The Mark Dayton you didn’t see

Every new year should start off with the type of letter to the editor that Seng Vang got published in today’s Star Tribune.

Why the Strib led its page with a letter about fruitcake instead (ed. note: don’t even think about it) defies explanation, however.

As Gov. Mark Dayton’s time in office winds down, I feel compelled to share my personal observations about his leadership and why this wealthy and powerful politician will always be remembered as a “man of the people.”

I was fresh out of college when I landed a job as a staffer working for then-U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton. I couldn’t believe it. A girl born in a Thai refugee camp to parents who were never formally educated and spoke little English was walking the halls of the U.S. Capitol. After needing help most of my life from publicly funded programs, I was now in a position to help others.

By day, I staffed Sen. Dayton’s health care help line, helping families in crisis navigate the health care system. By night, I came home to our three-bedroom house in East Side St. Paul that was shared by my parents, four younger sisters and my brother’s young family. After my parents were sworn in as new U.S. citizens, Dayton threw a party for them. My parents were grateful for the party, but were genuinely touched when he listened intently to my mother’s tearful story about our journey to the U.S. Eventually, I left the senator’s office for graduate school. As Minnesota’s greatest cheerleader, he lobbied me to stay and attend the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. I did so and then settled into a quiet life.

Seven years after I left Dayton’s office, my father passed away. His funeral was set for Jan. 8, 2011. On a whim, I informed the office. The office initially told us that was the same day as Gov. Dayton’s inaugural ball, and we understood that he was busy. Then they informed us that the governor wanted to stop by the funeral before heading to the ball. He didn’t do it for the TV cameras. He didn’t do it to impress others. Our family has never publicly shared this story, but this act illustrated the kindness and decency that have defined Mark Dayton’s tenure in public service.

My father died thinking he was a “nobody” in this country. I wish he would have known that the highest-ranking elected leader of this state thought he was a somebody. To be clear, it wasn’t just my father. Gov. Dayton, through his policies and leadership, has worked tirelessly for all Minnesotans, like my father. Beyond balancing the state budget, it was critical for him to increase health care coverage and expand early childhood opportunities so that Minnesotans now and into the future will have better opportunities and lives. While his background and upbringing are far from common, his legacy will be that he fought for the common man. Gov. Dayton, thank you for your service. You will be missed.

Seng Vang, Oronoco, Minn.

Related: Five things you probably didn’t know about Mark Dayton (MPR News)