Gov Dayton on Sen. Bakk: ‘I can’t trust him’

Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL-Minnesota) PHOTO: Easy Stand, Flickr Creative Commons license

Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL-Minnesota) PHOTO: Easy Stand, Flickr Creative Commons license

Sometimes the phone rings and you’re told that a relative was arrested for a crime — maybe drunk driving or maybe bank fraud, depending on your brand of family. To be honest it’s not surprising news, though the situation spurs family drama, deep uncertainty and consequences. Ultimately this could be a good thing if used as an opportunity to change and heal. Then again, left to fester, the incident could become the harbinger of a long descent into madness and a particularly rough batch of holidays later this year.

Such is my reaction to yesterday’s news that Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton blew up at fellow DFLer and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook), a senior member of the Iron Range delegation and top Democrat in the legislature. It wasn’t if this high level meltdown among allies was going to happen; it was when. So, here we are. Ahead of schedule, even.

Patrick Condon of the Star Tribune relayed the news, now the predominant talk of the state’s political watchers:

Dayton’s rebuke of Bakk at a late afternoon news conference was unusually harsh even for the rough-and-tumble politics of the State Capitol. It raised immediate questions about how a splintered relationship between the two men could affect Dayton’s agenda and the DFL’s fortunes in the legislative session. It came after Bakk, of Cook, led a successful charge on the Senate floor earlier in the day to delay the pay raises until July 1. The raises total $800,000 in additional pay per year to 23 cabinet officers.

Dayton said he strongly opposes the delay and will veto the measure if it reaches his desk. He also said Bakk’s maneuver came without warning.

“I’m very disappointed because I thought my relationship with Senator Bakk has always been positive and professional,” Dayton said. “I certainly learned a brutal lesson today that I can’t trust him, can’t believe what he says to me, and that he connives behind my back.”

“I can’t trust him.” “Can’t believe what he says.” “He connives behind my back.”

These are remarkably clear and direct words from the governor, and not the kind of rhetoric washed away by a hand shake and a few dozen miles of new pavement in Northern St. Louis County. One one hand, one enjoys seeing candor, but for DFLers this marks a troubling future for policy goals in the mixed government.

Brewing Battle

First off, we are told this is about the governor’s controversial pay raises for high ranking state officials. But, come on. Yes, the governor made a risky political decision to raise commissioner salaries, and yes, Bakk crossed him on that. That might cause a spat under normal conditions, but the brutal, unrestrained nature of Dayton’s brushback indicates something more than a one time transgression.

What else has led to this?

Many DFLers I talk to — especially those outside the Bakk/Range circles — point to discord over Bakk’s decision to sneak through the new Senate office building at the end of the last session. Going into an election with a vulnerable DFL House, while the DFL Senate was not on the ballot, this decision essentially had former Speaker Paul Thissen and House DFLers pay the political price for something that was very much a Tom Bakk/Senate priority. Then, when Gov. Dayton asks for his raises, Bakk — sensing that his caucus would be on the ballot in the next election — decides to become a fiscal hawk.

Even that, though, is a fairly petty reason this blew us so big.

Everything about this has to do with the pressures of a changing state, a changing DFL coalition, and two very distinct personalities negotiating those changes on the tail end of their careers.

Sen. Bakk has remained almost totally detached from the governor’s political approach to the session, choosing instead to keep the Senate DFL as independent as possible. That’s not unusual for a Senate Majority Leader or the Senate in general, but given the dramatic GOP win in the House last election and the sudden need to defend DFL policies in new ways, precious little collaboration has occurred between Bakk and Dayton.

Now, Dayton is operating free of political constraints and quite obviously without a filter. Meanwhile, Bakk –never one to doubt his own self-worth — continues to see his chief duty leading the Senate as the building and cultivating of power, political might to be used as undisclosed means to some ends that will be announced at a later date.

