ST. PAUL (AP) — Barely a month into his new job last winter, Gov. Mark Dayton got an unusual gift from a farmer visiting the Capitol: an acorn-sized stone with a cross-shaped marking that the farmer described as a good-luck charm.
The new Democratic governor accepted the gift, rubbed it and said: “Alright, I need good luck here.”
Nearly a year later, the supposed charm looks more like a rock. Dayton spent 2011 in nearly constant battle with equally new Republican legislative majorities, and ended the year with little to show for the aggravation.
The centerpiece of Dayton’s campaign for governor was a proposed income tax increase on the state’s wealthy, and once in office he directed much rhetorical energy toward pushing the plan. But he was finally forced to drop it when Republican lawmakers wouldn’t budge even in the face of a government shutdown. Dayton stuck his neck out as cheerleader-in-chief for partial state funding of a new Vikings stadium — but couldn’t get state lawmakers similarly enthused. He authorized a union election for some in-home child care workers, but a judge blocked the vote.
The year was not without victories. Dayton saved the state money with an executive order that snared federal aid by expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor. And his administration saved tens of millions more by striking a deal with health providers to limit their profits from publicly subsidized patients. He sped up state review of construction permits, part of a broad effort to make government more efficient that hijacked the issue from Republicans.
“I know that I did my very best,” Dayton told The Associated Press in an interview at his State Capitol office. “I didn’t accomplish all that I wanted to. I was dealing with a legislative majority that disagreed with my views on tax reform, on making the richest Minnesotans pay their fair share of taxes.”
Some of Dayton’s fellow Democrats said they wanted a little more fight from the state’s first Democratic chief executive in 20 years.
“He’s been too much of a pushover too often for the Republicans in his haste to compromise and be bipartisan,” said state Rep. Mindy Greiling, a Democrat from Roseville and a leading liberal voice in the party. “I would like him to hang tough longer.”
In particular, Greiling and many Democrats disdained the deal Dayton and GOP legislative leaders struck last July to balance the budget and end a 20-day partial government shutdown. It relied largely on delaying state aid payments to school districts, and borrowing on future proceeds from the state’s 1998 settlement with tobacco companies.
Dayton said he cut the deal after realizing even the government shutdown wouldn’t move Republicans off their no-tax-hikes mantra. “Compromise means agreeing to things that you don’t agree with,” he said.
Dayton, who will turn 65 at the end of January, is in the twilight of a career that’s centered on politics. He ran a state agency under the last Democratic governor, Rudy Perpich, and served single terms as state auditor and U.S. senator before finally winning a governor’s office that had eluded him on a previous try.