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‘Velvet hammer’ to ‘fierce advocate’: Tina Smith, a longtime Democratic fixer, works to make U.S. Senate seat her own

Sworn in on January 3, Smith faced a tall order: learning how to function in the Senate while gearing up for two grueling elections in three years.

Sen. Tina Smith
After spending decades doing almost everything and going almost everywhere in Minnesota politics, Tina Smith has found herself in a new place this midterm year: the spotlight.
MinnPost photo by Lorie Shaull

A year ago, Tina Smith never imagined she would be here.

“I was thinking about what I was doing a year ago, and it’s so completely different,” she said, sitting in her car in the parking lot of an Apple Valley shopping center. “If somebody told me that I would be doing this a year ago, I wouldn’t have seen the path.”

It’s possible the former lieutenant governor could have seen the path to where she was on this recent Saturday — popping into DFL rallies around the metro area to fire up volunteers on the eve of a crucial midterm election. In 2014 and 2016, she was practically Gov. Mark Dayton’s official ambassador on the campaign trail.

But Smith, along with the rest of the political world, could not have imagined who she would be today: a U.S. senator in the thick of a campaign to win a seat she was appointed to in January, after Al Franken resigned in the wake of a sexual misconduct scandal.

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After spending decades doing almost everything and going almost everywhere in Minnesota politics, Smith has found herself in a new place this midterm year: the spotlight. The longtime behind-the-scenes politico is finally a so-called “principal” — the one who is introduced at rallies, not the one doing the introducing.

As she manages that learning curve, Smith has also been tasked with making a name for herself and getting things done on Capitol Hill, no easy feat in the maelstrom of crisis and partisan warfare that is Donald Trump’s Washington. Like the last person to hold this seat, Smith has started out in the Senate by maintaining a close focus on Minnesota issues and working to bring home the bacon on big items like the Farm Bill.

Even as Smith juggles all these tasks, she has been favored to win Minnesota voters’ approval to continue with her new job, and the special election for this seat was not expected to register on a U.S. Senate map already crowded with more high-priority races for both parties.

But the Republican candidate, state Sen. Karin Housley, has run a persistent campaign, needling Smith on everything from #MeToo politics to her failure to appear at a televised debate. Housley has trailed in every poll, but she has raised enough money and garnered enough support that this race is on national Republicans’ radar as a possible wildcard.

The new senator knows as well as anyone Minnesotans’ independent tendencies at the ballot box, and she says she is taking nothing for granted. Smith, someone who brandishes a reputation in Minnesota politics as a coalition-builder, is now trying to scale that approach statewide to win over a Minnesota that seems more politically divided than ever.

‘Wired’ to find common ground

Since being appointed to this seat by Dayton in December 2017, Smith has repeatedly said she would be a “fierce advocate” for Minnesota, a label that’s become something of a mantra for her and her campaign.

But before Smith was a “fierce advocate,” she was the “velvet hammer.” That nickname was formed during her career in Minnesota politics, during which she became known as someone with an uncanny ability to make things happen behind closed doors. Smith jokes she was called the “velvet hammer” because she was able to persuade powerful people to do the right thing — and that the right thing was their idea.

The 60-year old’s path to Minnesota political prominence began in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she grew up. It’s a place where she continues to have deep roots: her father, a retired attorney, still lives there; the senator owns a second home there with her husband, Archie — an investor who has specialized in medical device stocks — in addition to their home in an upscale section of southwest Minneapolis.

Smith picked up degrees from Stanford and Dartmouth before moving to Minnesota to take a job at General Mills in the 1980s. Before long, she got involved in Minnesota politics, and by 1998, she was managing Ted Mondale’s campaign for governor. In 2002, after Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash days before the November election, Smith stepped in to run the replacement campaign of former Vice President Walter Mondale, someone who Smith now refers to as her political mentor.

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After that, Smith was a top official at Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and the Dakotas — an organization that has championed her U.S. Senate campaign — before becoming chief of staff to R.T. Rybak when he was re-elected mayor of Minneapolis in 2005. Smith, Rybak told MinnPost, “deserves a lot of credit for things that I’ve gotten credit for.”

“She’s just kind of wired to find common ground,” he said, echoing one of Smith’s current campaign themes. When the I-35W bridge collapsed in 2007, Rybak watched Smith work with the office of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty as the Democratic mayor and Republican governor attempted to move forward from the devastating accident.

