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Senate Candidate Profile: Mark Dayton
By Laura McCallum
August 1, 2000
Part of MPR's coverage of Campaign 2000
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Recent polls have found more people recognize former State Auditor Mark Daytonthan any of the other DFL U.S. Senate candidates. Dayton is a politician who has run in five statewide elections, but perhaps more importantly, his name calls to mind the department store his family founded. He came in fourth in the DFL gubernatorial primary two years ago, but this time, many observers think he's got a good shot at winning the Senate primary. In the first of a series of candidate profiles, MPR chronicles the career and campaign of Senate candidate Mark Dayton.
Age: 53
Personal: Divorced, two sons (19,16)
Resides: Minneapolis
Occupation:Public school teacher, New York City; Counselor, then CFO, Boston social service agency; Minnesota Commissioner of Economic Development (twice); State Auditor; President, Vermilion Investment Company
Education:Blake High School, 1965; B. A., Yale University, 1969, cum laude
Web Site:


MARK DAYTON didn't bring an entourage of cheering supporters when he filed this month to run in the DFL Senate primary. Instead, he met a campaign staffer at the Secretary of State's office and wrote a $400 personal check for the filing fee.

"Now if the check bounces, am I still registered?" Dayton asked.

A millionaire many times over, Dayton is in little danger of depleting his bank account. Since he entered the race late, he plans to fund his primary campaign largely by himself. Dayton also financed most of his first Senate campaign back in 1982 when he ran for the very same Senate seat. He spent nearly $7 million of his own money and came close to beating Republican incumbent Dave Durenberger. Some 18 years later, Dayton jokes that he's been preparing for this race for nearly two decades.

"I feel older, maybe a little wiser, definitely grayer," he said.

Dayton says he now has the benefit of a career in public service, a lesson he learned from his loss in 1982.

"The verdict from Minnesota was, 'you're a rich guy trying to buy the election, you haven't served in public office, you haven't paid your dues.' I took that admonition to heart and went and served as commissioner of Energy and Economic Department and State Auditor," Dayton said.

As state auditor from 1991 to 1995 - his only elected office - Dayton took his role as watchdog over local government finances seriously and was concerned about public pension oversight. DFL Representative Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis chaired the House Government Operations Committee during that time and says Dayton was conscientious and thorough. She says he didn't use the office for blatantly political purposes, and he didn't seek re-election when he set his sights on higher office.

"To my intense disappointment, because I really liked the work he was doing, he resigned as state auditor," Kahn said.

Despite Kahn's appreciation for Dayton's work as auditor, she isn't supporting his Senate bid and is backing endorsed DFL candidate Jerry Janezich. Dayton alienated many DFL activists when he harshly criticized the endorsement process two years ago.

Dayton may also be the most liberal of the major DFL Senate candidates. He is the only one who says he'll push for immediate universal health care, and wants the federal government to pay for 90 percent of special education costs, instead of the current 12 percent. Dayton says he may be running against the tide by arguing for more government spending in an era of "give it all back", but he says now is the time to invest in education, health care and Social Security.

"If we don't take advantage of this budget surplus at the federal and state level, which always comes to an end, as economic cycles always do, to improve the quality of public education, to help seniors pay for their prescription medicines; if we don't do it now, I fear for the future of this country, especially when we fall in more difficult times," Dayton said.

In the last few weeks, Dayton's campaign has spent well over $500,000 on TV ads promoting Dayton's background and top priorities. Campaign staffers say although his name is well known, many Minnesotans don't know much about Dayton. The ads talk about his experiences after college as a counselor and street worker for a Boston social service agency and as a teacher in a New York City school.

One of those ads says, "He's the only candidate running for the Senate who's ever stood in front of a classroom of children and actually had to teach them. Maybe that's why Mark Dayton has a little better understanding than most politicians of how to improve education in our schools."

In another spot, Dayton looks earnestly into the camera and talks about his opposition to privatizing Social Security. Dayton has also been shuttling seniors up to Canada to buy cheaper prescription drugs, and started a health care hotline for Minnesotans battling their HMOs.

"He worried about the cleanliness of the refrigerator and the way the newspaper was situated on the table in the morning, and if it was out of order "

- Monte Jarvis
1998 Dayton campaign field director
Connie Lewis, who ran Dayton's 1982 campaign and is one of his close friends, says Dayton is truly committed to helping people.

"I don't know if people know how passionate he is," she said. "When he tells citizens that he's going to work for universal health care coverage or that he's going to work on prescription drug coverage for seniors, he will dog it and work it, and he really will. When he makes a commitment like that, he takes it very seriously."

Dayton tends to push the people around him as hard as he pushes himself, and his 1998 gubernatorial bid was plagued by staff turnover. His 1998 field director, Monte Jarvis, says Dayton didn't trust his staff, and micromanaged the campaign.

"He worried about the cleanliness of the refrigerator and the way the newspaper was situated on the table in the morning, and if it was out of order," Jarvius recollects.

Jarvis says he wanted to work for Dayton because he believed in Dayton's ideas, but he saw a very different side of Dayton during the campaign.

"I believe Mark's heart is in the right place, that he follows causes that he generally cares about and that he generally cares for other people's interests, but that didn't seem to translate, however, to how he treated those closest around him on his campaign," he said. "He paid his staff very well, there was no question about that, but he seemed to lack the personal people skills that could bring his campaign staff closer to him."

This time, Dayton has surrounded himself with a couple of longtime associates who appear to be very loyal to him. His campaign manager, Jim Gelbmann, first worked as a researcher on Dayton's 1982 campaign, and served under him as a deputy state auditor.

"I've worked for Mark and with Mark for 20 years now, and I've never found him difficult to work with whatsoever," Gelbmann said. "He's actually a fun guy to work for because he does have a sense of humor and that's probably something that doesn't come out as much as it should."

Dayton's sense of humor tends to be self-deprecating, for example, when he recounts his discovery that he wasn't cut out to follow in the family business, he de-emphasizes his role as a businessman.

"The company's done very well without me, and I've not done so well without it," Dayton said.

Or when he talks about the Dayton name.

"I've always said if I could be as popular as the store, I'd win elections."

This year, many political observers think Dayton has a good chance of winning the primary election. Two years ago, he faced the political heavyweights of Humphrey, Freeman and Mondale. This time, he has the heavyweight name, and a more stable campaign staff. His TV ads and Canadian bus tours focus on issues of concern to Minnesota seniors, who tend to vote heavily in primaries. One of his 1998 campaign managers, Jerry Samargia says Dayton seems to be running a more savvy campaign than he did two years ago.

"Good decisions being made about who is the primary electorate vote, you know, and talking to issues that I think are important to most of the people in the state of Minnesota," Samargia said.

Dayton's DFL opponents are also talking about health care, prescription drug costs, education and Social Security. Dayton is the only one running TV ads right now, at least two of his primary opponents, Mike Ciresi and Rebecca Yanisch, also have the money to run significant ad campaigns before the primary.

Although Dayton certainly has the money to keep up his advertising blitz, but if he overbuys he runs the risk of appearing to try to buy the election. That's exactly the mistake he says he made in 1982 and one he doesn't want to repeat.