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The rise of Tina Smith

Once a little-known DFL insider, Smith is poised to become one of the most active lieutenant governors in state history — as well as a possible successor to her boss.

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak: “Tina is especially good at the people side of politics. She was able to really help build bridges.”
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith’s days often start and end with a phone call. Sometimes it’s to a state legislator, with whom she’ll chat about projects they’re working on, or whom she’ll thank for passing a certain bill. Other times it’s a staff member, connecting so they can plan out Smith’s day. Sometimes it’s someone from Rochester, where she leads a group overseeing the multibillion-dollar construction of a Destination Medical Center (DMC) around Mayo Clinic.

But the sight of Smith with a phone against her ear is now so common that her two grown sons and husband, Archie, have affectionately dubbed her “Talk-a-lot-Tina” for the hours shes logs on her cell phone, even when she’s at home.

It would be hard to argue that those hours haven’t been well spent, even if much of the time Smith is simply making calls to keep up old relationships, which she rarely lets wither and die. In fact, it’s those relationships with everyone from legislators to business leaders —that have helped her move from operating as a behind-the-scenes DFL player (she’s served as chief of staff to both former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Gov. Mark Dayton) to becoming an unconventional pick to run alongside Dayton as lieutenant governor last fall.

“At the beginning and end of the day, Tina wants people to get along; that has meant she has to stay with tough relationships long enough to resolve issues that sometimes people think were unsolvable,” Rybak, Smith’s old boss, said. “It’s clear that hers is a very smart strategy. If you keep the relationships, the politics and the issues become a lot easier. She does that exceptionally well.”

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And it’s in that current role where Smith is poised to potentially make her biggest mark so far, altering the often-ambiguous and sometimes frustrating job of Minnesota’s second in command to become one of the most active lieutenant governors in the state’s history. It’s a change that has also led to a lot of people talking about her for another job: succeeding Dayton as Minnesota’s next governor.

From business to politics

Smith didn’t follow the typical path to the life of a politician. She grew up in New Mexico, where her parents were involved in state and local politics. Yet Smith decided to go into business; she attended Stanford University and went on to earn an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. She landed in Minnesota after taking a marketing job at General Mills and eventually started her own marketing firm.

In the early 1990s, she started volunteering in Minneapolis DFL politics, cutting her teeth on local campaigns. She eventually became vice president of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota before serving four years as Rybak’s chief of staff, leaving that role to manage his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

After Rybak failed to win the DFL endorsement for governor that year, Smith took a brief sabbatical from politics and watched the summer’s primary campaigns. After observing Dayton’s strategy for several months, Smith said she became convinced he could win that fall, even in a tough year for Democrats. “I liked that he was open and straightforward about what he wanted to do. He said, ‘We have a problem here and I think we need to tax wealthier Minnesotans to help solve it,’ ” Smith said. “I think Minnesotans liked that too.”

After an initial phone call, she and Dayton met at a cafe in Minneapolis to talk about his strategy. The two hit it off, and he quickly made her an adviser to his campaign. Not long after he won the election, Dayton asked Smith to be his chief of staff in the governor’s office. With her background in business, Smith became the administration’s lead on government reform projects. The two went through a 21-day government shutdown together in 2011, and the following year, Smith was critical in working with sports officials, business leaders and legislators to pass a proposal to construct a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.

In 2013, Dayton put her in charge of lobbying legislators to pass a state subsidy for the expansion of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, a massive economic development project. After months of political wrangling, Smith and a team of other project supporters were successful, and her work prompted Dayton to appoint her to the board overseeing the construction effort in Rochester. Her fellow members of the board ultimately elected her chair. 

“Her roles have been behind the scenes, but she’s always been a person who’s been about connecting governments to its partners on the outside,” Rybak said. “Tina is especially good at the people side of politics. She was able to really help build bridges.”

Mondale as a model

When a group of Dayton advisers first approached Smith about running for lieutenant governor ahead of the 2014 campaign season, she thought the idea was “ridiculous.”

Dayton’s first lieutenant governor, former Duluth state Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, fit a more traditional mold for a running-mate. She was a public figure in her own right, and she offered an element of gender and geographic balance; Prettner-Solon hailed from Greater Minnesota, while Dayton was from Minneapolis.

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Walter Mondale
REUTERS/Susan WalshWalter Mondale

Smith had few of the traditional ticket-balancing qualities. She had never held public office before and, like Dayton, was deeply tied to the metro area. “I was thinking in kind of a conventional way why governors select lieutenant governors,” Smith said. “It literally had never occurred to me that I would do something like this.”

