“It has been a deeply distressing issue for me,” Dayton said, claiming that the desire of Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, to return six paintings to the governor’s office was rooted in political ambitions.
Early in the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission meeting, Dayton said that Dean, by previously sending an email to the members of the panel, attempted “to hijack the operation of this commission for your own political purposes, for your governor campaign in 2018.”
Dean, who gained most of his support from fellow Republicans on the commission, said he was trying to honor Civil War veterans. Dean and other proponents of retaining the paintings say the 1905 Capitol building was constructed in honor of Minnesota’s Civil War veterans and their key role in preserving the Union.
Dean, a former House majority leader, is known to be considering a bid for governor, but on Tuesday he would not comment on that.
An hour after Dayton left, the commission decided by a voice vote to “strongly suggest” that the Minnesota Historical Society decide to return the six Civil War paintings to the governor’s office public area, four in the ornate reception room and two in an entryway.
While law gives the Historical Society final say in such matters, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said after the meeting that she would consider sponsoring a bill to force the society to return the paintings where they had hung before the $310 million renovation began.
At the meeting, Nelson displayed booklet from when the Capitol opened, showing that while the Civil War paintings were not yet completed, they were intended to hang in the Governor’s Reception Room.
Dayton said that he will not lobby the Historical Society to vote his way. The society’s executive committee has already voted against returning the paintings but will further consider the issue in coming days.
The Capitol reopens on Jan. 3, but Administration Commissioner Matt Massman said that some work will not be done by then, so the walls in the governor’s office could remain empty of paintings.
“Let’s make the decision as a partner of this larger view of what this room will look like,” Dayton told reporters after the meeting.
Two other panels overseeing the Capitol building previously decided that two reception room paintings called offensive to American Indians should be removed.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, who has done extensive writing on the Civil War and Indian conflicts in Minnesota, said: “The bloodstains of history cannot be washed away by removing a picture.”
He called for paintings that have hung in the reception room to be returned. Later, he hinted he could support legislation to require that.
Urdahl said the Civil War and Indian paintings should be in the Capitol’s most important room, which to him is the reception room where governors host dignitaries, conduct negotiations with legislative leaders and meet the media. The reception room is on most public Capitol tours unless it is occupied.
Commission member Peter Hilger said that he favors keeping the Civil War paintings in public view. Otherwise, he said, how would the public see “the horrors that war wrought?”
Others, however, argued that the paintings could get more public prominence in another area of the Capitol.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, supported Dean’s argument to keep paintings in the reception room.
“I have a very strong feeling about these paintings,” said Daudt, who also could be a 2018 candidate for governor. “It is very important to me.”
Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, supported Dean and Daudt: “Our Civil War soldiers probably saved the United States of America as we know it.”
Dean raised Dayton’s ire in his previous email when he said: “The Capitol should not be designed around the likes and dislikes of any temporary tenant.”
In an earlier letter, Dayton said he favored paintings that “are more welcoming and also more broadly representative of our state’s history.”
After Tuesday’s dust-up, Dayton, who says he will not seek re-election, said it is time to move on to more important things, such as working together to slow soaring health insurance rates and to prepare a two-year state budget.
“There are far more important things to the people of Minnesota,” he said, adding that he left the commission meeting because “it wasn’t a productive use of my time.”
The Minnesota Capitol building reopens Jan. 3 after being mostly closed for three years of renovation work, but a formal celebration comes Aug. 11-13.
State Administration Commissioner Matt Massman made the announcement Tuesday, saying that visitors to the renovated Capitol will “have a jaw-dropping experience when you go in the door.”
While most of the work is finished, Massman told the State Capitol Preservation Commission that some construction will continue through the summer.
The exterior and interior have undergone a comprehensive renovation totaling $310 million. Some areas look much like they did before, just spruced up, but much of the Capitol has been changed to open up space for public meetings and other uses. Plumbing, heating and ventilation, electrical and other systems have been upgraded.
Events will note the reopening on Jan. 3, when the House and Senate begin their 2017 session. Also that day, the state Supreme Court plans to meet in its Capitol courtroom.