ST. PAUL, Minn. — Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton says his proudest accomplishments in his 40 years of politics came late in his career: restoring state government to financial health and funding all-day kindergarten.
"Being governor is where I've have accomplished the greatest good for Minnesota," Dayton said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Now getting ready to "sashay into the sunset," Dayton said his two terms as governor contrasted with his frustrating single term in the U.S. Senate from 2001 to 2007.
As an anti-war activist at Yale University, Dayton earned a spot on President Richard Nixon's "enemies list." He took a more establishment turn later in the 1970s, when he worked as an aide to then-Sen. Walter Mondale and served as the state's economic development commissioner under Gov. Rudy Perpich. He made an unsuccessful first run for the Senate in 1982, self-financing it with nearly $7 million of his personal wealth as a member of the family that launched Dayton's department stores and Target discount stores. After one term as state auditor and an unsuccessful run for governor in 1998, he ousted GOP Sen. Rod Grams in 2000.
Now 71, Dayton is not sure what he'll do next. His health problems been aggravated by lung damage that was a complication of his recent back surgery. He fainted during his 2017 State of the State speech and underwent surgery last year for prostate cancer.
When Dayton became governor in 2011, the state was facing a $6.2 billion budget deficit with hardly any money in the bank. As he prepares to leave office Jan. 7, the state is projected to have a $1.5 billion surplus for the next two-year budget period, with a $2 billion reserve fund to cushion against future downturns.
Dayton recalled in an interview at the official Governor's Residence on Friday that he overcame political opposition to fund all-day kindergarten statewide, but his "principal disappointment" as governor was that it falls short of the universal early childhood education for all 4-year-olds that was his goal. He also managed to enact his proposal requiring buffer strips between waterbodies and farm fields despite strong opposition from agriculture.
He also acknowledged that the initial rollouts of two big information technology projects — the state's MNsure health insurance exchange and the MNLARS driver and vehicle licensing system — "were both disasters."
Another big regret for Dayton is that his fellow Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature for just two of his years as governor, 2013 and 2014. He blamed House Republicans, in particular, for thwarting him. While Democrats won control of the House in the November elections, he said the House for most of his tenure was controlled by "extreme right-wing ideologues who view intransigence as a virtue and any kind of rational compromise as a weakness."
Greg Davids, the outgoing Republican chair of the House tax committee, disputed that description and said it was Dayton who had trouble compromising.
"I like him very much personally," Davids said. "He did accomplish some really great things, but when he drew a line in the sand there was no talking with him, no working with him."
Dayton said he liked being governor best because it allowed him to take the initiative to promote job growth, economic development and water quality, instead of being just once voice among 100 senators.
Dayton once famously gave himself an A for effort as a Senator but the whole chamber, including himself, an F for results. He said he found it was hard to make a difference in the Senate minority and being ranked 100th in seniority. He earned derision for closing his Senate office for almost a month in 2004, when none of his colleagues did, over what he considered a terrorist threat.
"I felt like I wasn't making any difference," he said. "As governor ... I expended every ounce of energy I've had for eight years and every waking moment, but it's all been worth it."
Dayton said his proudest moment in Congress was being among 23 senators who voted against the 2002 resolution that authorized the Iraq War.
"I feel good about standing up for what I knew was right ... standing shoulder to shoulder with my good friend and political ally, Paul Wellstone," he said.
Dayton predicted that his successor, Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Walz , will have a big advantage in having a Democratic-controlled House under incoming speaker Melissa Hortman, and a Senate with just a one-vote GOP edge under Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. Dayton called him "an honorable man, an honest man" who wants to make government work.
"I think it will be a much more productive session," Dayton said.