And it wouldn’t surprise me if the successive series of failed power grabs by Bakk’s Range DFLers added to Dayton’s irritation. Sen. Tom Bakk is a powerfully ambitious man, and he emerges from an Iron Range DFL school taught by former Sen. Doug Johnson, the man who turned the Tax Committee Chairmanship into the voice of Ra the Sun God. This week Iron Range DFLers joined House Republicans to advance a series of bills winnowing the powers of state regulators on mining issues. Bakk and his colleague Sen. Dave Tomassoni hung an embarrassing political distraction around the DFL’s neck for the first month of the session. Party fissures over mining were exacerbated by some Rangers who demanded pro-mining purity from party leaders representing DFLers with many different views on the matter. So much noise. So much lack of discipline or strategy. For what? The Iron Range Bakk emerges from can no longer deliver elections or outcomes as it once did.

Political Implications

Dayton has little to lose since he’s run his last race. Losing the Senate in 2016 would render him severely limited from a policy standpoint, but he’s endured that environment in the past. It could be argued he acted imprudently in this dust-up, but he held true to the eccentric style that has propelled him through life like a man digging a tunnel just a little bit each night.

Bakk has a lot to lose, as does the DFL prospects in the next two or three elections. In recent weeks we’ve read stories about the cost of the Senate office building, Gov. Dayton wanting a new plane, the raising of commissioner salaries and, for added measure, a senior DFL senator trying to work for a lobbying organization while serving in office. The Minnesota economy is surging, thanks in part to DFL policies for the past two years. But DFL political malpractice like we’ve just seen might well ensure that we don’t see new DFL policies for a lot longer than two years.

I can now *imagine* a world in which Republicans keep the House in 2016, and perhaps even make a run at the Senate. There’s no Klobuchar, Dayton or Franken blowout at the top of the ticket to help DFLers down ballot. Unless the DFL can circle back to issues people actually care about, they’ll need big, big help from a strong Democratic presidential candidate running against a weak Republican to break this cycle.

Meantime, up here in the sticks, well, my Iron Range friends don’t like to hear it, but the days of looking to legislators to single-handedly “fix” what’s wrong with the region’s economy and stagnant demographics are plainly over. Bakk’s behavior is indicative of someone trying to hold power, not someone trying to use it wisely. Our Iron Range political power has already waned tremendously. After 2022 there will likely be only one senator and perhaps three state representatives who live in the Taconite Tax Relief Area. No project or initiative can reverse this coming reality. So, the problem isn’t having enough hope, but enough foresight to develop a new strategy.

For DFLers, this drama might be a cue to try a new direction. For Republicans, I sure don’t have to tell you what to do. Just pop some popcorn and watch the show.

State Senator Tom Bakk answers a question before an audience at the DFL Gubernatorial Debate at the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, November 24, 2009. PHOTO: Tony Webster, Flickr Creative Commons license

State Senator Tom Bakk answers a question before an audience at the DFL Gubernatorial Debate at the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, November 24, 2009. PHOTO: Tony Webster, Flickr Creative Commons license


  1. Bob Collins says

    Brilliantly written, as usual.

    I’ve thought for some time that Bakk’s hero must be Billy Bulger, the brother of the infamous Whitey Bulger, who ruled Massachusetts with an iron fist from his position as Senate President (the Commonwealth’s version of Bakk’s position), while the elected governors naively continued to believe they were the ones at the top of the political food chain.

  2. Tina Rasmussen says

    Bakk is being disingenuously populist : he won’t find a more receptive ear for his NEHD-benefitting tuition plan than that of Dayton and the “metro-centric” caucus .

  3. Interesting that Dayton would dare step into personal character traits, especially a trait as basic as trust. “Trustworthy” & “Politician”, in the same sentence? Come on now…let’s move on.

