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Published December 27, 2009, 08:35 AM

Dayton admits to alcoholism, depression

MINNEAPOLIS – Facing what is expected to be a brutal campaign for governor, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton revealed to the Star Tribune that he’s long been medicated for depression and that the recovering alcoholic relapsed before the end of his term.

By: Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Baird Helgeson, Star Tribune, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS – Facing what is expected to be a brutal campaign for governor, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton revealed to the Star Tribune that he’s long been medicated for depression and that the recovering alcoholic relapsed before the end of his term.

“I am a candidate for governor, and I think people have a right to know this about me,” Dayton, one of 11 Democrats running for governor, said in an interview Sunday.

But Dayton also refused to offer many details of either his depression or alcoholism – only that he started drinking again sometime between February 2005, when he decided not to seek a second term, and February 2007, when he checked himself into Hazelden Renewal Center in Center City, Minn., for help with his recovery. He said he has been sober since 2007.

Reaction to Dayton’s disclosures ranged from praise to predictions that he will be unable to keep details private in the hypercompetitive contest for the state’s top office.

“It looks less like he’s trying to protect his privacy and more like he is trying to hide something,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C. “Until he provides additional clarification, it will be an issue for the duration of the race.”

After first revealing his twin struggles in a Star Tribune opinion column published Sunday, Dayton spoke to a Star Tribune reporter on Sunday morning, but would not elaborate. Asked when he started drinking again, how much and whether it interfered with his duties as a U.S. Senator, Dayton refused to answer.

“I don’t think there is anything more to say,” he said of his drinking during the 10-minute interview. “That’s what I’m disclosing. I’m not going to say anything more about it.”

He also declined to offer any details on his lifelong depression, which he characterized as mild.

“It’s part of who I am, but it doesn’t prevent me from getting up every day and exercising and going to work and doing my best work,” he said.

Campaign staff for fellow DFL gubernatorial hopeful Matt Entenza praised Dayton’s decision to talk about his depression and alcoholism.

“It’s certainly not an issue that should be an issue in the governor’s race,” said Bridget Cusick, Entenza’s spokeswoman. “We should be past that as a society.”

Dayton first disclosed that he was a recovering alcoholic in 1987.

Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton said he remembered discussions about Dayton’s mental health issues back in the 2000 U.S. Senate race.

“It’s not relevant,” Sutton said. “What is relevant are the public policy issues. I am more troubled with what he wants to do to businesses in this state than I am about this private mental health issues or his struggles with drinking.”

Tales of odd behavior have long dogged Dayton’s political career.

In 2006, Time Magazine dubbed him “The Blunderer,” naming him one of the five worst U.S. senators that year in 2006 and citing his “erratic behavior.” Opponents – and even some supporters – have long whispered of his possible struggle with mental illness.

In public, he has often appeared strikingly shy, and yet he has spoken openly to journalists of his heartache and loneliness. Before now, he had never spoken publicly about his depression.

He told the Star Tribune he has taken medication for depression since 1993 but that the condition has never debilitated him and the chief symptom has been fatigue.

Minnesotans, he said, have no reason to fear that the depression and alcoholism would hinder his ability to lead the state.

“I wouldn’t be seeking the office if I weren’t very confident in my abilities,” he said. “People will judge my capabilities, as they should, based on my performance in the coming months.”

He added: “This is part of who I am, and people can make their own assessments.”

It’s not clear what impact the disclosures will have on Dayton’s chances for the state’s top office.

Will the stigma of a mental illness hurt his chances as he faces a crowded field of Democrats and a fierce battle with Republicans to win the state’s highest office? Will Minnesotans think differently of him for admitting he relapsed while holding public office?

Not offering more details about his treatment for depression and the latest drinking episode will hurt his chances, Duffy said. “It leaves a lot of questions unanswered.”

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