructive role in making debate more civil, he said, "Well, I've tried to make it more honest. I think that's what people want."
But he admitted "I'm guilty of coming close to that boundary, especially in the last month," when he described what he says is Republican lawmakers' misconduct and dishonesty in reporting to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The Republicans and Dayton differ on how much money the Legislature has at its disposal, given Dayton's veto of all the House and Senate funding earlier this year. Dayton and his attorneys contend the Legislature has lots of money to spend, despite the veto. Legislative leaders say that they have very little — and that they've accurately reported that to the courts.
"I don't regret exercising that kind of candor," Dayton said.