Minneapolis Star-Tribune © August 16, 2010

Dear Mark Dayton:

My name is Matt. Your name is Mark. What are the odds? Apparently, we have much more in common. You and I believe in most of the same things—a strong public education system, single-payer health care, green energy initiatives, human rights, immigrant rights, gay rights and progressive taxation to pay for everything.

At least this is what you say. You’ve spent decades saying things forward-thinkers like to hear. Many others say and think these things, too, but none can match your means for putting your money where your mouth is.

By birth into one of Minnesota’s First Families, your name and money have launched campaigns for public office that would have rightly frightened away people of similar qualification. You’ve suffered your share of electoral disappointment, but with a bank account that never says no, you’ve played the law of averages and, twice, propelled yourself into public office. Now you’re racing for a trifecta. And here, Mr. Dayton—or is it now Mr. Macy? It’s so difficult to keep track—is where you’ve left me baffled, concerned and wanting.

After your monumental election to the United States Senate, in 2000, you left office after a single term made remarkable only by its complete absence from the pulse and discourse of the Senate. No initiative proposed during your campaign gained traction. No meaningful legislation came from your office. No strong policy position or public stance steered or inspired your senatorial colleagues. Only your self-analysis and candor—the “F” grade you bestowed upon your senatorial stint pre-empted Time Magazine’s label on you as one of America’s worst senators—distinguished you from others in elected office.

I wouldn’t bother to hash your browns if you weren’t so determined, now, to buy your way into the governor’s mansion. I can’t fault you for the sense of entitlement that afflicts many in your financial strata (Mr. Dayton, meet former eBay CEO and pay-to-play California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman). And I wouldn’t be writing now if not for the 182,582 Minnesotans who, by voting for you in last Tuesday’s primary, ignored your record of underachievement.

I’m not sure whether they considered your name, money and words the foundation of strong governance or figured that the less they knew, the better. They certainly couldn’t have been swayed by the policy positions on your campaign Web site—little more than bullet-pointed generalities that, issue after issue, leave voters with the promise “more to come soon, please check back.”

In the runup to the primary, so many of your supporters were heard to say of you, “I like what he says.” Until last Tuesday, I believed this ballot-booth behavior the exclusive domain of social conservatives, who make an electoral habit of spurning substance and voting for pretty, hollow brunettes.

In the biography you wrote for your own Web site, you state “I offer Minnesotans strong leadership for tough times.” Leadership how? Where? When? One dictionary defines leadership as “an act or instance of leading; guidance; direction.” Mr. Dayton, how do you define leadership? Organizing buses to Canada so Minnesota seniors can buy low-cost prescription drugs? Bravo for you—you should form a nonprofit organization with this mission—but this isn’t leadership.

Leadership isn’t leaving a “broken” Senate (your description) amid embarrassing poll numbers. Leadership means rising to such challenges to fight for larger vision and principles. I’m not arguing your ducking out from the fire escape didn’t work out marvelously for Minnesota. I’m just saying it doesn’t look great at the top of your recent job history.

Nonetheless, here you stand, our only plausible choice on the ballot to become Minnesota’s next governor. Your Republican opponent shows no interest or understanding of Minnesotans who aren’t native, white, healthy, salaried heterosexuals. The Independence Party candidate is a “former” Republican so determined to straddle the fence on the issues he’s bound to deliver his stump speeches in a higher octave.

Mr. Dayton, you’re as stuck with us Democratic voters as we are with you. If you lose this election, there will be no forgiveness, no fourth at-bat, for allowing your self-anointment derail the DFL’s best chance in two decades to win the statehouse. Should you win and then fail—fail to earn the trust and support of the legislature, fail to accomplish meaningful recovery or reform (in essence, should you pull a Dayton)—you’ll wipe away any hope progressives still have in the DFL.

So let’s start with something simple. Change the theme of your campaign from “A Better Minnesota” to “A Better Mark Dayton.” Then spend this last gasp of your life in politics proving they’re more than mere words.