In a field of lesser-known politicians Mark Dayton has name recognition, the ability to raise money and experience in seven statewide campaigns.
Still the 62-year-old former U.S. senator who campaigned in Brainerd last week is taking nothing for granted in his bid for Minnesota governor. He said that in politics a year is a millennium and the prospects of any candidate may be determined by whether the country is mired in a major recession in November of 2010.
"Campaigns are proving grounds," he said. "I wouldn't run if I didn't think I could do a better job than anyone else."
Elected to the Senate in 2002, he decided not to run for a second term in 2008. Dayton received some adverse publicity for closing his Washington Senate office in 2004 for security concerns when the remaining 99 senators kept their offices open. Time magazine referred to the senator as "The Blunderer."
Dayton said he hopes voters judge him fairly on a record of 30 years of public service.
"I've had my share of mistakes and failures," he said. "Hopefully, people will judge my career in balance."
With another massive state budget shortfall expected Dayton admits the next term as governor is going to be difficult for whoever is elected. However, he doesn't shy away from the task.
"That's the challenge of leadership," he said. "There are no easy answers. There are better and worse answers."
The former state auditor said both tax increases and program cuts should be on the table next year. One tax hike he does favor as a matter of fairness is a hike on the wealthiest 10 percent of the state's taxpayers so they would pay the same percentage as the remaining 80 percent of taxpayers. This move, he said, would raise $3.8 million in the next biennium.
Other ideas for revenue gains that he might consider include an extension of the sales tax to clothing but offering a refundable tax credit to Minnesotans, racinos at race tracks and gambling machines at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport where one-third of the fliers are people making connecting flights. He said there is a misconception that there is a fat vat of state money for programs that can be cut without serious consequence.
"There's no free lunch," he said. "I contend Tim Pawlenty has raised taxes on everyone with the property tax. There has been a general tax increase."
All candidates, including Republicans who take a no new tax pledge, should have their feet held to the fire regarding the consequences of their fiscal policies.
"We're going to step on a lot of ... toes," he said. "This is going to be a very unpopular election."
Coupled with the consideration of tax hikes, Dayton said he would look for every possible efficiency in government. He points out he's the only candidate among the Democrats who has run a state agency and as a result has high standards for government employees.
"I get mad because I have higher expectations for government," Dayton said. "Incompetence is a kind of immorality."
As an example he said that bad teachers and bad principals have to be removed from their jobs, while noting that most educators do a great job.
"The time to finesse that is long gone," he said.
Dayton said the same standard should be applied to all public employees, within the safeguards of the proper procedures. He said even though he wants to increase state funding for K-12 programs, he didn't expect to receive the endorsement of Education Minnesota, the union that represents the state teachers.
"This is not playtime," he said of the current economic conditions. "This is no economic cycle. This is a reset. We're going to have to face up to the challenge of a new era. We don't have time or the luxury of surpluses."
Dayton said he has serious reservations about President Barack Obama's health care plan on the basis that providing subsidized health insurance to 47 million Americans isn't "fiscally sustainable" although he said he would probably support it if it contained a public option.
His own preference would be for a single payer, nationwide health care plan although he said the broad legislative approach is better than the status quo.
Still, the price tag of health care concerns Dayton.
"The Republicans are right," he said. "We're digging ourselves into a financial abyss."
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