ThreeSixty Focus on… Gov. Mark Dayton

The Minnesota governor talks about his high school life, his political career and the state’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

In June 1968, then-college student Mark Dayton was up late in his parents’ basement, watching the California presidential primary election on TV. 

He watched as Sen. Robert Kennedy was shot at a Los Angeles hotel, not long after winning the primary for the Democratic nomination. Kennedy died the next day. 

“There’s something about my political hero dying for the causes that he believed in that just lit a spark inside me,” said Dayton, the great-grandson of the founder of the Dayton’s department store company, which later became Target. “And I couldn’t be comfortable being comfortable in my parents’ comfortable home anymore.” 

Dayton, who grew up in Long Lake, Minnesota, had just finished his junior year at Yale University as a pre-med student. But after this moment, he withdrew his medical school applications and became politically active, he said, especially with Vietnam war protests and anti-war efforts. 

He graduated and taught general science to diverse ninth-graders at a public school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. He began to discover the injustices some students face due to their circumstances, he said. He wanted to help change that and improve the lives of others. 

Dayton, 70, is now the 40th governor of Minnesota. Previously, he has served as U.S. Senator, Minnesota State Auditor and Commissioner of the Minnesota Departments of Economic Development and of Energy and Economic Development. 

In January 2015, Dayton established the Diversity and Inclusion Council to improve the recruitment and retention of state employees from diverse backgrounds, among other things. He also hired Minnesota’s first chief inclusion officer, James Burroughs, in 2016. 

Dayton is on his second and, he says, final term as Minnesota’s governor. He took office in January 2011. He is the oldest governor to be elected in Minnesota and will end his second term in early 2019, just before his 72nd birthday. 

I sat down with Gov. Dayton, five days after a jury acquitted St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile, to talk about Dayton’s childhood in Minnesota, his political career, Castile and Dayton’s diversity and inclusion efforts. 

Gov. Dayton speaks with young people. Dayton says young people planning for their future should “follow your interests. Follow what grabs you.” (Photo courtesy of Office of Gov. Mark Dayton)

Q: What was it like growing up in the Dayton Family? 

Dayton: I grew up in a relatively cloistered environment. Lived out in the country and I went to a private school, so I had a good upbringing. I played ice hockey, my passion. My childhood dream was to be the starting goalie on the U.S. Olympic Hockey team, which I didn’t manage to realize. 

But it didn’t show me the world. It didn’t even show me Minnesota, so it was what it was. Not nearly as broad [of a] gaze as the learning environment that you and others are in now. 

Q: What do you think are the main things you missed out on? 

D: The diversity. I mean, seeing people with all different backgrounds. Going to an all-male school, [missing] that co-education. And just a sense of a broader connection to community. I went to Blake School. Now, they have a lot of community engagement programs so the focus of the school has really changed. But back when I graduated in 1965, it was went [to school], went to classes, went to the ice rink and home. 

Q: What was your high school experience at Blake like? 

D: We had an excellent hockey team. Back then, it was the separate tournament for private and parochial schools, so we won that tournament. And that was sort of my life. I was student council president. I had a pretty successful career there and made the honor roll. I had a good educational experience there and good preparation, but again, not the kind of broadening life experience that I think most students your age have now, which would be a lot better. 

And I worked three summers [as an] orderly in surgery at Minneapolis hospital, which got me interested. I was pre-med in college until I withdrew all my applications my senior year. But that was a really meaningful experience too— to see the intricacies of surgery and to see people saving people’s lives. 

Q: I read that you graduated from Yale with a degree in psychology, and then taught in public schools in New York City. But for most of your life, you were in private schooling. So how did that happen? 

D: I said pre-med in college, but then by my second half of my junior year, this was 1968, I really started getting politicized in opposition of the war in Vietnam and the presidential contest. 

My first political hero was Robert Kennedy. And I came home from my junior year in college and sat down in my parents’ basement to watch the California primary returns in 1968. My parents didn’t like the Kennedys, so they went to bed and I was down there all by myself. 