  4. Super interesting post, and I’m certainly no Bakk apologist, but is it possible he simply (and clumsily) thought the pay raise delay was the right thing to do from a policy standpoint here? (to what exact purpose, I’m not really sure)

    • I think the state runs on a July 1st – June 30th fiscal year. Maybe he thought it would be better to put new (non-emergency) expenses into a planned year instead of adding them to the fiscal cycle already in progress?

  5. Geeez, so hard to imagine Dayton throwing our money around. The DFL has been in lock-step for so long on spending that a minor slow down causes the Gov to call out Bakk . Hard to imagine that a “trust fund baby” would whine when he can’t spend money how and when he wants. I’m so happy he’s working daily for the small guy (as Gov likes to say). He’ll, he wouldn’t know a small guy if he bumped into him.

  6. And calling someone a trust fund baby isn’t personal….

    Most likely this has been festering a long time. The iron range delegation collaborated with the republicans in the government shutdown compromise in 2011, working to hand over large parts of the state over to extractive industries in a desperate attempt to reawaken the ghosts of 1978, when theft, graft, muscle cars and alcohol flowed freely from Taconite to Babbitt. And, the numerous times they have held their votes for some project benefitting themselves and their friends, such ads the “Biomass generators” currently burning chipped red pine, much to the chagrin of local foresters but a great welfare system for loggers.. Regarding trust, one might ask if they would place more on a family who did it through straightforward capitalism and state that they hope to give it all away before their death, such as the Dayton’s, or someone who has spent the majority of their career feeding at public trough while throwing prizes to their friends, such as Bakk? Author qualification: received a graduate school fellowship through the Wood-Rill foundation of Mark Dayton’s father, Bruce.

  7. Mark Dayton didn’t earn his money, he inherited his money. And he was a lapsed alcoholic serving as a US Senator and making life and death decisions in that state. Surely he must have had a sober moment when he realized he should resign? Of course who knows what his current state is. He seems to struggle with speaking…

  8. My referring to Dayton as a trust fund baby wasn’t a jab at his family for doing well. I’m happy they had enough success to set up a trust fund for whatever they choose. It was a shot at the Dems who refer to these folks as the evil 1%’ers and feel that their net worth should be given to the Govt when they die in the form of a death tax. If you live in Minn and do well the state/Fed get roughly 50% of your money, then when you invest your half of your money and do well they hit you again with capital gains tax on the money you already paid 50% on, then to add more pain they want a death tax up to 75%. On the original dollar you made you’ll end up giving state/Fed over a 1.50. Plus Dayton spends our money like a drunken sailor….

    • Here’s an information tidbit useful at this point in the discussion: despite paying higher taxes than most states, Minnesotans average higher take home pay AFTER TAXES than all but a few states. The money the state spends “like a drunken sailer” seems to return benefits to the people in the form of higher income, probably due to better education, better research, and better infrastructure paid for with those taxes. In particular, we outperform Wisconsin, Indiana, Texas, and Kansas by quite a bit on that statistic.

      The few states that beat us on take home pay are almost all states with even higher taxes.

      The lesson seems to be that you have to spend money to make money.

  9. Explain how state spending increases anyone’s personal wealth unless you work for the state. Do you think the off road diesel tax helps loggers make more? Does the tax on medical devices help the medical companies? In business you spend more of your money for the reward of doing better, how does Govt spending your taxes on a new capital building or on new Governors plane help you???

    • As I am sure you know, the main drivers of economic development are education, research, and infrastructure, including transportation, sewer and water, and now electronic infrastructure. Most of those things are paid for primarily out of state and federal funds that come from taxes. Over time, states that invest in those things do much better economically than those that do not, with Minnesota being a classic prime example, historically leading the Midwest in economic development, and right now leading the Midwest except for North Dakota’s oil boom.

      The logging industry and diesel tax is a prime example, since the logging industry is heavily dependent on transportation infrastructure, state forests, and university research developing new applications and processes for forest products. State spending, financed by state taxes, is absolutely an important positive for the forest products industry.