“There was a tremendous lack of trust between two offices that had to work together on a horrendous disaster,” he said. “Tina was the one, more than anybody, who pulled those two offices together and had them acting almost as one.” He recalled that at a joint meeting months after the collapse, Pawlenty slipped and referred to Smith as his own chief of staff.

After Dayton defeated a field that included Rybak in the 2010 DFL governor race, the new governor brought Smith on as chief of staff. In 2014, when Dayton was selecting a new running-mate, Javier Morillo, a DFL activist and head of the Service Employees International Union Local 26, recalled asking the then-Dayton chief who the lieutenant governor pick was. When Smith texted it was her, Morillo thought she was joking, so he quipped back that the office was “where careers go to die.” (“I’ve never been more embarrassed,” Morillo says of attending Dayton’s presentation of Smith as lieutenant governor.)

But Smith turned a dead-end job into a springboard, becoming Dayton’s emissary, enforcer and close advisor. Summing up sentiment in Minnesota politics, MinnPost’s Doug Grow wrote in 2016 that Smith was a new kind of lieutenant governor in that she “actually has real responsibilities, as well as what seems to be the respect and loyalty of her boss.”

Allies like Morillo weren’t surprised that Smith became an effective lieutenant governor. But they were surprised at how she took to a new task: the nitty gritty of campaigning as a candidate, not as an operative.

“I’ve known her for a long time as the person behind the scenes who gets stuff done,” Morillo says. “I just didn’t think of Tina in that way, who would be the public face of a campaign… Gov. Dayton did very little campaigning himself in the re-elect — it was Tina who criss-crossed the state and she really enjoyed it. She took to it in ways that people never imagined she would.”

Just a ‘replacement’?

By 2017, Smith had a bright political future in front of her: Dayton seemed to be setting her up to run for governor herself, and some confidantes were urging her to run for mayor of Minneapolis. Many paths appeared to lay ahead, like she’d recalled in Apple Valley, but what happened next was not one of them.

In November, several women came forward to accuse Sen. Franken of sexual harassment, and in a matter of weeks — spurred on by his Democratic colleagues in the Senate — the national liberal icon announced his resignation from office. In December, Dayton appointed Smith as his replacement, and every big name in Minnesota DFL politics said to be interested in the job quickly backed Smith, heading off a crowded primary.

Sworn in on January 3, Smith faced a tall order: learning how to function in the Senate while gearing up for two grueling elections in three years — this Nov. 6 special election contest, and then another campaign in 2020, the year this seat’s next election was scheduled.

But Smith also remained attached to the lingering Franken scandal in ways big and small. In March, for example, she fired back at Politico, which ran a headline that simply referred to her as “Al Franken’s replacement.”

But the more difficult task for Smith has been navigating the minefield of pain and hurt feelings lingering in Minnesota among many who believe that Franken did not get a fair chance to defend himself from the misconduct allegations — or even that those allegations were part of a targeted smear. (Smith’s main rival for the DFL nomination for Senate, former George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter, said Franken’s ouster was “likely a Roger Stone/FOX set up job.”)

“People have lots of different feelings about what happened when Sen. Franken made the really hard decision to resign. I have come to respect people have lots of different feelings, sometimes very strong feelings, and they’re not all the same,” Smith told MinnPost.

“What challenging circumstances to come in, right?” said Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum about Smith’s arrival in Washington. McCollum, an admirer of Smith’s, has known her since they worked on Roger Moe’s 2002 campaign for governor. “Our party was really mourning the loss of Al Franken, as well were many people nationally,” she said. “It was bittersweet for her to come into the office.”

“There were many people who were extremely upset and continue to be about losing a senator who they feel really strongly about,” said Rybak. “That just made her job more complex… But she has navigated through it exceptionally.”

Smith says that she’s never felt like anyone has held her responsible for what happened. “The thing that people are most likely to say to me, people who come up to me, is something along the lines of, thank you for doing this, thank you for stepping in. You didn’t have to do this.” (These days, Smith says she is occasionally in touch with Franken. “We’ll exchange a text,” she says. “He’s been very helpful in terms of giving good advice.”)

In public appearances, Smith has been careful to praise Franken. In an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in June, Smith called Franken a “great leader in Minnesota” and said he was a “champion for a lot of issues that matter to women.” The flip side of Smith’s balancing act on Franken is the group of mostly young progressives who believed the senator deserved to go — a division Republicans have occasionally exploited.

According to Steven Schier, a retired professor of politics at Carleton College, Smith has been faced with a remarkably difficult task. “If someone wants to enter the U.S. Senate, it’s hard to imagine more complicated and challenging circumstances than she has faced,” he said.

