ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democrats turned out in droves to watch Mark Dayton take the oath of office to become Minnesota’s newest governor and the first Democrat to hold the office in 20 years.
Dayton’s swearing-in ceremony Monday in the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul drew Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party elite — including former Vice President Walter Mondale and Minnesota’s only living former Democratic governor, Wendell Anderson — as well as other former elected officials and union leaders.
“Somehow I know that Paul is here smiling today,” Mondale said, referring to the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, who serves as a patron saint of sorts for the state Democratic Party.
Dayton used his inaugural address to press the incoming Republican legislative majorities to avoid “paralyzing gridlock” as they jointly confront a monumental budget challenge. Dayton said it is incumbent on the Republican leadership to fashion an alternative to his campaign pledge to raise income taxes on the wealthy — without shifting the burden to locally imposed property taxes.
“If you can do so without destroying our schools, hospitals and public safety, please send me your bill so I can sign it immediately,” Dayton said. “Otherwise, let’s begin tomorrow, and in May conclude this challenging, complicated and essential process by working together.”
On Tuesday, Republicans will take control of both legislative chambers for the first time since 1971.
Dayton’s inauguration broke what had become the third-longest Democratic drought for a governorship in any state. Connecticut, which like Minnesota had gone without a Democrat in the role since 1991, also elected one in November. The states with longer Democratic outages are South Dakota and Utah.
“It restores my faith in the power of prayer,” Anderson said. “I’m very happy about it.”
Later Monday, well-wishers crowded into the hallway outside Dayton’s Capitol office to greet the new governor, who posed for pictures and signed autographs. Emily Szeliga, a 17-year-old high school senior from Long Lake, planned to present a scribbled note from Dayton as her excuse for missing school to attend the ceremony. She said he would have gotten her vote if she were of voting age and cheered his call for more people to volunteer in schools.
“That’s exactly what we need,” she said.
Dayton survived a close election that required a recount to become the state’s 40th governor. Democrats now hold all of Minnesota’s state and federal offices decided by statewide votes for the first time since 1978.
Dayton assumed power about a dozen years after first running for governor unsuccessfully. The 63-year-old Democrat has been an established figure in Minnesota politics for more than three decades, serving previously as an economic development commissioner, state auditor and, most recently, a U.S. senator.
He started his big day by handing out milk and fruit juice at an elementary school to students returning from their winter break. He said he wanted to demonstrate his call for volunteerism.
In his speech, he urged businesses to adopt a school and help improve it. He said all people should volunteer somewhere part of one day each month as he intends to do while governor.
“Whatever you can do to help, whomever you choose to help,” he said.
Dayton takes over a state projected to run a $6.2 billion budget deficit during his first two years. He ran on pro-tax platform, but Republicans steering the Legislature say they won’t approve state tax hikes.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, deferred to Dayton on his first day, saying that the new GOP majorities would wait for his budget proposal and an updated economic forecast in late February before presenting their own budget plan.
Koch added, however, that she is confident the state’s financial troubles can be solved without raising taxes.
“We’re committed to living within our means,” she said. “We believe absolutely we can do that.”
Aside from the budget problems, Dayton inherits a decade-old debate over a new home for the Minnesota Vikings. But unlike past governors, Dayton won’t be able to wait it out. The team’s Metrodome lease expires after next season, raising fears the 50-year-old franchise could relocate. Last month, the Dome’s inflatable roof collapsed under the weight of snow, forcing the Vikings to play home games in Detroit and at the University of Minnesota’s outdoor stadium.
Dayton has said he hopes to strike a stadium deal but hasn’t said what type of financing package he’d accept.
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