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Dayton brings long-time public service to race

OWATONNA, Minn. - Sweat covered the former U.S. senator's face. A lot of sweat. Mark Dayton, now running for governor, spent time in Owatonna cleaning up a home basement after recent flooding. His well-worn gloves and jeans showed that the man bo...

Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton
Mark Dayton listens to a teacher as he spends time in a private home with a few DFL activists. Candidates attend big and small events leading up to an election. Don Davis / State Capitol Bureau

OWATONNA, Minn. - Sweat covered the former U.S. senator's face. A lot of sweat.

Mark Dayton, now running for governor, spent time in Owatonna cleaning up a home basement after recent flooding. His well-worn gloves and jeans showed that the man born into one of Minnesota's best-known rich families is no stranger to manual labor.

"You learn a lot about the real world," Democrat Dayton said of helping others.

Homeowner Dorene Kruger and her family had moved out much of what was damaged when the sewer flooded her basement. But she needed help to haul out the washer and dryer, as well as some shelves.

Dayton helped carry out the washer, and as campaign staffer Charlie Poster ripped shelves apart, the candidate joined others in carrying the sewage-covered boards outside.


The hot day and a steamy basement produced plentiful sweat on Dayton's face, but not enough to wash off a dirty smudge. It could have been a campaign photo opportunity, but only one journalist was around.

"I don't bring press to these things," Dayton said. "This is what I've committed my life to: public service."

Others with his money may retire and spend their time golfing before they get to Dayton's age, 63. But not him.

Dayton said he feels a calling for public service - "tackling real problems" - and is happy with himself today.

"I'm probably more comfortable in my skin at 63 than I was at 35," he said.

Dayton has battled problems, including alcoholism and depression. He said both are under control.

He is known as shy and introverted. He often is socially awkward, seemingly happier standing in the back of a room than in front of a crowd.

He said he is least comfortable with "30-second cocktail party chit-chat."


On the Saturday that ended in the swampy Owatonna basement, the Democratic candidate showed his shyness but also produced off-the-cuff speeches to machinists and Education Minnesota union leaders that could rival any delivered by his fiery Republican opponent, Tom Emmer.

Teacher union leader Tom Dooher praised the candidate.

"He is like we would want a student to be," Dooher said, doing things like taking notes and listening to people.

Dayton told teachers that Emmer-promoted government reforms "are a slogan, not a solution."

To the machinists, Dayton lamented the state being without a Democratic governor for more than two decades: "We've been wandering in the wilderness a long, long time."

Dayton has not always been a DFL leaders' favorite because he feels voters should pick the party's nominee, not delegates to the state convention. Since he was not running for the convention's endorsement in Duluth last April, he was banned from the floor.

He put much of his own money into the primary contest, which combined with his familiar name and time he spent on the campaign trail handed him a narrow victory.

If unsuccessful in this general election race, it could be the DFLer's last campaign.


That thought made him a bit wistful. "This campaign is the sum of all my life," he said.

Dayton has won two statewide races and lost two.

Even his detractors acknowledge Dayton's desire to serve, but in the heat of a campaign, it does not come across kindly.

"He's running because politics is a hobby for him," Emmer said to a recent conservative rally. "He doesn't experience what you and I have experienced."

Dayton has been campaigning for governor since Jan. 2, 2009, months before Emmer or Tom Horner of the Independence Party thought about running. The four-year term they seek pays $120,303 annually.

Dayton was born into the family best known for founding Dayton's Department Store, which beget Target. While the family long ago stepped away from the retailing business, Dayton often uses its aura in advertisements and speeches.

As a young man, Dayton idolized Robert F. Kennedy and went to work, although only briefly, in a poor New York City school and as a Boston social worker.

His first wife was the sister of U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller. They later divorced, as did Dayton and his second wife, but they worked together to raise two sons.


He failed when he first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1982 but later was elected state auditor. He also led two state agencies and worked for then-U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale.

Dayton was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000, leaving after one term in part because he was frustrated that things did not get done.

People who spend some time with Dayton cannot help but learn two things about his youth, both of which stuck with him: His father, Bruce, did not pamper his rich offspring (the boy did yard work beginning at age 8), and he loves hockey.

Dayton wanted to play hockey in the Olympics. He did not make it, but he was an all-state high school goalie and played on the Yale University team.

The sports background and his father's insistence on doing physical labor may have helped as Dayton hoisted the back half of a washing machine up the slick and narrow Owatonna stairway.

Sweat running down his face, Dayton looked on the bright side.

"It's a good workout," he said, his first in several days since he had been on the campaign trail nonstop.

About Mark Dayton


Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party

  • Age: 63
  • Home: Minneapolis
  • Political experience: Elected state auditor and ran two state agencies; U.S. senator, 2001-06. On President Richard Nixon's "enemies list" for opposing Vietnam War.
  • Other background: One-time New York City teacher. High school all-state hockey goalie.

  • Education: Blake School, Hopkins. Yale University.
  • Family: Divorced. Two sons. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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