ST. PAUL, Minn. – There are only 50 words Mark Dayton has to say upon taking his oath as Minnesota governor. What comes next is up to him.
Monday’s inaugural speech will set the tone for Dayton’s administration, a Democratic return to power after 20 years on the outside. It comes amid inescapable hardship, not the least being a state budget shortfall pegged at $6.2 billion for Dayton’s first two years.
In an interview last week, Dayton said he would use his address to spread a message of conciliation and compromise in a time of divided government. A day later, Republicans will assume control of the Legislature for the first time in 40 years.
“People want us to work together to solve the critical problems facing the state,” Dayton said. “We were each elected by a fraction of the people of Minnesota. But our responsibility is to serve all the people of Minnesota. I sincerely mean that.”
The sides appear to be bracing for turbulence, but have gone out of their way to minimize predictable clash points. Chief among them is taxes: Dayton wants to raise some but Republicans consider taxes off limits.
“There’s plenty of things we can work on together. Absolutely there will be moments of collision,” said Sen. Geoff Michel, the second-in-command for Republicans. “There will be conflict, there will be debate. But I think we can have some spirited debate and not get personal about it.”
In the weeks before assuming office, Dayton has paid visits to the Legislature’s GOP leaders, getting a jar of M&M’s from Senate bosses and trading stories about family dogs with heads of the House. They promised more face-to-face contact as the months wear on, a departure from what had turned into a distant relationship between Minnesota’s former powerbrokers.
Dayton said it will be in the interest of Republicans to meet him part way. All 201 legislative seats are on the line again in 2012 and it won’t take many GOP losses to flip control again.
“The reality is they’re going to be up in 2012. I’m not going to be up until 2014,” Dayton said. “If we incur the wrath of the voters by our failure to serve the interests of the people of Minnesota, they get to face that wrath before I do. I’m very hopeful that won’t occur.”
Dayton isn’t the first Minnesota governor inheriting a state in poor fiscal shape. Predecessors who faced problems tried to project promise in their inaugural addresses.
“We can see these problems as overwhelming. We can describe them in pessimism or we can recognize what the people of Minnesota recognize and that is now we have a new opportunity,” Republican Gov. Arne Carlson said in 1991.
Two decades earlier, Democratic Gov. Wendell Anderson implored state leaders to “break the tyranny of tradition” as they forged ahead.
“For if a paralysis of our will now frustrates our own best hopes, then a renewal of that will can bring those hopes to pass,” Anderson said in his 1971 speech. “That is the task which we begin today: to inaugurate an age in which our will is equal to our hopes.”
There were also speeches that struck a stern, if not combative tone. Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich, whom Dayton served as a commissioner in the 1980s, delivered his 1983 speech before students at Hibbing High School. In it, he said he wouldn’t tolerate “a wringing of hands and arguing who’s to blame” for the state’s problems.
But Perpich sensed difficulty lay ahead nonetheless. “This is supposed to be the time for a political honeymoon for the new governor — It’s not until the second day in office that they come after you with a shotgun,” he said.
Dayton is accustomed to the rough and tumble of politics. He ran for statewide office five times, winning three times. Before his victory this year, his last triumph was for U.S. Senate in 2000.
Dayton hardly ran a standard campaign for governor.
He made a tax-increase pledge his centerpiece at a time most other candidates talked about squeezing government and not touching taxes.
He exposed some of his personal flaws before his opponents could — like when Dayton, a recovering alcoholic, revealed he had slipped and also that he had been treated for depression.
He stood by a widely maligned decision to close his Senate office in 2004 in response to undisclosed terror threats.
Never really at ease in front of large crowds, Dayton was the type to crack a joke at his own expense.
“It’s easy to make fun of myself when I give myself so much material,” Dayton said during a stop late in the campaign.
He was born to a life of privilege, an heir to the department store chain that ultimately grew into Target. Aside from a summer internship, Dayton steered clear of the family business and gravitated toward politics.
Dayton turns 64 a few weeks after taking office, making him Minnesota’s oldest rookie governor — and the only one in his 60s upon starting a first term.
“I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I feel the best I’ve ever been, strongest and most capable I’ve ever been,” he said. “I feel all my life has been a preparation for this endeavor and I’m in awe of the magnitude of the responsibilities and certainly respectful of the magnitude of the problems I’m inheriting.”