But the more Smith thought about it, the more the idea made sense. Dayton was more established heading into his second campaign, and as lieutenant governor, she could continue to do much of the same work she did as chief of staff — while also carving out a public presence. And her close relationship with Dayton would make the new role a natural fit, she said.

“She can put up with me, which is a rarity in state government,” Dayton said last February, when he announced Smith as the lieutenant governor candidate. “We will make a great team if we have the chance.”

The job of lieutenant governor is one that hasn’t had much definition in the past, and has depended much on the officeholder’s relationship with the governor. Prettner-Solon admitted that her role was more limited that she expected. “We don’t really talk,” was the oft-used soundbite employed to describe her relationship with Dayton. She carved out her own niche on long-term care and seniors issues, and led a committee on Capitol security, but she sometimes clashed with the governor on policy.

Smith envisioned her partnership with the governor to be something akin to the one her political mentor and former Vice President Walter Mondale crafted with President Jimmy Carter. Mondale was quick to address the often disappointing position of being second-in-command in a memo he sent to Carter in December of 1976. In it, he told Carter he wanted to be regularly briefed on the affairs of the president and considered a “general adviser” to his administration.

“That’s what Mondale suggested that I do, and it was very very helpful,” Smith said. “I told the governor, ‘I’m not Fritz Mondale and you’re not Jimmy Carter, but I think there are lessons to be learned from that.’ I’m trying to put some of those lessons into action.”

A ‘natural’ transition

Smith’s daily public schedules are released to reporters — a first for a lieutenant governor — and are filled with private meetings with the governor and her own public events.

On a recent Thursday, Smith started her morning in St. Paul in briefings with Dayton and his Cabinet, followed by a meeting on the restoration of the state Capitol. By lunchtime, she was across the metro, in Brooklyn Park, speaking to a conference on economic development. That evening, she shook hands and greeted state legislators at a reception at the governor’s residence. In between, she made phone calls with legislators, citizens and other members of the community whenever she could.

Moving out of the more managerial and “grueling” day-to-day role of the chief of staff has given Smith the freedom to create her own schedule. That means she gets to speak more on economic and work-force development issues, which she worked on extensively as Dayton’s chief of staff.

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“Unemployment is low but we are still seeing some job losses, and there are a lot of jobs going unfilled. This leads us to think that understanding this work-force issue is going to be really important for the next couple of years,” she said. “We need to make sure there aren’t work-force shortages.”

The DMC project in Rochester is also a big piece of business on her plate. She thinks there are some lessons to be learned in how the economic development project is structured, with state and local leaders involved in making the lead employer in a community an even bigger presence. “The typical economic development deal doesn’t look like that at all,” she said.

But even as she steps into a more public role, Smith still wants to be at the table advising the governor every step of the way. Smith was with Dayton when he crafted and released his transportation and budget plans, as well as when he presented them to all 201 legislators last week. She is usually at the governor’s side when he meets with Republican leadership in the Legislature, an atypical role for a lieutenant governor.

“When the budget was done this last time around she was right there with him at the table laying out the issues and building the path forward,” said Bob Hume, a senior advisor to both Dayton and Smith. “Tina’s success as chief of staff was that she always brought that outside perspective and the bigger picture to the table. It was a natural progression for her to bring that to the executive level.”

It’s been a “natural transition,” Hume said, as Smith has worked with much of the same group over the last four years (in fact, she helped recruit some of Dayton’s top commissioners, including his new budget chief, Myron Frans).

For most of her career, Smith has been the person working behind the scenes to advance the agenda of her boss. But she first considered moving into the public spotlight when Rybak stepped down as mayor of Minneapolis. “I spent some time considering whether I should run,” she said. “Pretty quickly I concluded that it wasn’t the right time for me personally.”

But her sudden upward mobility in the executive branch has some in DFL and GOP circles mentioning her as a possible gubernatorial candidate to replace Dayton in the 2018 campaign. Smith has answered questions about her future many times, and she repeatedly says she’s focused on the here and now.

“I have no idea what the world is going to look like in four years, where I’m going to be, where Minnesota is going to be. I just have no idea,” she said. “And what I’ve learned in my life is not to anticipate that and just to focus on what I’m doing right now. Life is amazing and miraculous and you never know, you have to be open to whatever happens.”