With her boss back in St. Paul recuperating from hip surgery, Tina Smith is being thrust front and center in Gov. Mark Dayton’s re-election effort.
Dayton’s DFL running mate is the lone surrogate on the campaign trail as she retraces a route through coffee shops, cafes and businesses similar to one the governor traveled over the past 35 years building his political name.
In her latest campaign swing, Smith is plunging deep into the state’s rural areas, where she is largely unknown and where skepticism lingers about a gubernatorial ticket with both candidates from the Twin Cities.
As Dayton’s former chief of staff, Smith is attempting a tricky transition from behind-the-scenes strategist to stump-speech dynamo, able to ask complete strangers for their vote and forcefully make the case for a Dayton second term.
At Deidra’s Espresso Cafe in Willmar, Smith came in before 9 a.m. and started chatting with two dozen strangers. Smiling, she went from table to table, often sitting eye-level with customers. A couple of them waited in line to talk with her, some to complain about education funding and another about issues that dogged the DFL Party. A man in a wheelchair knew Dayton from years ago and told her, if she had Dayton’s approval, that was good enough for him.
After brief introductions from local legislators, Smith had to win a crowd still shaking off the chilly morning over coffee and muffins.
“We fought hard for marriage equality, and we won,” Smith said. “We fought hard for a higher minimum wage, and we won. We fought hard to put more money in education, and we won.” When she mentioned raising the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour, the crowd erupted and she had to pause to let the applause and cheers die down.
Out of the office, on the road
In little more than two months, Smith has gone from her comfortable Capitol office to the streets of Willmar and Mankato, popping unannounced into rural coffee shops, restaurants and Mexican grocery stores. She has spent decades working for candidates on all levels, watching and studying as they reached for higher office.
Now Smith is the candidate. It is, she acknowledges, “completely different to be doing it as a candidate.”
Dayton is in for a tough re-election fight, and Smith has little time to master a brand of retail politics that requires a deft mix of energy and charm. Even with Dayton leading in fundraising and polls, political experts expect Republicans to make a strong showing this year and present a bare-knuckled challenge to the 67-year-old governor. Any number of misfires — like lingering doubts about his running mate — could be enough to end his political career.
“He’s beatable,” said GOP rival Kurt Zellers, 44, a former House speaker from Maple Grove who was campaigning in northern Minnesota last week. “Minnesotans are looking for the next generation of leader.”
As Dayton has dealt with a string of back and hip problems, Smith has taken an increasingly high-profile role.
Late in 2012, the governor went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for spinal surgery to relieve a constriction in the lower back and to fuse a vertebra that was shifting out of alignment. Earlier this year, he returned for hip surgery to reattach a tendon that separated after a spill at the governor’s residence. Dayton spent several weeks in a body cast, holding meetings with staff and commissioners and conducting conference calls with journalists from his home.
That led to speculation that Dayton might not seek a second term and so avoid the rigors of campaigning and four more years of public service.
‘I am running’
Dayton typically cuts such speculation short with a ready-made answer: “If I am breathing, I am running.”
He jokes that “the last time I checked, there are no brain cells in my hip.” Dayton shed his body cast a week early and is on crutches for another week or so.
So far, Republicans have not made a campaign issue of Dayton’s ailments or time away from his office. DFL strategists are quick to point out that former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty spent as much time or more away from the Capitol during his unsuccessful presidential run.
Still, Dayton finds the back and hip problems frustrating.
“I chafe at that, both in terms of the job as well as the campaign,” he said in an interview. “Maybe it hasn’t been ideal, but I have been able to be engaged in the session and I think have a strong influence.” He notes that even if he were in top physical form, he would be focused on the session, not campaigning.
“This session is so crucial as to how I will be perceived by the public in November,” Dayton said. “It’s very consuming.”
Besides, Dayton said, now Minnesotans will get to know Smith, who replaces retiring Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth. Smith, he said, has “the opportunity to go around and have people focus on her, get to know her, to get to like her.”
That is how Smith found herself in Willmar last week, chatting with residents and business owners.
She met with leaders in the growing Latino community to hear their business-development concerns. Later, it was local Somali community elders, who told her of their need for more housing, immigration services and community support.
“I like her,” said Diane Fortney, 55, a high school teacher. “I really feel like she listened to me, that she was engaged.”
GOP sees an opening
Smith is spending extra time in rural areas, where Republicans are counting on strong support if they are to have a shot at beating Dayton.
Former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall is preparing to take advantage of what he sees as the weakness of a ticket that geographically spans Lake Harriet to Summit Avenue.
“I think having an all-metro ticket is a huge mistake,” said Seifert, who must run a primary gantlet before challenging Dayton. “When the major-party candidates play footsie with not having balance, they get burned.”
The Dayton team is already taking on the trappings of a full-fledged campaign operation. Smith tours the state in a white Ford Edge SUV with a full-time staffer at her side. Two more young, khaki-clad staffers collected volunteer names and passed out Dayton campaign signs.
Smith continues to refine her stump speech as she travels.
She is not talking as much about a new $443 million tax-relief package that will put additional money in the pockets of more than 1 million Minnesotans. She found the tax cuts got a lukewarm reaction, with people saying they’re fine, but don’t go overboard and send the state into another cycle of budget cuts and borrowing.
Instead, she is finding some fire talking about the issue Republicans pound DFLers on the most: the state’s work in expanding health insurance. Even with the fumbled rollout of MNsure, the state’s insurance exchange, Smith said she is hearing powerful stories everywhere she goes.
In Worthington, a business owner told her that after struggling with the cumbersome website, he learned he would save $200 on his premium and get coverage for his wife, a cancer survivor.
“That is the thing I am hearing a lot more,” Smith said. “I haven’t had a single person say to me, ‘What the heck is wrong with you guys on MNsure?’ ”
GOP candidate Dave Thompson, a state senator from Lakeville, remains convinced that the health care overhaul is going to be a crushing issue for Democrats. DFLers, he said, are making “their last gasp effort” to defend MNsure and Obamacare.
“If it doesn’t work by summer, you will start seeing them flaking off when they realize this will hurt them in November,” Thompson said.
Smith regularly finds herself face to face with people who disagree with DFLers or the direction of the state. That can become a high-stakes test of nerves, with so many eyes watching and wondering.
Ron Adkins, a 61-year-old retiree, prefaced his remarks by saying, “I am going to be the fly in the ointment here.”
Adkins is frustrated that his local DFL representatives voted against legalizing same-sex marriage and that his senator opposed the higher minimum wage.
Smith told Adkins she tries to focus on the bigger picture, noting that Dayton and DFL majorities fought hard for the initiatives and that both became law.
“I am like you,” she told him. “I’m like, ‘Let’s get the big things done and not tinker around the edges.’ But when you look at it, we have made a lot of progress.”