Escape from Capitol Hill

Mark Dayton is counting the days to his D.C. exodus

Suffice it to say that things in Washington didn't quite turn out the way Mark Dayton planned. When he took office in early 2001, he became known as "Senator 100," the lowest ranking member of the congressional body.

Not long after, he had to deal on a personal and political level with the 9/11 attacks—and various office evacuations afterward—along with the death of his friend and mentor Paul Wellstone, Minnesota's senior senator. It seemed as though Dayton never truly found his footing after that.

"The two worst events of my Senate career, and the two very worst of my lifetime, were the 9/11 attacks here in Washington, and then Paul and Sheila's death," the senator says. "Paul was a personal friend of 22 years and a mentor the first two years. I went around the state during his re-election campaign that year, saying that I hoped to be the junior senator from Minnesota for many years. I miss him every day here."

"If you gave me a piece of paper that said, 'Sign on the bottom line, you can have another six-year term,' I wouldn't sign it": Sen. Mark Dayton
Heidi Kraus
"If you gave me a piece of paper that said, 'Sign on the bottom line, you can have another six-year term,' I wouldn't sign it": Sen. Mark Dayton

From there, as Dayton points out, things got worse. He was suddenly a minor player in a minor party in Washington, and struggled to get things—anything, really—done. He had to vote on two war resolutions, something he notes that he was never asked about in the 31 debates on his way to the Senate—though he proudly points out that he voted against the Iraq War.

But Dayton, by his own admission, knows that he'll best be remembered for being the only congressional member to close his office in late 2004, for reasons that to this day remain unclear. From there, he became a subject of ridicule—a main reason why in early 2005 he chose not to seek re-election.

Not that he has any love lost for the gig anyway. After a long career in public service, including a post as Minnesota's Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Economic Development in the early 1980s and a stint as state auditor in the 1990s, the 59-year-old scion of one of Minnesota's most famous families is set to come home and regroup. In an interview with City Pages, Dayton was at once candid and sadly resigned, speaking in a familiar, halting speech pattern that at times revealed a surprising level of self-deprecating humor, touched with a bitterness.

"I'm coming back to Minnesota with my two German Shepherds," he told me when I recently caught up with him by phone from his Senate office. "Harry Truman said if you don't have a friend in Washington, get a dog, and if you're really hard up, get two. And I have two." Then he concluded, "I'm not staying in Washington one day after January 3."

City Pages: I know that after 9/11 you spent a lot of time researching and traveling to the Middle East and Central Asia. I want to ask you: Have you seen the Borat movie?

Mark Dayton: No, I haven't. Both of my sons have seen it and recommend it highly, so it's on my roster of "to dos."

CP: What were some of the places you visited?

Dayton: Two weeks ago I went to Iraq for the third time, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan ...

CP: Never been to Kazakhstan though?

Dayton: No, I never made it there. But maybe after watching the movie I'll be inspired to do so. But I wonder if you've seen one "stan," you've seen them all. [laughs.]

CP: In the last two years, your office has been constantly sending out press releases for money you've secured for this and money you've secured for that. It strikes me that maybe you've done a lot of work that's been overshadowed by other things, and unnoticed. Are you frustrated by that?

Dayton: I think that's the nature of political dynamics. There's a book I just read, State of Denial, where Dick Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, one of his friends in public office had screwed up and was bemoaning the fact, and Dick said, "For every 100 'atta boys' there's going to be one 'oh, shit.'" People tend to remember the "oh, shit," the mistake, and tend to overlook all the other things. That comes with the territory.

I'll be remembered for closing my office, the only member of Congress to do so and, you know, in hindsight, if I had known there wasn't going to be an attack I wouldn't have closed my office. But I didn't have that kind crystal ball at the time, and unfortunately people didn't have access to the classified information, which I did have. I know why I made the decision at the time, and I believe knowing what I knew, I feel it was the proper decision to make, but I recognize no one else is ever going to view it that way.

CP: Right, well, you telegraphed my next question. Can you talk about the nature of the classified information that you had? Or at least why it seemed you had it and nobody else did?

Dayton: Members of Congress had access to it. In fact, Majority Leader Bill Frist brought it to our attention. He interrupted another classified meeting with the secretary of defense to urge those of us present to read the report, which by law I can't discuss it...but you could summarize it by saying that the information before the 9/11 attack paled in comparison to the information they had at that time regarding what the intelligence community said was the likelihood of another 9/11 type of attack somewhere in the United States.

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