Mark Dayton’s place in Washington’s collective memory can be distilled to exactly one moment, on one day: October 12, 2004. That morning, Dayton, a freshman Democratic senator from Minnesota, appeared in front of a line of TV cameras and announced that in the coming weeks the Capitol would likely be the target of a terrorist attack. He knew this, he said, because of classified information he and his Senate colleagues had received, and, as a safety precaution, he was closing his Washington office for the fall recess and sending his staff elsewhere until after the following month’s election.
In the hours that followed, nearly every congressman, Bush administration spokesman, and law enforcement official within earshot of a reporter delivered a unified response, the gist of which was that Mark Dayton was crazy. The Capitol Police and Department of Homeland Security professed to know nothing of any new specific threat. “He’s unnecessarily panicked people across the United States,” D.C. Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told The Washington Post.
The facts at the center of the affair are still classified. But fairly or otherwise, the office closure stands as the moment around which an unsparing consensus on Dayton crystallized in Washington, best captured in a 2006 Time article naming him one of America’s five worst senators. The magazine mocked his “erratic behavior,” his tendency to complain about “basic facts of the job,” and his penchant for Yippie-ish legislative stunts like proposing a Department of Peace and Nonviolence. The reporters dubbed him “The Blunderer.”
Four months after he closed down his office, Dayton’s poll numbers had fallen, and he announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection. By his final days in Washington, Dayton had relapsed into alcoholism for the first time in 20 years and sought treatment for depression. Asked by a high school class what grade he would give himself, Dayton—typically honest to the point of self-annihilation—suggested an F.
When I met Dayton recently, on a sticky hot Saturday afternoon in August in the Twin Cities, I asked him if he stood by that grade. “I stand by the grade I gave the whole U.S. Senate—that was never reported,” he replied. “But I give myself an A for effort.” Dayton was shaking the hands of well-wishers in the lobby of a carpenters’ union hall on the east side of St. Paul, where the central committee of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (or DFL, Minnesota’s variant on the Democratic Party) had just endorsed Dayton as the party’s candidate for governor. As of this writing, the man who left the Senate after one term with a 43 percent approval rating stands a narrowly better-than-even chance of being Minnesota’s first Democratic governor in 20 years.
At times like this it’s tempting to armchair-psychoanalyze Minnesotan voters, because in Minnesota there are a lot of times like this. Minnesotans voted for Walter Mondale when 49 other states voted for Ronald Reagan. They voted for Jesse Ventura when 49 states would have voted for almost anyone else. In 2006, adjacent congressional districts in the Minneapolis area simultaneously elected Democrat Keith Ellison, a liberal African American convert to Islam and the first Muslim in Congress, and Republican Michele Bachmann, whose opinions about Islam are—well, you can probably guess. Minnesotans have sent a former comedian to the Senate and a former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle to the state Supreme Court. The state’s Republicans have been hanging Time’s “erratic” epithet around Dayton’s neck at every available occasion, but it’s hard to imagine a worse misreading of Minnesota’s political temperament. You might as well attack the governor of Texas for being too fond of Stetsons.
The greater mystery is why Dayton himself wants the job. The ex-senator has been a fixture in Minnesota Democratic politics for three decades now, and none of them have looked like much fun. Dayton’s career has been an interesting experiment in what happens when a basically well-intentioned person, possessing admirable goals but few of the natural attributes of a politician, actually succeeds in politics. You instinctively root for him to win—until you see how much winning, for Mark Dayton, looks like losing.
Dayton is the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Minnesota, the great-grandson of George Draper Dayton, the founder of a chain of department stores that evolved into the Target Corporation. Earnest and selfeffacing, with close-cropped gray-white hair and tieless white button-downs, he resembles an executive at a Davos mixer or Aspen Ideas Festival panel. It’s easy to look at him and see someone who might have had a long and respectable career in philanthropy or the nonprofit world. It’s harder to see the barnstorming liberal firebrand he has spent 30 years trying to be. “He’s a very shy individual—to be effective in politics, you have to get past that,” says John Ongaro, a longtime friend of Dayton’s. “His parents kept him from associating with a lot of people. I think he was raised to be a little wary, a little suspect.”
As a teenager, Dayton set out with characteristic discipline to conquer his introversion by taking up hockey, a sport for which he had little innate skill. He played goalie and practiced indefatigably until he made all-state as a high school senior; his career ended abruptly in college when another player skated over his neck, slicing it open and nearly killing him.
