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Veteran behind-the-scenes player Tina Smith steps forward as Dayton’s running mate

As a former marketing pro, she knows how to craft a message. Those skills were on display on Tuesday as Smith made her pitch for the governor.

Gov. Mark Dayton applauding new running mate Tina Smith during Tuesday's press conference.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

After a long career of quietly pulling the strings behind the scenes in political campaigns and administrations, Tina Smith looked comfortable stepping into the spotlight. 

Surrounded by family, friends and Democratic activists at the AFL-CIO headquarters in St. Paul Tuesday morning, Gov. Mark Dayton announced that he had chosen his chief of staff as his running mate.

Minnesota’s current lieutenant governor, former Duluth Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, has said she doesn’t plan to seek another term alongside Dayton this fall.

Taking the podium, Smith addressed the crowd like a seasoned politico, launching into a personal anecdote about a time when her son, then only 5, was asked by a friend’s mother what Smith did for a living.

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“The friend’s mom says, ‘Mason, what does your mom do? Does she work outside of the home?’ And Mason says, ‘Yes she does — she’s a Democrat,” Smith told the crowd to laughs and cheers. “It’s a full-time job, let me tell you.”

Smith the campaigner

Smith, 55, is no stranger to campaigns. While she has spent the last three years working with Dayton to navigate the Minnesota Legislature — and before that spent four years as the chief of staff of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak — Smith has been working on DFL campaigns since the 1990s.

She’s taken part on dozens of local and statewide campaigns and spent time at the helm of Planned Parenthood in the Midwest. She ran not just Dayton’s campaign for governor in 2010, but also briefly managed Rybak’s bid. She was even floated as a contender to replace Rybak as mayor of Minneapolis when he announced he wouldn’t seek another term in 2013.

She spent years as a marketing professional with General Mills and eventually ran her own firm, meaning Smith knows how to craft a message. Those skills were on display on Tuesday as Smith made her pitch for the governor — her boss — calling him thoughtful, principled and tough with a “wicked” sense of humor.

“This is a guy who rushes to trouble just in case he can help. Whether it’s the sugar beet workers in the Red River Valley, whether it’s the flooding in Duluth, whether it’s the fallen Minnesota soldier,” Smith said. “I think this is why Minnesotans trust him to do what he thinks is the right thing to do.”

She touted work they’ve done so far — funded all-day kindergarten, paid back the K-12 school shift and passed projects like the Vikings stadium — and things they have yet to do. At the mention of raising the state’s minimum wage this year, the union hall erupted in cheers. 

“The governor compromised where he could and stood on principles where he had to,” she said. “We’ve made great progress, but we have a lot more to do.” 

Dayton’s first choice

For Dayton’s part, it was an easy decision to pick Smith as his new running mate. Several other candidates were considered, including Assistant Senate Majority Leader Katie Sieben and former House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, but Dayton said he only asked Smith to take the job.

“She can put up with me, which is a rarity in state government,” Dayton said. “We will make a great team if we have the chance.”

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In particular, Dayton touted Smith’s work to “semi-miraculously” revive the Vikings stadium proposal, which seemed all-but dead in the Legislature in 2012, and her work to guide the Mayo Clinic’s Destination Medical Center (DMC) bill through choppy political waters last year. Smith now serves on the DMC’s board, a role she says she will continue even as she campaigns.

She will step down as chief of staff role and begin traveling the state on Dayton’s behalf as soon as next week. Dayton will be somewhat restricted from such strenuous trips both because of the start of the legislative session in late February and his recovery time from scheduled hip surgery next week. The operation will require him to wear a hip brace for up to three months.

“It’s really important to have two people,” Dayton, 67, said Tuesday. “It’s a big state and a lot of things are going on, so I really look forward to her shouldering those responsibilities with me.”

Regional politics

Dayton managed to strike a gender balance in choosing Smith — there hasn’t been a male lieutenant governor in Minnesota since 1983 — but he lost the ticket’s regional balance by picking a fellow Minneapolis resident.

Prettner Solon, who hailed from Duluth, was key in helping Dayton secure votes in northern Minnesota in his first run for the governor’s office. The governor’s Republican opponents were quick to criticize the pick, already labeling the 2014 DFL gubernatorial team as the “All-Minneapolis ticket.”

“Smith, like Dayton, is strongly tied to the Minneapolis class of DFL, liberal elite who don’t come close to understanding the needs of most in our state,” said Marty Seifert, a former Republican House minority leader who is making his second run at the governor’s office this year. “With the current speaker of the House also residing from Minneapolis, this move signals a disturbing trend.”

Republicans also criticized Dayton for picking someone within his own inner circle instead of brining in a fresh face.

“This administration has been dealing with the MNsure debacle, so why not bring in an outside person with a fresh set of eyes?” said Ben Golnik, head of a Republican advocacy group, the MN Jobs Coalition. “It s a little disappointing, I think, that Gov. Dayton decided to look within rather than go outside.”

Dayton and Smith dismissed the criticisms, pointing to her work on such outstate issues as the DMC in Rochester. “People make too much of these differences,” Smith said. “What we need to be focusing on is where our common grounds are and not where we are disparate.”

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A new role for lieutenant governor?

Smith is moving from her role as a key staffer in the governor’s office to one that — in the words of the current lieutenant governor — doesn’t have a lot of well-defined responsibilities.

That was part of Prettner Solon’s complaint with the job when she opted to not seek another term, admitting that she had to carve out initiatives of her own to make the job more active.  Prettner Solon also acknowledged that she and Dayton “don’t really talk.”

That will change if Smith serves as Dayton’s lieutenant governor, he said. “She will play an integral role in my second term if I have one,” he said. “As chief of staff, she knows everything that’s going on and she will continue to be involved in everything that’s going on.”

Jaime Tincher, Dayton’s current deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs, will take over Smith’s role as chief of staff.

And as for her new role as second campaigner-in-chief, Smith simply said: “It’s going to be fun.”