Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

‘I am not fainthearted:’ A Q&A with Minnesota’s new U.S. senator, Tina Smith

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Tina Smith was sworn in as Minnesota’s new U.S. senator by Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Tina Smith — former lieutenant governor, chief of staff to Gov. Mark Dayton, and Democratic Party player — was sworn in as a U.S. senator, replacing Al Franken, who resigned on Tuesday over allegations of sexual misconduct. Smith becomes the 28th U.S. senator from Minnesota, the 22nd female member of the Senate, and a target for Minnesota Republicans, who are looking to recapture a Senate seat for the first time in a decade. The morning before her swearing-in, MinnPost caught up with Smith — who sipped coffee from a Southwest LRT mug in the office formerly occupied by Franken — about how she will approach her new job, and politics in Washington, ahead of a busy year.

MinnPost: You’re going to be a member of a now-49-person minority in the Senate. How do you plan on distinguishing yourself in a group that contains some pretty big and nationally known personalities?

Sen. Tina Smith: I’m really focused on Minnesota and Minnesotans, and I will come to Washington, D.C., prepared to be a fierce advocate for Minnesotans, especially around economic opportunity and fairness. This is the work that I’ve done as lieutenant governor, and I want to continue that work, so whether it’s on issues of tax fairness, or health care costs, or expanding opportunity in Greater Minnesota — with, for example, rural broadband — I know those issues and I know Minnesota, and I want to bring that here so that my colleagues can know that too. I will also be listening really hard and trying to find the places where we can find common ground, not only within the Democratic caucus, but across the hundred of my new colleagues.

MP: Sen. Franken had a reputation of being not a firebrand but a really outspoken progressive, not afraid to get into it, to combat, and to argue and push back. Do you feel any desire or any pressure to emulate that approach?

TS: I will be my own kind of senator using my own best judgment and my own experience. That is what I will bring — I will certainly not try to copy anybody. But I think there is an important role to play for Minnesotans in the Senate, to not be afraid to speak out. That’s what I mean by fierce. There was a thing that Paul Wellstone used to say: Now is no time for tippy-toe politics. That ethic of, not to tippy-toe around the tough issues that divide us but to dive in, to try to really understand how we can accomplish something even within those divisions, is our responsibility as senators.

MP: So what do you understand to be the issues that can’t be tippy-toed around this year?

TS: Here’s one example: As lieutenant governor and as chief of staff, we did work to make Minnesota’s tax system more fair. We asked the top 2 percent of Minnesotans to pay more; we lowered income taxes for everyone else — we actually lowered their taxes, not temporarily, but for the long term. We did that while balancing the state’s budget. We are called the best-run state right now. We also put money into education, which is our future. So that is a significantly different strategy from the approach that we saw in this tax bill that just passed. We can’t tippy-toe around those differences, we can’t pretend that there’s no difference when there is. When you have the president saying in Mar-A-Lago over the weekend to a group full of friends that you’re going to be a whole lot richer because of our tax bill, that is a big difference from where I’m coming from.

MP: What do you see as the role of the Democratic Party in the Senate? Is its primary job to block or stall President Trump and the Republican Party’s agenda?

TS: There’s no question that the Republicans are in charge of the executive branch and both the Senate and the House. We have to appreciate that we don’t have the capacity, at least until an election next November, to really move forward an agenda, for example, on real tax fairness. That doesn’t mean we should just spend the next 10 and a half months being obstructionist. It is our responsibility, I think, to try to find places to get work done. That’s been very much what I did as lieutenant governor. A lot of times, if you listen really carefully and build relationships even with people that you might disagree with on many things, you can find places where you can accomplish something for Minnesotans. I think Sen. Klobuchar has been a good example of that. Sen. Franken also did that.

MP: There certainly has been, over 2017, this “hell-no” caucus of Senate Democrats who do view their job as stopping Trump’s agenda, which they view as dangerous. There clearly is an appetite in the Democratic base to stop and obstruct. How do you plan to navigate that?

