In December of 2009, Mark Dayton took a huge risk. He was attempting a political comeback, running for a seat being vacated by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Dayton was considered one of the front-runners; an heir to the family that built Target, Dayton had served as state auditor and U.S. senator. He was well-known throughout the state and was obviously capable of winning a statewide race.
Dayton was hiding a secret, however, one that had flared up during his time in the Senate, some time after he decided not to seek a second term. In a different time, the secret might have been enough to destroy his political career.
He was an alcoholic and he suffered from depression.
On December 27, 2009, the Star Tribune ran an article detailing Dayton’s struggles with substance abuse, which landed him in the Hazelden clinic in 2007, and with depression, which he treated with medication.
Dayton did not go into detail about his mental health issues, and in stoic Minnesota, most of the state didn’t feel they needed to know. Despite running in the 2010 wave year, Dayton managed to defeat State Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, to become the first Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) governor in a generation.
It would be nice to say that Dayton’s struggles are now a non-issue, that Minnesotans have accepted that people who battle addiction and people who suffer from depression are just like anyone else fighting a disease. It would be nice to say that, but unfortunately, at least some Minnesotans are taking a different approach.
A Laughing Matter
Minnesota’s House District 56B was newly redrawn for the 2012 race. It’s a competitive district, made up of the south part of Burnsville, an aging suburb, and a sliver of Lakeville, a conservative exurb. Republicans took the House in 2010, and if the DFL wants it back, this is the type of district Democrats will need to win.
The DFL settled quickly on former State Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville, who represented part of the district from 2007 to 2011. Republicans, however, had to find a new standard-bearer after Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, chose to move to an adjoining district.
At the district convention in August, Lakeville School Board member Roz Peterson listed her qualifications for her party’s nomination. She hit the standard points a Republican would — she’s pro-gun control, pro-family values, anti-taxes. She’s endorsed by the local Chamber of Commerce. She’s electable.
As she wound up her speech, Peterson finished with a call to arms.
“We need to make sure that this seat remains conservative,” Peterson said. “And we also need to ensure that Dayton has balance in power, because we all know that he’s mentally unbalanced.”
The room erupted into appreciative laughter and applause. Peterson ultimately earned her party’s endorsement.
“Unstable, Paranoid, and Irrational”
It was far from the first time a Republican in the state had attacked Dayton’s mental health. Those attacks started among right-wing bloggers during the 2010 campaign. In September of 2010, Look True North’s Ism called Dayton “unstable, paranoid, and irrational.” Powerline’s Scott Johnson demanded that Dayton release all of his medical records, because “one would have to be a fool to take his word that depression is the only mental health issue Dayton struggles with.”
Though the attacks were aimed at Dayton, they hit a broader target. 14.8 million adult Americans suffer from major depression, and 20.9 million suffer from some form of mood disorder. Diagnosis has increased as antidepressants with relatively minor side effects have become more readily available. More people have been more open about dealing with their mental health issues. (Author’s disclosure: I suffer from major depression, which is kept well in check by medication.)
Nevertheless, while understanding of depression is increasing, a stigma still remains. Mental health issues, even very treatable ones, are simply not viewed in the same way as physical health issues. If Mark Dayton was diabetic, nobody would have insinuated that he was hiding some far worse secret diagnosis.
If the attacks had stayed confined to the blogosphere, it would have been despicable, but relatively unimportant. Unfortunately, the attacks were soon mainstreamed by major figures in the Minnesota Republican Party.
“Crazy Dayton Eyes”
Tom Emmer, Dayton’s opponent in the 2010 election, landed on his feet. Today, he co-anchors the morning show on KTLK-AM, a right-wing station that carries Rush Limbaugh.
It would be nice to think that Emmer would still comport himself like a former state representative and gubernatorial candidate. Instead, Emmer has attacked Dayton, and not just on policy. Perhaps the nadir was “Crazy Dayton Eyes,” a parody of “Bette Davis Eyes” that ostensibly hit Dayton on spending. The parody included lines like “He’s always been a bit off/Oh, he’s going to cry.”
The attacks continued to circulate among Republicans, until bursting forth during the primary for the party’s nomination for U.S. Representative in the 1st Congressional District. State Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, one of the two challengers, was dead serious as he told Republicans in Brown County that Dayton was a “scary man.”
“When you sit across from him and you watch him pop 15 to 16 pills while you’re having a meeting, it’s scary,” Parry said. “We all know how scary Obama is. [Dayton] is at the same level.”
Parry’s comments drew a stern rebuke from Dayton, who’d taken the high road for most of his term.
“In this era of gutter politics, something like that — especially, somebody who probably thinks he’s losing an election in six days is going to reach for anything he can and try to make an issue out of it and blow it up and see if he can get an advantage with it,” Dayton said. “To me it says a lot more about him than it does about me.”
Parry ultimately lost to former state Rep. Allen Quist in the primary, but as Peterson’s joke and Emmer’s videos demonstrate, it wasn’t because of Republican outrage at his statement. The Republican Party of Minnesota has taken Dayton’s illness and turned it into a punchline at best, and a danger at worst.
“I don’t think people talk that way about people they respect.”
Will Morgan, Peterson’s opponent in November, criticized her for mocking Dayton’s illness.
“I think making jokes about mental illness is unacceptable for public figures,” Morgan said. “As a teacher I know there are likely hundreds of students in the families Ms. Peterson serves as a school board member who deal with the challenges of mental health issues every day. I think they deserve better than to be a politician’s punchline.”
Morgan worried that the continuing personal attacks will continue to erode the relationship between parties.
“I don’t think people talk that way about people they respect,” Morgan said. “Just like any workplace, when the attacks get personal, it becomes much more difficult to accomplish anything together.”
The Peterson campaign did not respond to a request for comment on her statement, and that is perhaps unsurprising. Parry’s statement was hammered when it came to light in August by moderates and liberals, and even by a few politically savvy conservatives. Nevertheless, Republicans continue to attack Dayton’s illness when speaking to fellow travelers. Mitch Berg of Shot In The Dark attacked Dayton just last week, complaining about the lack of coverage of Dayton’s “history of alcohol abuse and treatment, of mental illness and concomitant prescriptions for various psychotropic medication [sic].”
An Attack on the Depressed
The stigma of mental illness still runs deep in our society. Too many still view mental illness not as a medical condition, but as a moral failing.
When Republicans attack Dayton for being “unbalanced,” “crazy,” and “scary,” they also attack all those who suffer from mental illness, and yet manage to live productive, stable lives. We have a long way to go in perfecting treatment of mental illness, but we have come a long way, and most people who suffer from depression can live healthy, happy lives with proper treatment. Similarly, millions of Americans have gone through recovery, including former President George W. Bush. It is not easy, obviously, but we have rightly decided that people who beat addiction deserve to be able to build their lives free of opprobrium.
The attacks on Dayton do not simply minimize his office, nor do they only harm his reputation. They are a slap in the face to anyone who starts their day with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, to anyone who goes to a therapist, to anyone who is dealing with a mental illness. Unfortunately, in their zeal to take Dayton down however they can, Minnesota Republicans have done a great deal to make things worse for hundreds of thousands of their constituents. It will be interesting to see how their constituents respond.
Watch the Videos
Tom Emmer’s “Crazy Dayton Eyes” video:
Roz Peterson at the GOP district convention:
Image Credit: Office of Gov. Mark Dayton