Escape from Capitol Hill

"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

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."

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.

So what I wasn't able to explain to people was that the Senate had adjourned until after the November election. We'd left town, and we were leaving our staff members behind and exposed to that danger, unaware of their being in that position.


CP: But why do you think you were the only one who reacted the way you did with the office closing?

Dayton: I think others were willing to play Russian roulette with the lives of their staff, and I wasn't willing to do so. How they could make that decision, you'd have to ask them. But I couldn't live with myself if knowing—again, this is the consensus view of the national intelligence community. Now, as we've learned, their views are often a mistake, and this is one of those times—they weren't saying there was an absolute, guaranteed certainty of attack, but they were saying there was a likelihood of an attack. And they were again wrong. But I didn't have any other information to base my view other than the consensus of the national intelligence sector of the United States government.


CP: The ways you were portrayed to varying degrees were that you were crazy or that you were a ninny or whatever. It didn't paint you favorably. Did that have an impact on your decision not to run again?

Dayton: Well, it affected my standing in the polls significantly. I dropped about 15 points in approval rating from the previous period—I wasn't doing my own polls, it was, I think, the Minnesota Poll. I dropped from 56 percent approval in January 2004 to 41 percent approval in January 2005. I attribute most if not all of that to the publicity surrounding that decision. I wish I could explain to people that I and my colleagues were all gone from Washington. Our offices were effectively closed and the Senate was closed. I was just removing my staff from the line of fire. My own failure to communicate clearly what the circumstances were brought that bad publicity on my own head. I blame myself for that.


CP: Did that signal an end for you—that you shouldn't run again?

Dayton: It was one of the factors, because I knew that whoever was going to be the DFL Senate candidate was going to be at the top of the ticket, and the whole ticket was going to depend on how well that person performed. I still thought I would win a very tough election, but I knew that would be used heavily against me. And in hindsight now, after seeing what a good Democratic year it's been, I'm even more certain that I would have won an election—one that certainly would have been much closer than how Amy Klobuchar annihilated Mark Kennedy. But no doubt in my mind I would have won. I also would have had to raise $15 to $20 million to counteract the onslaught that would have been dumped on me.

But if you gave me a piece of paper today that said, "Sign on the bottom line, you can have another six-year term," I wouldn't sign it. I had other reasons—seeing the country going in the opposite direction from what I thought was best for the country and best for Minnesota, and the frustration of not being able to effectively counteract that being in the minority caucus. And being part of the very reactive body that [is] the legislative branch, and being the lowest seniority and being in the minority combined to make me feel very ineffective. I'm a cause-driven person, and I wasn't happy just being there for the glory of it.


CP: But now it would be a different situation.

Dayton: It would be slightly more tempting to me, certainly, to be in the majority. And I'm thrilled for my colleagues here and for Amy Klobuchar. In the better interest of our state and our country, it will be a Democratic majority, but I still wouldn't sign that bottom line.


CP: Interesting. So you think you could have beaten Mark Kennedy.


Dayton: I believed when I made my decision in the early spring of 2005, I would win the election—it would be close and mean and nasty. The Karl Rove approach is to try to destroy the incumbent personally to try to defeat him politically, and I think they would have done that. They would have stopped at nothing and stooped to anything and they would have used lies and misinformation and whatever embellished part of the truth would serve their purpose shamelessly. I've seen them do it to others, and I have no doubt they would have tried to do that to me.


CP: I can hear in your voice that you don't have the will to go through something like that.

Dayton: Well, I'm willing to walk through fire for something that I want to do and believe is worthwhile doing. I couldn't say that about another six-year term in the Senate.


CP: The rumor was that some DFL leaders and money people asked you to not run because they didn't want the party to suffer across the board in raising cash.

Dayton: Nobody ever asked me not to run again.


CP: What were some of the other factors, then? It sounds like you simply didn't want this job anymore.

Dayton: That was the three factors. I started from a difficult position in the public's mind, that I would have had to raise $15 to $20 million and I hate fundraising, and, thirdly, that I really could not sustain my enthusiasm for the next six years that I had been able to sustain for this six years. I've given this job my very best, and I've felt honored throughout to have it and I'm proud to be here. I feel very good in my mind for having been the best senator I could possibly be for the last six years. The results are not what I wished for.


CP: What are the things most disappointing to you?

Dayton: As my son would say, being in the minority really sucks. [laughs.] I've gone from being at 50-50 parity when I arrived to, when Jim Jeffords switched in 2001 until the end of 2002, we were in the majority, and now the last four years we've been in the minority and I've been very low in seniority. I've gone from number 100 to number 79 today. So the combination of minority and low seniority is extremely difficult...


CP: What were some of the things you wanted to get done?

Dayton: Well, I voted against the Iraq war. I was one of 23 to vote against it at a time when public opinion in Minnesota was running 85 percent in favor in support of the president taking us to war. That was a time I stood relatively alone based on the courage of my own convictions. And that time I was definitely vindicated by the outcome, as much as I hate to say that. I tried seven times to get the Senate to pass full funding for special education, which was promised—40 percent of the cost was promised 30 years ago and it's less than half of that today. I couldn't get the majority votes.

I did get the majority of votes in the Senate for what was called the "Taste of Your Own Medicine" legislation which said that members of Congress couldn't have better prescription drug coverage than we provided to seniors under Medicare. And it passed the Senate 93 to 3; all the Republicans voted for my amendment, which surprised me. Then I learn the next day in the paper that the Majority Leader Bill Frist told them, "Vote for it, we're gonna drop it in conference committee with the House." They were able to vote with the knowledge it would not be enacted, which anywhere else in the country would be called hypocrisy, in Washington it's called politics as usual.


CP: Is there anything that you did accomplish?

MD: In the last defense appropriations bill, I got $3 million for the Minnesota National Guard for a pilot program called "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon," which will provide counseling and support services for the 2,600 Minnesota men and women who will be returning from Iraq next spring and to their families, for the re-integration into their communities.

I also spearheaded getting an additional $44 million for border patrol agents for patrolling the northern border of the United States. I was able to get the next generation of F-16 fighter planes for the Duluth National Guard to help them...


CP: But this is all military-oriented stuff. Every politician has to talk now about military and public safety. Is there anything outside of that that you've done that you're proud of?

Dayton: I helped to arrange for a Rochester couple to adopt a Chinese orphan. It was the first time the Chinese government waived the requirement that the child, who had three open-heart surgeries at the Mayo Clinic, return to China to complete the process. I also helped a Long Lake couple and 120 other couples around the country complete their adoption of Cambodian orphans after the State Department had put a stop to those adoptions. I set up a health care helpline through my Minnesota office, which has helped 2,000 Minnesotans get either the healthcare that their doctors prescribed that their HMOs were denying them or helped in getting them reimbursements. I've donated my Senate salary every year to the Minnesota Senior Federation to keep taking buses up to Canada to get lower-cost prescription drugs.



CP: That's right, I think most people have forgotten that you're doing this free of charge.

Dayton: I've worked for a dollar a year; that's the one way I can assure people they are getting their money's worth.


CP: What has, for you, has been the most surprising thing—good or bad—about Washington?

Dayton: I said 10 years before I came here that I thought Washington was a cesspool, and nothing here has changed my opinion of it.

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