      The entire taconite industry is based on research done at the University of Minnesota, paid for by state taxes, so everyone on the range who owes their income to mining or economic spillover from mining is having their personal wealth increased by state spending and taxes.

      The entire computer and internet industry is based on research either done at government facilities or paid for with government money funding private facilities such as Bell Labs. The internet itself was created by a military-university-government consortium 100% funded by taxes, and developed by private companies only after that existing government funded infrastructure was opened to private use. Everyone who has made a dime on computers or the internet owes their wealth to government spending and taxes.

      The real estate boom of 1950 to 2000, and the commercial enterprises from Target to McDonalds that accompanied it, was propelled in large part by the development of the freeway system and by federal and state highway construction, again paid for by government and taxes, so everyone who benefited from that, from the Sam Walton to Ray Kroc, got a big push forward from taxpayers.

      The automobile industry, and the oil industry and steel industry with it, owes its wealth to government creation of the roads it depends on.

      The medical device tax is a federal, not state, tax, of course. However, the medical device industry is extremely dependent on both state and federal spending for research and development that provided the technologies they exploit and that will continue a supply of tech development in the pipeline. In both the drug and medical tech industry, almost 100% of basic development comes from public money through university research in the US and in Europe and Japan, and is funded by tax dollars, with the companies only getting involved once the basic research is being converted to commercial products. Just as it is fair to ask individuals who have benefitted from a massive public investment in their training to pay back the public for that investment, I certainly believe it is fair to ask companies that have benefited from massive public investment to pay back as well.

      Basically, all highly developed countries have economies that are the result of a partnership between the government and private business. Generally the government funds the costs of projects that have no immediate commercial return but that lay the foundation for later commercial development, ranging from basic science to transportation infrastructure to the education of the workforce, and then private business picks up the ball when there are immediate or nearly immediate profits to be made. Businesses and their owners and employees then pay taxes to support the government that has laid the groundwork for their earnings and to provide for ongoing government activity that drives the future.

      It is what economists call a virtuous cycle, but it can certainly be interrupted by unwillingness of its beneficiaries to look far enough ahead to see the rewards or to learn enough history to know where their prosperity came from. The current resistance to ongoing tax funding of research and development, ongoing tax funding of education of our future workforce, and ongoing tax funding of maintenance and build-out of infrastructure is just the sort of short sighted politics that is a good way of seeing our country take a back seat to Europe and Asia in the decades to come.

      That is called killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

  10. Good luck. I always said the day we need Govt more than they need us, is the day the idea of America is done and the wonderful experiment of self governance is over. I’m glad I’m old….

    • The great invention of the 20th century, and the basis of the emergence of the United States as a world power in economics and politics, was the development of the American government-business-university partnership and the dependence on team cooperation rather than individual effort for solving of technical problems and developing innovation. Everything from the development of modern sanitation and public safety to the Manhattan Project to the development of modern electronic technology to the development of modern health care from antibiotics to 21st century surgical and diagnostic innovations came out of that innovation. It is the basis of the American Century: universities innovate, government finances and organizes, and businesses exploit the financial benefits.

    • Congrats on achieving old age, Ken. We should all try to remember that WE are the government.

  11. As I said good luck. Having elected officials who run amuck with trillions of dollars and pass laws they like (or are paid to like)is bad enough we now have appointed political positions that wield power over you (EPA to name one). I’m glad so many have unfailing faith in those people and positions. Remember folks it is for the “greater good”. As my dad told me in the 60’s- when someone tells you it is for the greater good, get ready to get screwed some how.

  12. The government-business partnership in America has been the dominant theme for getting things done since the development of the transcontinental railroads 150 years ago. You and your father certainly grew up with it. And somehow I doubt that your father disliked the federal highway system, public schools, the taconite industry, the polio vaccine, television, the disappearance of tuberculosis, rural electrification, winning World War II, the St. Lawrence Seaway, clean drinking water, access to air travel, or a million other things developed under that partnership. He may have disliked computers — my father didn’t trust them — but you obviously don’t.