TS: I’m going to meet all of my colleagues in the caucus for the first time tomorrow, at lunch. I’ve had a chance to talk with some of them, and each one of them represents a unique part of the country, and each one of them brings their own experiences and background to it. I think that the important thing is to find the right balance between speaking your mind and not being afraid to ask tough questions and not tippy-toeing around, but also really listening and learning. Some people in politics — how can I put this — this is what they sought their entire lives. That’s not really me. I never really intended to be in this place. Yet I think I’m in exactly the right place right now, and I’m going to be listening carefully and learning as I go.

MP: This is your first time as a legislator, and you’ve got to learn the ropes of D.C. and the Senate, but you’re also staring down what’s going to be a competitive campaign this fall and, if you win, another campaign in 2020. That’s a big to-do list. How daunting does that look right now?

TS: Coming to serve in the Senate and also running for the Senate in a short time period is not for the faint of heart. But I am not fainthearted. Remember that I bring to this a lifetime of experience: I started out in the business world; I started my own business. I know what it’s like to make payroll. As chief of staff, I was responsible for running a multibillion-dollar organization with over 34,000 employees, and working on everything from health care to transportation. I’ve traveled all over Minnesota. I bring a lot of experience to this role, and I think that will help me and it will help Minnesotans.

MP: I’ve heard you described by some folks as a pro-business Democrat. Is that right, and what do you make of that label and what it connotes for what your place could be in this Bernie Sanders-ified Democratic Party right now?

TS: Well, like most people I’m very wary of labels, but let me respond to that by saying that this year, Minnesota was named one of the best states in the country for business. Well, why is that? Because we have one of the best workforces for business in any place in the country, because we are rich with natural resources, because our people are so well-educated. If that’s what it means to be a pro-business Democrat, then I will happily be called that. Also, my experience in starting out, working for a big company and starting my own company gives me an understanding about what it’s like to run a business and make payroll, and the creativity it takes. I very much respect that.

MP: There still remains a lot of hard feelings, sadness and anger, out there both in Minnesota and nationally about the circumstances of Al Franken’s departure from this office. Do you have any concern about whether that will affect your ability to do your job?

TS: I think that we are at a really interesting turning point in our country and in our state when it comes to sexual harassment and how women are treated in the workplace. This is an issue that affects women whether they are in big companies or working in hotel rooms. And I am struck by how there is a lot of anger, a lot of different attitudes, but it’s interesting to me that people aren’t all angry about the same things. It is also interesting to me that, as this big attitude shift is happening, I think it is really being led by young women, who are saying to women of my generation, you’ve been putting up with things for years that I don’t think we should have to put up with. So, I’m speaking generally now, but I think it’s no surprise there is this moment of great foment. As I move into this new job, I will be very aware of that, and will look for opportunities to try to advance questions of what it’s like for women to work, whether they’re working in the U.S. Senate or whether they’re working in a small business in Worthington.

MP: In reporting on this, I’ve gotten more reader feedback than I’ve probably ever gotten on any topic. I had a person who identified as a lifelong DFLer tell me that after the way Senate Democrats and other Democratic officials called for Al Franken’s resignation, she would never give another dime to the DFL in her life. That’s sort of what I’m trying to get at: Have you sensed that type of sentiment, and do you view that as an obstacle to getting your job done?

TS: I don’t view that as an obstacle to being the best U.S. senator that I can be, which is the most important thing. That’s just the most important thing.

MP: Is there anyone whose approach in this office — a Minnesotan or non-Minnesotan — you’d seek to draw on as you head into this?

TS: This Senate seat is an interesting seat, and I think it is very special. It has a really long and enduring legacy of social justice and advancing opportunity that dates through Walter Mondale and Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey and, of course, Paul Wellstone. All of those individuals, in addition to many more, I look to for inspiration. I think this is also a time where we need to bridge that history and tradition into the future, and to a future that is more inclusive, and more just, and creates more opportunity for more people. As I think about moving into this role, that is very much on my mind.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (7)

The problem

The problem I have with Tina is that she didn't run for governor because she didn't want to deal with negative and difficult campaigning, or at least that is what I was told. Is that right? Has she changed since then? If not, we need to know that either now or soon, so that we can find a candidate willing to endure the three year slog Franken's resignation has imposed on Minnesota's Democrats to retain this seat.