Dayton’s professional life has proceeded by a similar logic—a visibly difficult slog interspersed with a smattering of victories and the occasional messy disaster. Retail politics do not come naturally to him: He stutters through the punch lines in his speeches, or rushes through blocks of verbiage at near auctioneer speed. His eyebrows are permanently upturned, giving the impression that he’s slightly terrified to be wherever he is. “Some of us, we walk into a crowded room, and we want to walk right out of it,” one of his former Senate staffers says. “Mark was that way—there was an anxiety about these situations.” As he worked the line of supporters at the DFL meeting, a taut smile on his face, there were glimpses of what he must have looked like as a young hockey player, steeling himself for the barrage of pucks that would somehow make him the person he wanted to be. “You’ve got to be a certain type of individual to want to be a goalie in the first place—it probably explains more about him than people realize,” Ongaro told me.
Dayton went to Yale—he was George W. Bush’s frat brother—and held penitential early jobs as a public school teacher in New York and a social worker in Boston, followed by a few years in Washington and state government. But he wanted to do something bigger. He first ran for the Senate in 1982, at the age of 35, self-financing the effort with $6.9 million of his inheritance. At the time, his campaign was the second most expensive in Senate history—as well as, ultimately, the most expensive loss. The experience had a searing effect. Dayton spent the rest of the decade mostly out of the public eye; as his first marriage fell apart, he began drinking heavily, eventually drying out at the Betty Ford Center. In 1990, he won a more modest campaign for state auditor and by most accounts acquitted himself well. But he seemed listless by the end of his term and didn’t run for a second.
In 1998, Dayton lost a bid for the DFL nomination for governor. Trying to avoid the humiliations of 1982, he had operated his campaign on a shoestring but discovered that the one thing people find less sympathetic than a wealthy politician spending his own money is a wealthy politician asking for theirs. Another lesson learned, Dayton opened the spigot again in 2000 to beat Republican Rod Grams for the Senate seat that had eluded him 18 years earlier. His victory was attributed to two factors: the money and the arrest of Grams’s son for car theft a month before the election.
Dayton’s failures as a senator have been overstated—after all, he entered the chamber as the most junior Democrat during the nadir of the party’s influence in Washington—and he was an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq at a time when the Senate could have used more of them. Still, his discomfort with the job was palpable. His former Hill aides describe a politician who was genuinely shocked by the partisanship of the post-Gingrich era, the difficulty of driving the legislative agenda as a freshman, and the tedium of fundraising—legitimate complaints all, but also the sort of thing that anyone who picked up a newspaper once in a while might have anticipated.
“Modern politics, he just saw it as unseemly,” one of his ex-staffers told me. Dayton was also socially awkward and impatient, traits that would have made the Hill hell even in favorable political circumstances. “The Senate was downright incompatible with his personality,” says Mark Andrew, a former chairman of the DFL who has known Dayton since the ’70s. “Being a governor—I think being a chief executive is much more suited to his temperament.”
This is the great hope of the season for Minnesota Democrats, many of whom believe that whatever Dayton’s résumé looks like, his familiarity after 30 years of campaigning will be enough to prevail. As an added bonus, the departing Republican, Tim Pawlenty, is unpopular, and the state’s GOP has supplied Dayton with a deeply unlikable opponent in the form of Tom Emmer, an archconservative and gaffe-prone suburban lawyer. “It’s sort of like your favorite uncle coming in at the last minute to hopefully get everything taken care of and save the family from bankruptcy,” says DFL State Representative Ryan Winkler, who backed another candidate in the primary but is now campaigning for Dayton. “You can’t overestimate how much we feel that this is a crucial election.”
There have been the inevitable Daytonian hiccups. In August, after two particularly pushy Republican Party operatives filmed him at a campaign event, Dayton held a press conference to denounce the ubiquitous practice of video tracking, accusing the Republicans of “intentional harassment” and “intimidation of Minnesota voters.” But Dayton’s idiosyncrasies have become a known quantity for Minnesota Democrats—at this point, they seem almost reassuring. “I feel like I know this man,” President Bill Clinton told the guests gathered at a downtown Minneapolis hotel for a fundraiser in September, as Dayton looked on. “He has a good heart and he has a good mind and what he’ll do is predictable.” For better or worse, that’s probably true.
Charles Homans is an editor at Foreign Policy. This piece ran in the October 14, 2010, issue of the magazine.