    All of those things exist because of the system you claim to hate. And that system has certainly brought us all good luck.

    You probably even like it when the rivers don’t catch fire.

  13. Dan McGrath says

    Most insightful piece I’ve read on this whole debacle. Thank you Aaron.

  14. It’s baffling to me when average Americans are outraged about the estate tax or as others label it, the “death” tax or the “Paris Hilton” tax., people who don’t have or will never, ever have an estate value that would quality for the tax. The median average inflation adjusted income is just over $51,000 a year, still stagnant and well below the 1999 high of just above $56,000.

    Only one tenth of 1% of deaths in the US result in federal estate tax liability, even rich states’ numbers aren’t much higher. Just the very wealthiest pay the tax because it is only levied on the portion of the estate that exceeds $5.43 million per person or $10.86 million per married couple. More than 72% of those estates went to heirs and 11% to charity. Heirs can often shield a large portion of the remaining estate value from the tax through deductions and other loopholes such as grantor retained annuity trusts. The tax lawyer credited with discovering the GRAT loophole estimates that it has allowed wealthy estates to avoid as much as $100 billion in taxes since 2000.

    Many wealthy heirs would never face any taxation were it not for the estate tax which was one of the reasons the estate tax was created in 1916, taxing the income of the wealthy that would otherwise go untaxed, iow, cracked down the tax dodgers.

  15. It is your money!!! The Govt doesn’t deserve a penny of it after you’ve paid your taxes certainly not when you die. What is it about “it is your money” that many don’t understand? It doesn’t matter if it is 1% or 70% of the population they target, It is wrong. I’m happy for all you that feel the Govt will take care of you and they have invented every good product, innovation and tech company in the past 50 yrs including roads…… After all Al Gore invented the internet…..As I said good luck.

    • Al Gore did not invent the internet, and never claimed he did. That was a Fox News parody of what he said. What he did do was write the legislation that threw the internet open to everyone. Until then the system only available to the military, universities and colleges, certain think tanks, and select businesses with relationships with the military and education systems. I personally was able to use the internet clear back in the 70’s, but until the Gore law was passed in the early 90’s, most people could not.

      No one who knows anything about the internet, the web, or the history of the computer industry doubts Gore’s contributions as a sponsor of many bills that provided funding that created the internet and then opened it for use by the general public. The “Al Gore thinks he invented the internet” was devised by people who were either completely ignorant about internet history or deliberately not telling the truth, and in either case were interested in attacking Gore’s candidacy.

      It is, to put it plainly, a lie told for political gain.

      As far as the history of technology and economics in the 20th Century, it is plain unadulterated fact. I am sure most people reading this know about the history of taconite. All the rest is equally true. You can, as they say, look it up.

      Do you really think roads are not built with government money and following government planning? That seems extreme.

  16. How small do you want government to be and still be able to maintain the same returns (decent highways, bridges, SS. Medicare, police, fire protection, schools, food, drug, work safety,etc, etc, etc) on your tax investments? Should there be no taxes whatsoever and no services but we keep all our hard earned money? Or no taxes but private business will provide the same services and (cough) costing us no more or less than government?

    No one really addresses that question except perhaps Grover Norquist who said he wanted government to shrink until we could drown it in a bathtub. Which really doesn’t answer the question either but I doubt Norquist cares about the consequences.

  17. Small enough not to rack up 18+trillion dollars in debt, not that the 18T dollar amount bothers many, greater good and all. Small enough not to cry/beg for more money after collecting nearly 3 trillion in taxes per yr. Small enough to quit buying up land and turning it into some Fed preserve of some sort. Where does it state in our constitution that the Federal government should own our land? All land should be owned by states, counties or private ownership. The list goes on but I believe it should be much smaller than the behemoth it has become.

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