Bobby Kennedy won the primary, and I watched him give his victory speech, and they said, “Now it’s on to Chicago.” I was reaching forward to turn off the TV, and suddenly there he was lying in a pool of blood, right in front of me. And I watched that over and over that night and the next couple of days, repeat. 

There’s something about my political hero dying for the causes that he believed in that just lit a spark inside me. And I couldn’t be comfortable being comfortable in my parents’ comfortable home anymore. 

So I withdrew all my applications from medical school, because I wasn’t ready to make that kind of career-decision commitment and got involved in the anti-war movement, in college my senior year and thereafter. I ended up with the distinction of being the only Minnesotan on President Nixon’s enemies list. 

… I got very politically active and then decided I wanted to get some real-world experience. And I had a friend who was part of this teaching organization. It was kind of a forerunner to Teach For America, in terms of putting people like myself in urban public schools. I was down on the Lower East Side of New York City. My students taught me much more than I taught them. It was a very broadening, eye-opening and searing experience to realize the injustice of kids who were, through no choice of their own, born in such very different circumstances from how I grew up.

Q: So you had to face that challenge. What other challenges have you faced as governor?

D: Being governor is facing daily challenges. That’s what the job entails. It varies from the legislative sessions, [which] of course are focused on the Legislature. I’ve had seven legislative sessions, and three of them were with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. Two years were with DFL majorities and one year was with Republican House and Democratic Senate. So I’ve [had] all those combinations. They’re all challenging because legislators are elected in their own right, and they have their own points of view, and rightfully so. 

And especially with Republicans in this last session, as you know, right now I zeroed out the funding for the Minnesota House and Senate because I disagreed with some of the things that they sort of rammed through at the last minute, and so they’re suing me. Those relationships continue to be challenging.

[There are challenges with] incidents like Philando Castile’s [shooting death]. It was just devastating so many people both last year when it occurred and then now with the verdict. 

And then I’m going up Friday to the Iron Range where this longtime journalist up there, the editor of the paper, had a major heart attack and a heart transplant. I’m going up for a benefit for him and probably the last time I’ll see him. 

There’s just very, very human experiences—going to funerals, of not fortunately so many now, but going to funerals of soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, law enforcement officers who lost their lives, and other community people who have lost their lives. Being present, which is very important to them, but is very, very difficult, very painful. You try to console spouses and often young children. 

But it’s a job that puts me in daily contact with the real world, which is just important. I say, “Everybody needs a good reason to get out of bed in the morning,” and I always have several good reasons to get up and be involved. 

Q: You’ve made efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the state’s workforce. Why do you think this is important?

D: When I grew up in Minnesota, diversity training was teaching the Germans to get along with the Scandinavians. It was basically all white. We had a Native American population but they were not people I encountered every day, and nor did most. …

Now, Minnesota reflects the world, so we have a lot of catching up to do with that diversification of our population and our helping professions of teaching, of social services. ... It’s been catching up for Minnesota to have our helping professions and the people in them more accurately reflect diversity, in schools and alike.

We’ve really emphasized that in my judicial appointments ... but really emphasized appointing people of color. [We have appointed] two [people of color] of the seven in the Minnesota Supreme Court, including the first Native American Supreme Court jurist anywhere in the country. Those are very, very well-qualified people.

In district court, people say, when somebody walks into a courtroom, they look around [and say], “Is there anybody that looks like me?” And if you’re a minority and everybody else there is white, right away you’re thinking, “I’m not gonna get a fair shake here.”

In some ways, state government was predominantly a white population and dedicated people. But Jaime Tincher (Gov. Dayton’s chief of staff, who started in January 2014) ... really took hold of this and said we want the workforce in the state of Minnesota to look like Minnesota. She brought in James Burroughs, who’s our chief inclusion officer—I guess the first inclusion officer of any state in the country. And James has really spearheaded the reaching out. 

