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.

"They're set up as a PR operation, not a policy operation," one Minnesota-based lobbyist half-jokes. Steward vehemently disagrees: "Norm just has a real heart for people. When issues are brought to his attention, especially on the personal level, he needs no encouragement to go forward. He just gets things done."

What Steward forgets to mention is that every time his boss even talks about "getting things done," the people of Minnesota are sure to read all about it--especially when there's a chance that our conservative senator can look warm and fuzzy.

Pat Kessler, a political reporter at WCCO-TV, says Steward's office "is very aggressive about marketing Norm Coleman's Senate life" and has a sure sense of what makes for an eye-catching headline. They tailor their press releases, which sometimes come at a pace of four or five a day, for specific publications, knowing that if they "throw ten things at the wall, maybe only one of them will stick, but it will be a good story."

"When he's in Minnesota, he is out there in public and his office lets you know when he's going to be here, when he's not, and where he's going to be at all times," Kessler says. "In that respect, he really took a page out of Wellstone's book. Until just recently, it was rare if we ever heard from Dayton's office or knew where he was going to be."

Connections to the religious right and abstinence-only education notwithstanding, Coleman has made the fight against AIDS--on African soil, at least--a cause célebrè, complete with a personal connection (one of his sisters and a brother-in-law died of the disease, which was not widely reported until after last fall's election). The former roadie has been on the cover of Billboard magazine defending teens who share music online. He has made public appearances at the Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture, the Minnesota AIDS project, and, earlier this month, when a Minnesota couple finally met the little girl they adopted from Liberia, was on hand for the front page photo op.

Lisi, who, Kessler notes, has already made noticeable progress simply by sending out frequent press releases and making her boss's daily schedule a matter of public record, is hoping Dayton's name and face will show up attached to more stories that resonate with constituents. And while she claims her motivations are "not political," it's a good guess that Dayton's colleagues in the Democratic party are urging the senator to step up in preparation for next year's presidential campaign, when the Republicans plan to work hard to put Minnesota in the Bush column. As Minneapolis-based political consultant Bill Hillsman sees it, though, expecting Dayton to save the day for Minnesota liberals is neither fair nor particularly realistic.

"Perceptually, the Democrats put themselves in a big hole last fall," says Hillsman, who is currently working on Arianna Huffington's California gubernatorial campaign. "After Paul's plane went down, it was Coleman and [Tim] Pawlenty campaigning around the state for the Republicans. For the Dems it was [Roger] Moe and Mondale; now, for all the great things those two have done for the state over the years, the perception was that you had two young, dynamic politicians campaigning against two dinosaurs.

"That's the image that people have of the Democrats in this state, and if you're expecting Mark Dayton to turn that around, that's asking a lot. It doesn't play to his strengths, and it's not a problem of his making."

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