Smith

I read her pass on the Governor's race as the result of being unlikely to win in a field of better-known candidates. Who told you she didn't want go through the rigors of campaigning?

Lucky

Minnesota is fortunate to have such a smart, sensitive senator representing us in Washington. Tina Smith brings real savvy and commitment to her role.

Kitchen

But is she will to do the work and take the heat retaining that seat will require over the next three years? If we are going to support her, we need that assurance. What has changed since she decided not to run for governor?

Hiram - Where Did You See Tina Smith Fitting in that Race?

Or, where do you see Lori Swanson fitting in, if she still decides to run?

The six DFL candidates have all been in the field for most of 2016. There's already one woman who has won statewide election - on her own - three times. Rebecca Otto

There are two strong, capable female legislators in the race, one from St. Paul who held legislative leadership roles and one from Rochester, the largest outstate city in Minnesota, who has been part of the pro-Sanders, strongly progressive wing of the party. Erin Murphy and Tina Liebling

There is a sitting Congressman whose district covers nearly all of the bottom third of the state, who spent time in the military and an adult career in teaching and coaching before running for Congress. Tim Walz

There is a three-term Mayor of the state's second-largest and capital city, who has experience administering big budgets and a large workforce. Chris Coleman

And there is a south Minneapolis area attorney with over a decade in the legislature who was elected by his colleagues to lead the House Democrats for multiple terms, and served as House Speaker during the most effective Legislative session in recent years. Paul Thissen

These six candidates already have supporters committed to them within the DFL. Any of the six are seen as great candidates and potential governors. It's difficult to see where Smith, who had not run for office before, and had not had a platform to demonstrate her own political skill set, would have fit in a field of seven.

Serving as Senator, which has about a 9-month term before they start to focus on electioneering in the fall, will give her an opportunity to create the three or four key moments that will shape her short term as the interim Senator and help voters decide if she or the Republican will serve the remaining two year term.

Well...

I don't like it when candidates refuse to answer direct questions, and I'm not impressed with THESE answers. Basically the only issue Smith is identifying as a top priority is... taxes. That makes her a Republican.

I keep hoping Democrats will learn the lesson that people won't vote for them simply because they're Democrats, or because they want Tina Smith to win the election... because she's not the other candidate. Democrats should have learned from their experience with Hillary Clinton that people don't vote for candidates simply because they want to see those candidate "win". Voters want to plug into something bigger than individual candidates, they want agendas, movement, progress. It's not enough to just see the candidate you voted for "win".

So here we have a candidate who's telling us how tough she's going to be, and promising to run for the office, and instead of coming out swinging with a list of popular priorities... all she really talks about is taxes. And we don't even know what that means? Is she talking about repealing the Republican tax plan? What?

Right now the only reason I would consider voting for Smith is because she's a woman. That's not going to get her across the finish line in Nov. I realize she's only been at it for a few days but she should know she's running a campaign RIGHT NOW. If she doesn't come out of the gate with a strong, popular, progressive message, some moderate sounding Republican could easily show up and take the seat. Her only other asset at this point is Trump.

You're Exactly Correct...

...on every count. The installation of the bipartisan pro-corporate Smith is exactly what the Dems don't need and will morph what should be a walk-over race into a competitive contest with a hard-right Republican (wearing bi-partisn sheep clothing).

Or maybe Smith's even setting up Michelle Bachmann for a comeback.

In any case, Smith apparently thinks she can pull a DINO-Klobuchar run and get her numbers. She better think again. This will be an off-year election with a guaranteed low turnout and any charismatic or well-known candidate has a chance.

We once again are watching the neoliberal D(FL) commit suicide, as does its parent party.