We didn’t know how to recruit men and women of color. We didn’t have those relationships, connections, and James has been crucial to establishing those connections and find ways to have it be known that we ... want young people like yourself to consider state government as at least an experience, if not a career. We’ve made some significant strides. We still have a long ways to go, and also with people with disabilities, but Jaime and James have made a tremendous difference.

Q: Do events such as the Philando Castile shooting and trial tie into your diversity and inclusion efforts, and if so how? 

D: Yesterday we had about 40 of our staff and interns who were gathered to process this. And I looked around the room and [about a fourth were] men and women of color. My first year as governor would have been probably 5 percent. Again, Jaime, chief of staff, really deserves credit. She has really reached out. We have a Native American woman now who’s on our staff. We have Latino. We have Hmong. We have a woman whose family is Mongolian. A whole range of diversity, and again, really extraordinary, talented people. But it makes such a big difference to be sharing that experience with a group of people who reflect Minnesota.

It’s a very challenging issue for Minnesotans, especially people like myself, who grew up without that kind of contact. … Even Minnesotans over the age of 50, or even maybe over 40, most grew up in predominantly white enclaves and schools. To really be able to talk, and more importantly, to listen to people with different life experiences and who suffered the kind of rant discrimination that was evident when Mr. Castile got pulled over because of the way he looked, things that we just in Minnesota still need to work a lot on how we can communicate with one another, listen to one another, understand one another and then move forward. 

It has been a priority and it’s going to be an even more major priority in the next few weeks or months because I think it’s such a critical time for Minnesota. Everybody says, “How do we move forward? Where do we go from here?” And that’s what I want to try to find out.

Q: What advice would you give to teens as they prepare for college or their next steps in life, and beyond? 

D: Follow your interests. Follow what grabs you. 

I have a lot of young people come from high school, or even college, [saying] “I want to be President of the United States or a U.S. Senator, so what’s the roadmap?” It used to be, well, you went to law school and you got a degree. Now, Donald Trump shows any career path can lead you to higher office. So I would just encourage people to get real-world experience, I mean after academics. Complete your education because having a higher education degree of either college or even post-college is going to be crucial to your opportunities in life. 

But beyond that, then whatever interests you, go get the experience. … I had no thought when I was graduating college that I was going to run for office. I considered myself an anti-war activist. I wasn’t a part of the Democratic Party. Back then, it was the War Party under Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon, so it never occurred to me, literally, never occurred to me to run for office until I started working for [former senator and U.S. Vice President Walter] Mondale and sort of said, “Okay, government’s a place where you can try to impact people’s lives on a much broader scale than teaching in a classroom,” which is important, but it was better suited for my interests and I think my abilities. But I got there ten years after I graduated from high school, and being in New York City and living with a welfare family in a public housing project, and living that experience was much more education than any post-graduate program could’ve been. It was the kind of work I wanted to do.

I just say, first of all, relax and enjoy your youth. Just savor the fact that you’re young. You only get that chance once, and don’t stress out over as I say this long-term plan and how you’re going to achieve it, and every decision is based on ten or 20 years from now. Make your decisions, intelligent decisions, but based on what interests you now, and especially, as I say, get engaged with the world and have a great experience. 

Q: Are you sticking to your pledge to not run a third term? If so, what’s next?

D: Yes, definitely.

I don’t know [what’s next]. I haven’t had time to give it much thought. A year from now, I’ll probably be thinking about it more. But I’ll be 72 the month after I leave office. We’ll have to see. I’ve been fortunate in my life where one thing has led to another. So I’ve always, so far, been blessed to be able to finish one thing and give it my full attention and then have a pause, which I think I’ll do, go somewhere for a couple of months. 

After I left the Senate, I went skiing for a month. I said I wanted to trim my body and dry-clean my brain. So I’ll take a month or two off and decompress and then, as they say, see what’s next. 

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