WASHINGTON — The DFL was struggling through one of its darkest hours on election night of 2002. Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone had died in a plane crash just a couple of weeks before and former Vice President Walter Mondale, a last-minute choice to run in his stead, was failing in his attempt to keep the seat in DFL hands.
But as the votes were counted into the late hours of that night it appeared St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Republican, was poised to win the election, stunning DFLers who had gathered at an election watch party in downtown St. Paul and were already bruised by Wellstone’s death.
Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., who was then a seasoned campaign organizer and political insider, had run Mondale’s brief campaign and was stunned at the narrow loss of her political mentor.
“I remember her holding my hand very tightly,” said Sarah Stoesz, then president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States.
Despite the setbacks, Stoesz, who had hired Smith a decade before as a consultant to the gubernatorial campaign of Michael Freeman, said she knew the Smith would “pick herself right up,” and get back to work. “She’s a very strong person,” said Stoetz, who soon after that election created a special executive post for Smith at Planned Parenthood.
At first blush, the affable and low-keyed Smith, 65, seems to be somewhat out of place in the U.S. Senate, which is dominated by egos and where worth is measured in seniority and political power. But Smith has brought unique qualities to the Senate that are helping her not only survive, but thrive.
Her background as former Planned Parenthood executive gave Senate Democrats an experienced and authoritative voice on women’s reproductive issues when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.
Senate leaders are likely to have considered that experience, as well Smith’s political career as a behind-the-scenes staffer and operative, when they chose her to help them retain the chamber in 2024 elections. Smith has been named a vice chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and last month was made head of the DSCC’s Women’s Senate Network.
In that job Smith will lead the effort to raise money for female Democratic Senate candidates, something that is likely to be helped by her passionate support of abortion rights.
Ruth Richardson, current CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States, called the senator “an inspiration in the reproductive freedom arena.”
Smith said the repeal of Roe v. Wade and other efforts to restrict and abolish abortion rights, including a recent ruling by a federal judge in Texas to ban a drug used in medication abortions has not discouraged her.
“It makes me more determined,” she said.
Since she does not run for re-election until 2026, Smith will also help Democratic Senate candidates’ campaign for the 2024 elections. Smith said her many years of campaigning for others, which began when she would walk with her children in strollers door-to-door for DFL candidates in her hometown of St. Louis Park, may have been a reason she was chosen for a position with the DSCC.
“My colleagues respect me as a doer, not just a talker,” the senator said.
Smith had held elective office just once, as lieutenant governor of Minnesota, when she was appointed by former Gov. Mark Dayton to fill the seat of former Sen. Al Franken, who resigned in 2017 amid allegations of improper sexual advances toward several women. She said she had never had a role in a legislature and made it her business to learn fast.
“People say that the Senate is a long game and I hope to be able to serve for many years, but I didn’t want to wait around,” Smith said. “I wanted to get things done right away.”
So Smith said she took a crash course on how to craft legislation and win support for the bills she would sponsor. She said she jokingly tells people one of the things that made her best suited for the Senate was her experience moderating focus groups.
“I learned to listen really hard,” Smith said.
She should not denigrate that skill. Others say the ability to listen to others and consider their concerns is what makes her unique — and effective.
In Minnesota political circles, Smith was nicknamed the “velvet hammer” during her time as chief of staff to former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak because she was able to prod warring factions toward agreement without creating rancor.
“She has a way of making people feel great about who they are and what they are doing,” Stoesz said.
Smith won a special election in 2018 to fill the remainder of Franken’s term. But first she won a primary against University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter.
Painter said he had few policy differences with Smith, aside from the issue of sulfide mining in the state. Painter said that process to extract ore, which could pollute groundwater “is a very bad idea,” and that Smith was ambiguous about the issue. Yet Painter is complimentary of his former political rival.
“She’s an honest person and doing a good job as a senator,” he said.
A pragmatic progressive
Smith won reelection in 2020 and is slowly climbing the ranks of the Senate’s seniority system. But she remains junior senator to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., whose run for the White House and positions on key Senate Committees, including her chairmanship of the Rules Committee, has bolstered her profile and influence.
While Smith shares Klobuchar’s position on most issues, she is forging her own distinct path. She’s focused on key issues, including lowering prescription drug prices, working on clean energy and better access to mental health.
And she works quietly at building consensus.
“Tina doesn’t seem motivated to grab the microphone,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who has known Smith for decades, since both their children attended the same high school in Minneapolis.
But that does not mean Smith keeps quiet when she needs to make a point.
When Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., shocked the political world last month by seeking hospital care for depression just weeks into his first term in office, Smith recounted her years-ago bouts with depression in an interview with CNN.
She first told the story of “spiraling down” when she was a college student, then again as a young mother, in a speech on the Senate floor in 2019, at a time she was running for re-election.
Smith said she disclosed her bouts with depression in the hope of helping others, of “paying forward” the help she received.
“Millions of Americans have struggled with depression and anxiety,” Smith said. “When they see someone in a position of power and authority speaking openly and honestly about their own experience, I know that it makes it easier for some people to say, ‘Maybe I can get help, maybe there’s something I can do.’”
She said she had that experience in her own life when a couple of months after her speech on the Senate floor a young woman came up to her in the airport and told her, “I just want you to know what a difference (that speech) had made … because it helped me.”
Smith’s husband, Archie Smith, is a wealthy, independent investor. Nevertheless, the senator considers herself a “pragmatic progressive” and others agree.
“She understands there is a power imbalance and she sort of stands on the side of people who are on the losing end of that imbalance,” Ellison said.
In those early encounters, Ellison said Smith “seemed to be an insider in the know, but also a progressive.” When Smith was chief of staff to Rybak, Ellison said the mayor would routinely direct people who came to him for help to “ask Tina.”
Stoesz said Smith tackles problems “in a linear fashion” yet realizes “you might not be able to get from A to Z in one leap.”
On the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, Smith works closely with another progressive, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who chairs the panel.
“Tina’s background as an organizer guides her work in the Senate,” Brown said.
Smith is also known for her unvarnished tweets. For instance, after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., agreed to support a massive health and energy bill last year, paving the way for its passage, Smith tweeted “Holy shit. Stunned, but in a good way. $370B for climate and energy and 40% emissions reduction by 2030.”
Meanwhile, Ellison said Smith is effective because she elicits trust.
“She’s sincere, and in D.C., there’s not that much sincerity,” he said.