Dayton: Back From the Dead?

Taking a page from Norm Coleman's playbook

On the last Friday of the State Fair, dubbed "Minnesota Public Radio Day," Senators Norm Coleman and Mark Dayton joined Midday host Gary Eichten in front of a live audience at Carousel Park, just a few grease vats from the Grandstand. Given Eichten's affinity for low-key discourse (the show's come-hither title was "Talking with State Leaders"), Coleman's penchant for "compassionate" prattle, and Dayton's role as the Senate's invisible man, it seemed a good bet that fairgoers looking for fireworks would have to hit the Midway and wait for nightfall. Despite Eichten's apparent discomfort and Coleman's frequent protestations, however, listeners were treated to an old-fashioned political debate, in which Dayton not only seemed unusually engaged, but downright defiant.

"You can't say you're for spending cuts when you're doubling the budget in Iraq and Afghanistan," an audibly agitated Dayton argued, opening up the throttle 20 minutes into the hour-long program. "That's not fiscal restraint, that's talking out of both sides of your mouth.

"It's a matter of priorities. We have the dollars, we just decided to give 40 percent of these tax breaks to the wealthiest one percent of America; and they go have their own State Fair luncheon over at the St. Paul Radisson while everybody else is over here."

In response, Coleman did his best neo-Texan two-step, first charging the rhetorical high road ("I'm not going to debate my friend and colleague"), and then retreating to a litany of well-worn bromides about human potential and the power of optimism. It was plucky stuff, delivered with the eager smile and can-do cadence that still haunts St. Paul's credit rating. Dayton, who at one point angrily repeated the phrase "It's a lie" three times, was in no mood for politics as usual, though, and left his unsuspecting opponent bloodied.

It's anyone's guess who or what put a populist quarter in Dayton that day. The Democratic senator, known for momentous mood swings behind closed doors, was stuck in traffic on Snelling Avenue and, as a result, came to the stage five minutes late. So maybe he was agitated or, knowing that Coleman had a head start, felt the need to make up yardage. There is evidence, though, that Dayton, heretofore known as a quiet legislator, has finally decided to make some noise in and outside of senate chambers.

Since his MPR appearance, the senator has aggressively lobbied the press to cover his concerns about Iraq, America's growing economic and educational disparities, and the Bush administration's energy policy (or lack thereof). Most uncharacteristically, he has decided to join the congressional food fight over court appointments. Last week, according to the D.C.-based website Roll Call, Dayton promised to put a hold on all judicial nominees from Mississippi until Sen. Trent Lott, a Republican from that state, agreed to back off a deal he had brokered with Northwest Airlines that could have limited funding to soundproof homes surrounding the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Many Capitol Hill insiders took notice of Dayton taking such a bold action, the website reported.

"My perspective is that Sen. Dayton came back here [after Sen. Wellstone's fatal plane crash] to play a bigger role, and that hasn't happened because of Norm Coleman, who is a favorite son of the White House," observes Albert Eisele, former press secretary to Vice President Mondale and editor of The Hill, a beltway weekly covering Congress. "Coleman is, as he demonstrated in the campaign, pretty telegenic and articulate. So he has overshadowed Dayton, who is very cerebral and idealistic; in response, it looks like Dayton is making some changes."

In mid-August, Dayton, who had been without a permanent communications director for several months, hired Christina Lisi to fill the position. An East Coast native with enough juice to warrant a wedding write-up in the New York Times last November, the 31-year-old Lisi cut her teeth as the special assistant to Vice President Al Gore's deputy chief of staff before becoming a managing partner in the Capitol office of the tony public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard. She has been empowered to "restructure" the Senator's communications office and "do some proactive thinking," and she also makes sure to mention that she joined Dayton because of his reputation on the Hill for constituent service.

"Up until now, the office has been very reactive--which isn't necessarily a bad thing. We're simply trying to anticipate things more and get that information out to voters," Lisi explains. "I think [Coleman's office] is really good about getting the word out about what I call 'case study work' back home. That hasn't been a number one priority to promote in this office--now it is."

Trumpeting constituent services should be a no-brainer for any political operative who manages to reach Washington. To be fair, though, there are few politicians with Coleman's flair for self-promotion, and he has staffed his office for maximum impact. The senator named Tom Mason, a former flack for Sen. Rudy Boschwitz and president of the St. Paul-based Mason Communications Group, chief of staff last December. Erich Mische, former director of marketing for the city of St. Paul and storied Coleman bobo, heads the senator's Minnesota operations. Former WCCO-TV reporter and producer Tom Steward serves as communications director.

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