Dayton, Johnson differ on campaigns, issues

Mark Dayton rode to Redwood Falls City Hall in an immaculate black state-owned 2011 Chevrolet Suburban, driven by a state trooper. Joining him on the early-August trip were his press secretary and other state employees for an event celebrating th...

Detroit Lakes native Jeff Johnson (left) will face off against incumbent Mark Dayton in the race for the Minnesota governor’s office on Nov. 4.

Mark Dayton rode to Redwood Falls City Hall in an immaculate black state-owned 2011 Chevrolet Suburban, driven by a state trooper.

Joining him on the early-August trip were his press secretary and other state employees for an event celebrating the city’s participation in a military personnel aid program. Several dozen people, including many in uniform, attended the meeting and officials thanked him for his help.

A month and a half later, Jeff Johnson met about 20 supporters at the Pizza Ranch in the same city, a 5,000-population community in southwestern Minnesota.

He rode in his own 2005 Jeep Liberty with 136,000 miles (“so I have another 100,000 to go”) and hair from his dog on a seatback. A driver was his only staffer.

Dayton can attract a couple hundred people to a meeting, sometimes with two dozen around the head table.


As with most challengers, Johnson often only has two dozen people at a campaign event.

Dayton does not need to hold many campaign events since official state events, such as the one in Redwood Falls, attract so much attention.

That is how things are in a governor’s race in which an incumbent like Democrat Dayton faces a challenger like Republican Johnson. The two are competing in the Minnesota governor’s race, each bringing his own political background.

How the candidates travel is just one difference between the two major-party governor hopefuls.

Dayton talks about his 39 years traveling Minnesota as a public servant. He started in state government 36 years ago after a three-year stint working for then-U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale, later serving in the Gov. Rudy Perpich administration, then as state auditor and later as a U.S. senator.

Minnesotans elected him governor four years ago, but he took office only after a recount because of the narrow race. This year is the first time he has run for re-election to any office.

“People are happier than they were three and a half years ago,” Dayton said while riding in the Suburban between Moorhead and Breckenridge in early September. “My campaign pledge was ‘a better Minnesota.’ The situation has definitely improved.”

Still, he added, Americans in general “don’t have the same optimism about the future that decades or generations have had. Retirement income is much more uncertain. … Job security and people are concerned that their children and grandchildren are not going to have the same opportunities.”


“We cannot escape the national economic situation unless you are a state like North Dakota with an oil boom,” Dayton said, but he said that Minnesota has recovered better than other states.

“We restored the integrity to the state’s fiscal management,” he declared.

To no one’s surprise, Johnson does not see it that way.

Johnson admitted that more Minnesotans are employed than when Dayton took office, but insists that number does not tell the whole story. For one thing, he added, half of Minnesota workers are underemployed, meaning they have backgrounds for better jobs than they hold.

Like other Republicans, Johnson is highly critical of Dayton for raising taxes. While Dayton says that Democrats only raised taxes on the rich and smokers, Johnson said that many businesses that pay the state through individual income taxes were hit.

Johnson, who at 47 is 20 years younger than Dayton, also toes the party line in seeking a smaller government.

He grew up in Detroit Lakes in western Minnesota, lived in Washington, D.C., and Chicago for several years and served as a state representative from a Twin Cities suburb six years before losing the attorney general’s race. He has served a half-dozen years on the Hennepin County commission.

The challenger talks a lot about the need for better leadership by a governor. In mid-September he was uncharacteristically harsh when he said Dayton showed “breathtaking incompetence” in establishing the state-run health insurance marketplace and an abrupt about-face on a controversial sex offender issue.


“We had a shutdown because he couldn’t work with Republicans,” Johnson said about the 2011 budget stalemate that shuttered much of state government for three weeks.

On the other hand, Johnson said, when he was in the Legislature he worked with Democrats who controlled the Senate to pass legislation and on the county commission he is the lone conservative and works well with his more liberal colleagues.

To his backers on the right of the political spectrum, Johnson warns that changes they want, such as lower taxes and smaller government, cannot come overnight because for at least two years the state Senate will remain in Democratic control regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 4 election.

Dayton, however, said that his 36 years involved in Minnesota economic development shows him that policies like he pushes work. “We never have been … a low tax state. We have been a high value state.”

That, he said, “has proven to be extraordinarily successful.”

Davis covers Minnesota government and politics for Forum News Service. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @CapitolChatter .

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