“Up against an immediate re-election, she is dealing with the Franken fallout and she’s having to learn a new job with a different president in charge. Add it up, and I don’t think I’d like to do that.”

Doing the ‘senator’ part

To many of his supporters, Franken was an irreplaceable progressive advocate, someone with a singular ability to pressure the Trump administration, as evidenced by his headline-grabbing lines of questioning in 2017’s Cabinet confirmation hearings.

Smith — who people like Rybak say faced some pressure to come into D.C. as a “female Al” — is a progressive Democrat who is in line with the party’s left wing on issues like health care, for which the senator supports a single-payer system. She is described by supporters as meticulous on policy, but few call her flashy when it comes to politics.

In her time in the Senate so far, however, Smith has acted more like Franken than it may seem: the former senator arrived on Capitol Hill in 2009 after a 300-vote victory, laser-focused on Minnesota issues, shunning the spotlight and working to improve his policy bona fides. It was a posture he maintained for his first six-year term, and then some.

In the Senate, Smith has followed in those footsteps, largely focusing on parochial and bread-and-butter issues like rural access to broadband internet, student debt relief, workforce training initiatives, and programs to benefit farmers in Congress’ Farm Bill. (Smith sits on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, the Agriculture Committee, the Energy Committee, and the Indian Affairs Committee, giving her an issue portfolio that overlaps with Klobuchar’s, and is similar to what Franken’s was.)

Smith has also targeted the pharmaceutical industry, which has been a useful piñata for both Democrats and Republicans in the 2018 midterms: Her first piece of legislation in the Senate was a bill to aid consumer access to more affordable generic drugs. (Her campaign literature often emphasizes she is “standing up to Big Pharma.”)

To get a grip on the challenge of learning how the Senate works while running for it, Smith says she went “all-in on the Senator part.” “I tried to think about who were the people who were interested in the same issues,” she said. “Who are those people and the relationships I could build to help me accomplish things and find common ground with people?”

“I think the best job for her was always the Senate, because of this exceptional quality to get conflicting people to agree on something,” Rybak said. “It’s a unique fit for her.”

But there is a limit to that approach in this increasingly partisan Senate, where Republicans hold a two-seat majority. The congressional watchdog website GovTrack rates Smith in the more moderate half of the Senate Democratic caucus, almost exactly in line with where Klobuchar sits. But on key votes, such as judicial and administration appointments like that of Gina Haspel to head the CIA, Smith has been a reliable “no” vote for Democratic leadership.

Showing up

Back in Minnesota, Smith trades the formal attire of the Senate for the campaign casual of flannel shirts, vests, and pairs of blue Converse sneakers that have become something of a logo for her campaign.

Smith is trying to translate the bipartisan, above-the-fray tone of her work in D.C. to the campaign trail: Instead of talking about President Trump, she would much rather talk, for example, about legislation she co-authored with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, to improve access to mental health services in schools. That provision passed as part of an opioid crisis relief package signed into law in October.

With Minnesotans deluged with midterm politics, from endless debates to a constant barrage of negative ads on TV, Smith is positioning herself, like many other candidates are, as an antidote to the toxicity.

“What I observe is that Minnesotans are tired of the division, they’re tired of the heatedness of the political debate, they’re really sick of the negative advertising,” she said. “I know people always say that. I feel that today, and I’ve been around a lot of campaigns… I feel like there’s a heightened level of weariness with that.”

It’s a point echoed by her opponent, Karin Housley, who also says that people are tired of the division and fighting in politics and want a no-nonsense person in this Senate seat who can get things done.

But this race, which has hovered on the edge of the national Senate priority list for both parties, has been heated and divisive, no matter how much the two people at the center of the election decry it. Smith and Housley have gone at each other vigorously, and sometimes personally, on a variety of topics.

Housley, who entered the race before Smith was sworn in, has sought to make what many Smith allies see as a strength — her long history in politics — into a weakness, referring to her as a “political insider” or a “career politician.” (Housley, a real estate agent by trade, has represented a Washington County district in the Minnesota state Senate since 2012.)

She has also sought to paint Smith as a hypocrite on her signature issue — going after the high cost of pharmaceutical drugs. That line of attack produced one of the more negative ads of the 2018 cycle: a 30-second spot, funded by Housley’s campaign, which accused Smith of profiting off the opioid crisis due to her husband’s ownership in stock of Abbott Laboratories, the original marketer of the addictive opioid OxyContin. The ad, which showed stand-ins for the Smiths toasting champagne glasses on the beach, has been determined to be misleading by multiple fact-checkers.

