Republican shots at Dayton shift with headlines
ST. PAUL — The Republicans running for Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's job have been employing new lines of criticism against him every day recently as they attempt to elevate their own standing ahead of the August primary to determine his fall opponent.
On Monday, the four GOP candidates blamed Dayton for a Fortune 500 company's decision to uproot its corporate headquarters from Minnesota as part of a merger. On Tuesday, they pounced on suggestions that he would be open to fine-tuning a state minimum wage law that hasn't even kicked in yet. And Wednesday, the issue du jour was his administration's handling of indefinitely confined sex offenders.
How much damage, if any, the scattershot critiques are inflicting on Dayton is unclear. For the GOP, there can be dangers to chasing headlines. But for Scott Honour, Jeff Johnson, Marty Seifert and Kurt Zellers, a significant part of it is proving to potential Republican primary voters they're agile and tough enough to take on Dayton.
"For the most part, they're going to be on the same page on the issue of the day, so who's faster, who's better doing something to make it an issue, who's going to capitalize?" said Republican strategist David FitzSimmons, who has remained neutral so far in this campaign.
Dayton has spent much of the last few weeks on the road, appearing at groundbreakings for building projects proceeding with state aid and touring areas deluged by persistent rain. Campaign spokesman Jeremy Drucker dismissed the cumulative GOP criticism in a written response that stressed economic gains under Dayton.
"The Republican candidates are desperate to distort and distract from the undeniable progress made because they have no vision of their own to offer Minnesotans," Drucker said.
Some of the quick jabs have gotten ahead of the facts.
In swinging early at Dayton over the Medtronic deal, Seifert characterized the loss of the company's overall headquarters to Ireland as "a sad day for our state's economy and its workforce." But Medtronic officials assured government leaders the company would keep its domestic operational base in the state and add 1,000 Minnesota jobs over the next five years. Dayton used that promise to volley at Seifert, a former legislator, as someone who "doesn't know what he's talking about."
On the minimum wage, Dayton perplexed many when he told the Rochester Post-Bulletin editorial board that his restaurant-owning sons make "an articulate case" about the possibility of revisiting the law to treat tipped employees, such as servers, differently as the state's wage floor rises to $9.50 by 2016. Republican rivals seized upon the idea that Dayton ignored such concerns until his sons spoke up, but the governor's staff later insisted he wasn't advocating for a law change.
The minimum wage flare-up cuts both ways for the GOP because it focused renewed attention on an increase that enjoys broad popularity.
Perhaps the trickiest issue for both parties is the sex offender program that is in danger of collapsing under federal court scrutiny. Almost 700 violent sex offenders are civilly confined to a secure treatment facility, and a federal judge has warned state officials he might strike down the entire program if changes aren't made to allow for the eventual release of some patients.
The proposed discharge of one man has caused an uproar because of the brutal nature of his sex crimes and because his "fantasy logs" were destroyed in the course of his release determination, possibly by staff at the Department of Human Services-run facility. The Star Tribune reported on the case Wednesday.
Zellers, a legislator and former House speaker, urged an exhaustive review of the case by Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, who responded that his office doesn't have a role and would leave it to the courts.
Zellers accused Dayton of "abdicating his leadership on this issue." But legislation that would have overhauled the sex offender program stalled in the past two sessions amid deep political divisions in the House. Other than seeking a full re-examination of the program, Zellers hasn't recommended large-scale changes to head off the legal challenge to its existence.
Dayton's Deputy Chief of Staff Bob Hume said it's posturing in the heat of a campaign.
"If Rep. Zellers thinks press conferences will solve this problem, he is sorely mistaken," Hume said.