Dayton 'never made his mark'

Sen. Mark Dayton is both an anomaly and an enigma.

An anomaly because he wasn’t supposed to win the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate or unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Rod Grams in 2000. But he did just that, and soon became the North Star State’s senior senator when liberal Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash 10 days before the 2002 election.

An enigma because he failed to take advantage of the Wellstone legacy and his own famous name and personal wealth to bolster his chances for reelection in 2006. Worse yet, he alienated some fellow Democrats by not giving them advance notice of his decision not to seek a second term and opened himself to ridicule by closing his Russell Building office last fall because of an undisclosed security threat.

“He never made his mark,” said a Minnesota Democratic congressional aide who asked to remain anonymous. “He was a guy who never took advantage of the power of incumbency.”

As a result, the youthful-looking 58-year-old department-store heir has become the lamest of the Senate’s five lame ducks, while faced with trying to make the most of his remaining 16 months in the Senate as a very junior member of the minority party.

“I’m mindful that I don’t have much say on what the agenda is,” Dayton said in a recent interview when asked what he hopes to accomplish before returning to private life in January 2007. “I have to be opportunistic.”

Dayton said he will focus on several areas, including the potent issue of using alternative energy sources to counter rapidly rising gasoline prices (“I’d like to promote that — it’s nonpartisan and nonpolitical”), increasing aid to special education, winning Medicare drug benefits for seniors and urging President Bush to “tell Americans the truth about what’s happening in Iraq.”

A member of the Armed Services Committee, Dayton says he’s not “just asking for the truth. Bush should tell us what his game plan is. I’m pressing him to be more realistic. He’s like Cheney with Guantanamo. If they say the sky is green, people will say the sky is green.”

Dayton, who was once married to the sister of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) — they have two grown sons and remain good friends, he says — disputes the notion that he blindsided Minnesota Democrats by abruptly announcing in February that he wouldn’t run for reelection.

“If anything, I’ve been praised for giving 20 months’ advance notice so that they could make plans for my successor,” he said. “I’ve never believed in public equivocation. I made my own decision. I talked with very close personal friends and political advisers on a confidential basis. I thought about it for a couple of weeks and came to a decision and made it known publicly.”

Dayton promised he will do everything he can to ensure that Minnesota keeps at least one Democrat in the Senate, as it has since the days of Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Wendell Anderson Muriel Humphrey, Wellstone and himself.

“The best thing I can do is to be the best progressive Democrat I can be,” he said, “I’ll do whatever I can to help” the eventual nominee against the likely GOP nominee, Rep. Mark Kennedy.

He added, “It’s hard to put principle ahead of self interest, but I think either one will be a good successor to me. But I’ve also learned that in Minnesota politics, nobody likes to be told how they should vote. There has to be an earned endorsement, and realistically, there is not much I can do to affect that outcome.”

Dayton defended his decision last October to close his Washington office until after the November elections, which he said at the time was based on a top-secret intelligence report on national security presented by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Even though no other member of Congress followed suit, Dayton said he felt compelled to do so to protect his staff and any constituents who might be visiting his Washington office, and he still thinks it was the right thing to do, despite the heavy criticism he received in Minnesota and elsewhere.

But Dayton, who spent $12 million of his own money in his 2000 campaign — as well as $7 million in an unsuccessful Senate race in 1992 and $2 million in a losing bid for governor in 1998 — made it clear that his dislike for raising money was a major factor in his decision to step down.
 
“I think it’s an inherently corrupting enterprise,” he said. “While there are plenty of people who can resist that, it’s part of the process. Somebody gives you $4,000, they’re not charitable contributors. They want something in return. It’s an investment, and they’re looking for an appropriate return on those investments.”

 Dayton, whose net worth is still between $5 million and $20 million, estimates that he’d have to raise at least $15 million if he ran again and would be outspent by his Republican opponent by 2-1.

He also knows he’d be a prime target of the national Republican Party. “I’m not going to set myself up for that,” he said. “I saw what the Republicans could do when they targeted [former Minority Leader] Tom Daschle [D-S.D.] and [former Sen.] Max Cleland [D-Ga.], and I’m not going to put myself or the Minnesota DFL in that position.”

But Dayton, who at times seems socially awkward and introverted, also indicated frustration with his lack of seniority — he was No. 100 when he arrived in the Senate and is now 80.

“Ninety percent of your effectiveness in the Senate depends on majority and seniority, and I’m not going to achieve seniority for a decade. And I’ve gone from a Senate whose majority has shifted dramatically since I arrived. I don’t know how to predict [when it might shift back]. I’d be on Wall Street recouping my fortune if I could predict that.”

Asked if he has any second thoughts about his decision not to seek reelection, Dayton said, “No, but ask me in two years and I might have a different view. But I don’t think I will. I feel I made the right decision.”

Then, after a long pause, he added, “I don’t know how to say this. My own inclinations don’t lend themselves to making deals in the Senate. Those closest to the middle, by conviction or conscience, are those able to come out ahead in politics. My own politics are not conducive to that. I’m not good at making backroom deals, so I’m not well-suited for this particular time in this body. It’s a great institution, and I have great respect for the people in it, but I guess I’m not right for the tenor of the times.

“As [Sen.] Pat Roberts [R-Kan.] said when I first got here, everybody gets here for a reason. Nobody arrives by accident, and you should look at each member of the Senate as having earned that opportunity. I have a great deal of respect for every member. There’s no reason I should agree with their views or they should agree with mine.”

Dayton said he has no idea what he will do when he leaves the Senate, except that he will return to Minnesota and become involved in some type of public service.

“ I like the job I have now, and I’m going to focus on the time I have left in the Senate,” he said. “I think about it occasionally, and as the time comes I probably will think about it more.”