In selecting Smith, Dayton has chosen a powerful deal-maker who has led the administration through some of it is most complex, high profile and politically dicey development projects of this term. Smith took a guiding role in the effort to build a new Minnesota Viking stadium and a multibillion-dollar, state-backed expansion of Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
Smith is now leading a government streamlining effort that is likely to be a major fixture in the upcoming legislative session.
“She’s a natural leader, very charismatic, very smart,” Dayton said in an earlier Star Tribune interview. “People naturally look to her for guidance. They like working with her, and they like working for her. And she’s very good with relationships, from all walks of life.”
Dayton made the announcement Tuesday morning at a political rally at an AFL-CIO office in St. Paul. The governor has been quietly vetting possible running mates since last month when Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon announced that she would not be joining Dayton in his quest for a second term.
Republicans were already taking aim at the ticket’s urban slant. Smith lives next to Lake Harriet in South Minneapolis and Dayton lived in the Minneapolis area for much of his life.
"Mark Dayton has turned his back on the nearly 5 million Minnesotans who don't live in the City of Lakes," said Ben Golnik, chairman of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a group trying to defeat Dayton and elect Republicans to the Legislature. "Dayton doubled down on his incompetence by picking a current staffer and longtime DFL insider."
Smith, who has never run for a major elected office before, will now become Dayton’s chief surrogate in what is expected to be a fierce, hard-hitting fight for re-election. At 55, Smith is more than a decade younger than the governor and could give the ticket a jolt of energy and vitality.
Dayton is set to have surgery at Mayo Clinic on Thursday to reattach tendons in his hip, which he injured during a fall at the governor’s residence last year. Dayton, 67, will need several days to recuperate and then is expected to require a brace for up to six weeks that could restrict his ability to campaign.
Several experienced and well-financed Republicans are squaring off to challenge Dayton in an election that many political experts expect will be a tough one for Democrats.
While Prettner Solon brought strong ties to Duluth and the Iron Range, Smith offers a different set of attributes nearly certain to shake up the race.
Smith has strong connections to an array of Minnesota business leaders who have been at times harshly skeptical of Dayton and his tax increases targeting high earners.
Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, called Smith’s selection a positive step for the administration.
“She is smart, respected and most important – has the confidence and trust of the governor,” said Weaver, whose group helped coordinate a multimillion-dollar effort to defeat Dayton in the last election. “She would have the capacity to make the lieutenant governor’s office relevant.”
A former executive with the local branch of Planned Parenthood, Smith also has long and deep DFL connections, from activists to political operatives to mega donors.
Smith previously served as former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s chief of staff before leaving to run his failed gubernatorial bid. Smith was part of a small group of gubernatorial campaign managers and party leaders that denied Dayton a pass onto the floor of the DFL convention after he refused to abide by the party endorsement.
Smith is a longtime friend of Dayton’s former wife, Alida Messinger, a significant donor to Dayton’s first election effort and other prominent DFL causes.
When Dayton was searching for someone to help his campaign after winning the DFL primary, Messinger recommended Smith for the job.
Dayton and Smith have said they clicked immediately.
Throughout her career, Smith gained a reputation as approachable and likable, but tough. In her earlier job at Minneapolis City Hall, Smith became known as the “velvet hammer.”
“She’s better with the carrot and I am better with the stick,” Dayton said earlier.