ST. PAUL, Minn. (The Blaze/AP) — Mark Dayton, the Democratic governor of Minnesota who let his state's government shutdown rather than accept the refusal of Republican lawmakers to raise income taxes on the wealthy, was born into money.
It made him sure of something: "I grew up in that environment. I know people can afford it."
Most of Minnesota state government stands idle this weekend, the result of Dayton's and the GOP-controlled state legislature's failure to pass a new budget by Friday's deadline. State parks and the Minnesota Zoo are closed, highway projects are stalled and thousands of government workers are at home without pay for the foreseeable future.
The battle over the state budget in Minnesota echoes those underway in Washington and in other state capitals, as Republicans still energized from gains in 2010 focus on cutting spending and refuse to consider tax increases of any kind. New GOP governors such as New Jersey's Chris Christie and Florida's Rick Scott have made deep cuts in state programs and employee benefits, while even some of Dayton's fellow Democratic governors, such as New York's Andrew Cuomo, have eschewed tax hikes amid a fragile economic recovery.
The soft-spoken Dayton refuses to cave to the GOP's stance that higher taxes are verboten. Since taking office, he has championed tax hikes on rich Minnesotans — or at least some form of new state revenue — as a necessary part of any solution to closing the state's $5 billion budget deficit.
"My father's favorite quote was from the Bible: 'Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required,'" Dayton told The Associated Press on Friday afternoon in his Capitol office. The front doors to the domed building were newly adorned with signs: "This building closed until further notice due to the state government service interruption."
Dayton's great-grandfather founded a Minneapolis-based dry goods store and along with family members built it into the department store chain that's now Target Corp. The Dayton family no longer controls the company, but it left Mark Dayton a wealthy man who's spent large chunks of his fortune on a quirky political career that took him to the U.S. Senate (he quit after one term) and now, at 64, to the state's top political office.
Dayton decried the spending cuts that would likely be necessary without more tax money in Minnesota: "We're going to cut home health care attendants for seniors? We're going to deny elderly widows the at-home services they rely on? All so that millionaires do not have to pay another dollar in taxes?" he asked.
Last week, President Barack Obama echoed Dayton when he called for upper-bracket income tax increases as a means of shrinking the country's debt. Obama even used a term Dayton has repeated like a mantra: A "balanced approach" to describe a mix of tax increases and spending cuts they both have said is the surest way to restore stability to government budgeting.
"I do think Democrats around the country are looking for models of courage, and strong leaders they can use as a model," said Jeff Blodgett, a longtime friend who was an adviser to one of Dayton's closest allies, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. "He isn't afraid to be honest and direct about his principles."
Dayton stands now as the heir to Minnesota's long line of successful liberal Democrats, a tree that includes Wellstone and former vice presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. Mondale, who was mocked in the 1984 presidential campaign against President Ronald Reagan for saying he would raise taxes, is a political patron of Dayton's.
Mondale lost badly, and Reagan went on to raise taxes. On the first day of Minnesota's shutdown, Mondale recalled his 40-year friendship with Dayton and said he hoped to see him win his tax fight.
"He was green at first. I think he was insecure at first," Mondale said. "It took him a while to get his feet under him, and it seems like it's all come together in the governor's seat. It seems like he was made for it and he's going to do it."
Minnesota state government has shutdown twice in the last six years. Former Minnesota Governor and current GOP 2012 presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty presided over a nine-day shutdown in 2005, and has since applauded Republican state legislators for holding firm against tax hikes pushed by Democrats.