The Associated Press
ST. PAUL — Two years as Minnesota's governor hasn't made Mark Dayton any more predictable after a long career marked by unexpected decisions and unorthodox moves.
That tendency was on display in early March when Dayton abruptly abandoned an ambitious sales tax overhaul after nearly two months of trying to sell it to the public and lawmakers. Even the governor's press handlers were caught unaware by the suddenness of his announcement, and some fellow Democrats criticized the decision.
Dayton's change of heart was soon followed by new worries about his administration's serious overestimation of gambling tax revenue for a Vikings stadium project that he counts as a top accomplishment. It's made for a rocky stretch in a legislative session that's pivotal to Dayton's hopes for a second term.
In an interview last week with The Associated Press, Dayton promised no surprises when it comes to his intention to seek re-election next year. The re-election bid would be a first in his long political career. In his two previous stints in elected office, as state auditor and U.S. senator, Dayton twice surprised Minnesota political watchers by bowing out after one term.
Not this time, he said.
"If I'm breathing," Dayton said, when asked if he's definitely running again. "Good Lord willing, I'm running for re-election."
Despite the bumps of recent weeks, Dayton is nearly certain this year to accomplish what he called "my signature issue" — an income tax increase on Minnesota's wealthiest residents. Dayton began touting it when he launched his campaign for governor in 2009. He was foiled in the quest by Republican legislative majorities in 2011-12, but now has allies in House and Senate DFL majorities who have eagerly endorsed taxing the rich.
So what's the signature issue of Dayton's second-term bid? Dayton didn't have a quick answer, giving a long reply about the need to keep investing in Minnesota schools, colleges and infrastructure.
"I want to see all those things enacted, and to get us out of this financial hole we've been in since I arrived," Dayton said. "We're getting there, but we're not out of it yet. When we are, as I say, the real joy will be to take on the initiatives that really move this state forward."
Poll after poll has shown majority support for Dayton's income tax hike. But Republicans thinking about the governor's race see an opening not so much in the specific tax hikes Dayton has advocated, but rather in what goes hand-in-hand with tax increases: more government spending.
"Where he gets it from is largely irrelevant. The point is he's trying to make government bigger," said state Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, a fiscal and social conservative, attorney and former talk radio host who's considering a bid for governor. "The answer to every problem is that we need to spend more on it."
So far, no Republicans have announced plans to run. Besides Thompson, familiar GOP names are considering the race or rumored to be. Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner and Republican National Committee member, said he's close to a decision. Other possible contenders include Senate Minority Leader David Hann, former House Speaker Kurt Zellers, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, state Sen. Julie Rosen, Wayzata investment banker Scott Honour and Minneapolis attorney Ron Schutz.
Dayton has the advantage of a state Republican Party that's on a serious statewide losing streak, and still trying to climb back from several years of financial and organizational disarray. In the absence of a strong central party, Republican campaign veterans Ben Golnik and Tom Erickson recently launched the Minnesota Jobs Coalition. The group has unleashed a steady stream of criticism of Dayton's tax and spending plans and his leadership style.
"Our organization is set up to, for lack of a better term, soften up Dayton," Erickson said. He said the presumption is that once the GOP has its candidate for governor, that person would step into the role of chief Dayton critic while the Jobs Coalition continues its own. In that sense, the group is similar to the DFL-aligned Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a key campaign spending ally to Democratic candidates in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
The Jobs Coalition has declined to reveal its financial backers. Erickson said that wouldn't come until the group files its first disclosure reports at the end of 2013.
Dayton started the year with only $95,000 in his re-election account, a low figure compared to where his predecessor Tim Pawlenty stood at the same point as he prepared for a second term. Dayton said he'd hasten fundraising when the legislative session ends, but also didn't rule out further dipping into his own fortune. In 2010, he loaned his campaign about $3.9 million — debt that's mostly still on the books.
Dayton brushed aside criticisms of his sometimes quirky style. He said he dropped his sales tax reforms after realizing they had little chance of passing the House or Senate, citing the song "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers: "You gotta know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. I just faced reality."
Dayton's advisors view him as unique among politicians at his level, saying he rarely gives much weight to the political or strategic implications of major decisions.
At 66, and a first-time grandfather as of last week, Dayton would be governor into his 70s if he's re-elected. He said he's healthy, and is no longer plagued by back pain after spinal surgery in late December. Minnesota has never had a governor who reached age 70 while still in office.
"I think people in their 70s are equivalent to people in their 50s compared to decades before," Dayton said. "I feel very good, my energy level is very good. I have a young staff to keep me on my toes."
Still, he said the 2014 campaign would be the last political race of his life. He's expecting Republicans and business groups to "go after me with everything possible."
"I don't look forward to that, but I've been doing public service in Minnesota for most of the last 38 years," Dayton said. "People will know who I am and what I stand for, and they can agree or disagree."