Tina Smith, Gov. Mark Dayton’s new running mate in his 2014 re-election campaign, is in Week Two of her life as a candidate, a transition from her chief-of-staff role that she seems to be handling with confidence.
But Smith knows that her close working relationship with the governor and her role in helping develop policy priorities make her an election-year target for Republican opponents, and she even has to deal with some critics in her own party unhappy with an all-Minneapolis ticket.
She talked with MinnPost about how she intends to explain, amplify and defend the DFL ticket during the campaign. Here’s the transcript edited for clarity.
MinnPost: Did you have any concerns about becoming a public person?
Tina Smith: I have a lot to learn certainly, but I have spent the last 15 to 20 years working in the public arena, only in different roles. We certainly talked about that. We talked about that in our family. The governor and I talked about that, but it wasn’t ultimately a big factor in our decision.
TS: Last year there was a lot of talk about whether I should run for mayor of Minneapolis, and I certainly gave that a lot of thought. I knew, though, that my work in the governor’s office and with the governor wasn’t done yet, and as I thought about it, knew I wanted to stay working with him.
MP: What are the chief differences between being a manager and being a candidate?
TS: I think being a good manager and being a good candidate require you to be an excellent listener. I just think a lot about that. One of the things I look forward to is being out and being able to talk to people and listen to how they think things are going and how Minnesota is doing. Being a good manager, you’ve got to listen really hard. I often would say, “Tell me something I don’t know that I’m not going to like.”
MP: What’s an example of something you didn’t like to hear?
TS: Well, in state government, think about how hard we’re working on trying to close the achievement gap. That is one of the biggest challenges we face. Tell me about where the challenges are and where we’re not getting it right. Tell me what we need to do differently so we can do better.
MP: What do you bring to the ticket that you think it needs?
TS: I think that better than most people, I really understand the priorities of the governor and how we need to take it to the next level. I am in a great position to tell Minnesotans about that. Because I worked right next to the governor the last three years, I bring a capacity to have those conversations with people that is pretty unique.
MP: How do you answer concerns — from within your party — that the ticket is too metro — the so-called one-city control?
TS: Anyone who knows Mark Dayton knows that he’s been representing the entire state of Minnesota since when he was appointed to run the Department of Economic Development under Rudy Perpich. He’s been representing the entire state his entire time in public service. To say that Mark Dayton is a Minneapolis person is shortsighted.
I’ve lived in Minneapolis and the western suburbs all the time I’ve lived in Minnesota. It’s my hometown. But I’ve also had the chance to work on issues that are statewide issues for quite a while. The other thing is, you get to a stage in your life [when] you know what you don’t know, and I certainly appreciate that.
MP: Have you heard directly from people, especially Iron Range legislators, about this concern?
TS: Interestingly, no, I’ve not had anybody talk to me about it personally. I’m certainly aware of the conversations that are out there, and I’ve actually asked questions of people. I’ve been proactive trying to understand it better. The legislators up on the Range are tenacious fighters for their region of the state, and that’s why they’re so good. I don’t take it personally at all.
MP: As a manager, how do you rate the management of MNsure?
TS: I agree with the governor that there have been some big missteps in the way MNsure has been managed. The level of service that they’re providing is just unacceptable, and it’s got to get better.
MP: But being the good, technical manager that you are, did it frustrate you to see what was happening?
TS: Deep frustration, deeply, deeply frustrating. And what happened was especially frustrating because we worked so hard to try to understand what was going on and that they had all the resources that were needed to accomplish the goal of a website that worked for Minnesotans on Day One. And to have tried to so hard, only to find out after the fact that there were just big parts of the site that weren’t working, was deeply frustrating.
MP: Were you deceived, in a way, about what was happening?
TS: Deceived would suggest that people, that the manager was purposely trying to keep information from us, and I don’t think that that was the case. I think they were trying to accomplish a technology goal that was incredibly challenging. I don’t think they realized that it was going to go so bad on the back end.
MP: In hindsight, would you have not launched MNsure in the manner in which it was launched?
TS: In hindsight, the governor and I would have made big changes much, much earlier to make sure that the technology infrastructure was working. We didn’t know that at the time. But there’s no excuse. It should be much better, and it will be.
MP: How will you talk to labor about the administration’s position on non-ferrous mining in northern Minnesota?
TS: Our entire administration has said [that] we need to be the neutral arbiters here. We need to let the comment period and environmental impact process play its course before we make any statements about what we think. I think [the governor] is totally right about that.
MP: What if the campaign perceives you are losing critical political support because of this neutrality? Would that change anything?
TS: I don’t think it’s responsible to say that we think one thing definitely ought to happen on these mining projects until we have all the information in place. And I wouldn’t be afraid to say to anybody, that it’s just not responsible. Also, the governor and I have been unwavering in our belief that you can have environmental protection and job creation and you don’t have to pick between those two things. This doesn’t have to be a win-lose situation.
MP: Will the financing mechanism for the new Vikings stadium be viable?
TS: We have a strategy for paying the debt on the stadium [$468 million procured through state revenue bonds] through closing corporate loopholes and through this one-time revenue that was gotten because of the cigarette tax. E-pulltabs could be supporting revenue, but we’re not counting on e-pulltab revenue to pay back the stadium.
MP: Why did you decide to stay on the Destination Medical Center Board, the oversight board for expansion of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester?
TS: The governor and I talked a lot about that. It is a unique partnership between the state, county, city of Rochester and Mayo Clinic. The governor appointed me to that job; the board members elected me to be chair. When we knew that I was going to be a candidate for governor, they all asked me to stay. It’s a great project, and I think it’s exactly the kind of project I hope to be more involved with when I’m lieutenant governor.
MP: Do you worry about possible conflicts — very simply put, a perception that the position allows a candidate to trade beneficial decisions for votes?
TS: The Destination Medical Center effort is going to be focused on putting together a development plan for this district in Rochester. Where is development going to happen? How are we going to market this opportunity? How are we going to finance this opportunity?
MP: And in doing so, won’t you get a lot of pressure from outside groups?
TS: I don’t see this as a political opportunity. I don’t see this as a Democratic opportunity or a Republican opportunity. I see it as an opportunity to really grow jobs and expand the Mayo Clinic. I’m not going to be personally picking projects, one project over another project. My job is to chair that board and make sure that the development project gets done correctly.
MP: How much time will you spend campaigning?
TS: I’m going to be campaigning full time. That’s why I resigned my position as governor’s chief of staff. We always knew that the governor would be spending a lot of his time in late winter and spring at the Legislature. This is an incredibly important legislative session in that his attention was going to be quite focused on this session — bonding bill, raising minimum wage, the “un-session” effort that we’ve been working on. I’m expecting to spend a lot of time on the phone, a lot of time fundraising. I am really looking forward to getting out of St. Paul.
MP: Do you see stepping in more, given the governor’s recovery from hip surgery?
TS: He’s definitely going to be less mobile in the next month or so. So I’m going to be out there working and talking to people. After the legislative session is done, I’m sure we’ll both be out on the road.
MP: When the campaign vetted you, did anyone have concerns about what popped up in your background?
TS: We did a thorough vetting, which I really welcomed and was grateful for. The campaign had me fill out a big questionnaire. There was nothing. No skeletons [laughter].
MP: Will you run for governor one day?
TS: One thing I’ve learned in politics is that you just never know what’s going to happen. Four years ago, I was the campaign manager for Mayor [R.T.] Rybak, working hard to get him elected governor. If somebody had told me four years ago that I was going to be sitting here with you talking about a campaign for lieutenant governor, I would have told them they were crazy. So you just never know.