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

Smith is the 28th U.S. senator from Minnesota, the 22nd female member of the Senate — and a target for Minnesota Republicans.

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

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?

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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.

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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.