The heart of Housley’s closing argument against Smith, however, stems from the senator declining to appear at a televised debate between the two, scheduled for October 21 on KSTP. From that episode, Housley got an invaluable gift: the image of herself standing next to an empty podium. (Smith’s campaign cited scheduling conflicts as the reason she could not debate; the two sparred on Thursday in a debate carried by WCCO.)

Republicans have used the empty-podium visual to cast Smith as an appointee acting like an established incumbent. Housley’s final campaign ad puts this front-and-center: “Tina Smith may have gone to Washington, but she still hasn’t shown up for us,” the GOP candidate says in the ad. “She was never elected – and when it comes down to it, Tina Smith doesn’t show up.”

Navigating Trump in a divided Minnesota

Most observers say that Smith has run a competent and cautious campaign: in one year, she has raised over $8 million for this special election. In the contest’s closing months, and with public polling showing her with healthy to commanding leads over Housley, Smith has been unafraid to go after her opponent hard in order to win.

Smith’s campaign has pushed the narrative that Housley lacks basic policy knowledge on issues like Social Security; they have also sought to turn the pharma industry attacks around on Housley, accusing her of siding with the industry by voting no on legislation, which passed the state Senate overwhelmingly in May, to impose millions of dollars in fees on pharma companies to help address the opioid crisis.

But one of Smith’s key lines of attack reveals a major fault line in the race: Trump. In an October interview on MPR, Housley said she would be a “rubber stamp” for the president and his policies. Housley appeared on stage with Trump at an October rally in Rochester and, in the closing weeks of the election, has increasingly embraced the issue of immigration and border security.

While Smith makes the argument that Housley would simply be an extension of the president, the senator isn’t making opposition to Trump a key theme of her own campaign message. The only mention of the president that Smith gave during a recent stump speech at a union hall in South St. Paul was that the president had mentioned her during his rally in Rochester. (“Who the hell is Tina Smith?” Trump asked. “Just say my name a few more times!” Smith joked to the crowd.)

“I think there are fundamental differences with the way I’d approach issues and the way the president approaches issues,” Smith says. “I’m fully believing that Minnesotans are looking at that and saying, OK: the president wants to repeal the protections that protect people with pre-existing conditions, and Sen. Smith doesn’t want to do that. Who’s on my side?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t shy away from standing up against the president or other people who I think are taking us in the wrong direction,” she said. “It’s not this, happy, smiley we can all get along. We don’t agree on some things. But that doesn’t have to be personal.”

To Carleton’s Schier, Trump’s outsider appeal could contrast unfavorably with Smith and her long record in politics. Smith, he said, is “someone who worked behind the scenes but has all the traits of someone who could be attacked as an insider, and someone who is part of the system, someone who is far from being a breath of fresh air. That’s the risk she runs right now in this election campaign.”

Smith, who has been on the losing end of campaigns as well as victorious ones in Minnesota, says “you take voters for granted in this state at your great peril… That’s why we’ve worked so hard in this campaign to build relationships with voters with me as a Senator, and be very clear about what I’m for, what I’m working on.”

When asked about her weaknesses, Smith allies like Rybak say it’s that the senator doesn’t take enough credit for what she accomplishes. (“It’s about time the women who’ve been making men like me look good lead,” he said.) Privately, others say she simply isn’t as exciting as other Democratic candidates on the ballot.

“She’s not a flashy politician in the way some people might expect that a politician should be,” Morillo said. “The things that people might talk about in politics as a weakness — well, she’s good on policy but can she connect — the persona she puts forward is, she’s a hard worker who listens.”

If Smith is victorious on Nov. 6, she’ll have won her first election in her own right — not as a running-mate, or as a campaign manager. To keep her job, she’ll have to do the same thing two years later.

“I was appointed to the Senate, and it has been my job to serve in the Senate and then to earn the vote of Minnesotans. That’s what this whole election is about, right?” Smith asked. “I wasn’t given a pass on this. I was given the responsibility of serving and then running, and I’ve never taken that for granted.”

As Smith prepared to head into the Apple Valley DFL office to rally volunteers ahead of a day of organizing, she recalled something her friend and mentor Mondale — who himself was appointed to the Senate — said to her. “He said, ‘you only ever feel like half a senator until you have that election certificate.’ And I think maybe that gets to the point.”