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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published December 24 2011

Dayton confident as obstacles abound

ST. PAUL – A confident Mark Dayton is ending his first year as Minnesota governor.

The Democratic governor – once described by a top aide as “socially awkward ... inept at the game of retail politics” – is far different after a year as the state’s chief executive.

Political observers recall times when Dayton seemed more comfortable standing alone in the back of a room rather than glad-handing like other politicians.

“I was myself then, and I am myself now,” Dayton said in a year-end interview. “As governor, you are expected to be front and center. You are expected to not be off on the side. ... The expectation is different, and I respond to that reality.”

Dayton, who turns 65 in January, faced many realities in 2011 that he would have preferred not to face: a massive budget deficit, Republican legislators who were further to the political right than ever and a state government shutdown were among his challenges.

The governor, who has won three statewide elections and lost two, failed at several points – losing his bids to raise taxes on the rich, spend as much on public works projects as he wanted, get a Vikings football stadium approved and settle the American Crystal Sugar labor dispute.

But Dayton said he is proud about what he and his administration accomplished in a difficult year.

“I feel good about what we have established and started, and I am very mindful of how very much more there is to try to accomplish,” Dayton said.

Even Republicans can praise him, although they certainly don’t embrace most of his policies.

“His heart is in the right place for the state of Minnesota,” said a prime budget negotiating opponent, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

Dayton, whose family started Dayton’s Department Store and Target, has developed a more take-charge attitude than he has shown in the past. He sits in the governor’s office as someone who owes no special interest groups for his job, freeing him to make decisions with little outside influence.

Political science professor Paula O’Loughlin of the University of Minnesota Morris explained Dayton: “He comes in without favors owed, but he also comes with a long line of policy experience and an experienced staff. He is not new to state government. ... He likes this stuff.”

His background of mostly financing his own political campaigns means donors cannot demand to have their way, which gives him more freedom than most governors who rely on outside donations in political campaigns.

“Dayton has nothing to lose,” O’Loughlin said.

Dayton has bucked some strong Democratic groups, especially the Education Minnesota teachers union when he sided with Republicans in a new law to give mid-career professionals an easier path to getting teacher licenses.

And liberal-leaning environmentalist groups did not like him working with the GOP to speed some environmental permits.

Saying he is suited to be proactive, Dayton said he has no problem fighting for an issue, even if it goes against DFL-supported policies.

“I will work day and night and go through fire and brimstone to accomplish something I believe in,” Dayton said.

The governor disagrees with Republicans who say that he stands alone, without Democratic support. Republicans cite his refusal to abide by a state convention endorsement last year when he was running for governor.

But Dayton and the two DFL legislative leaders, both of whom he defeated in the governor’s race, say they are on the same side.

“He is growing into it more all the time,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said about Dayton.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said, “Republicans underestimate this governor.”

“Dayton did as good a job as you could expect a governor to do with a Republican Legislature, especially with a Republican Legislature with so many new people,” Bakk said. “It takes awhile for political officials to get grounded. ... People are generally surprised in a favorable way about his leadership.”

Dayton said 2011 failures on his record can be blamed on tea party right-wing legislators who expected “that I agree with them 100 percent.”

“I have never experienced that in my 36 years in politics and government ...” the governor said. “The unwillingness to compromise is what caused the shutdown.”

While he fell short on many of his goals, Dayton said that is called compromise.

“We ended up finally, after the shutdown, pretty close to middle ground,” he said as an example, saying the eventual deal fell nearly halfway between what he and Republicans wanted.

“He is a pragmatic politician with liberal ideals,” O’Loughlin said.

Dayton has “no future political goals, so he is actually more ideally suited to compromise, to get things done,” she said.

“The one thing that probably is why we have developed a good friendship is he is his own man,” Zellers said, adding that Dayton is willing to listen to other ideas.

Still, political fights were no surprise.

“I think it is fair to say it has been a rocky first year for the state, but also for our relationship with the governor,” said Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, a Senate GOP leader. “Compared to what we believe and what we campaigned on, it was pretty hard not to have a clash over those two competing philosophies.”

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.