Her boss is one of the most demanding and critical politicians in Minnesota — and she is friends with his ex-wife. She is pushing a new tax plan that is troubling to many in her vast network of business friends. And then there are those persistent rumors she is running for mayor of Minneapolis.
After years enmeshed in DFL politics, Tina Smith has emerged as Gov. Mark Dayton’s powerful chief of staff. The job is proving to be the biggest test yet of her skills as a government reformer, hammer-wielding operative and bridge-builder.
Amid a crushing schedule of meetings last week, Smith slipped over to a luncheon at the University of Minnesota. She chatted with former legislators, business leaders and those who enjoy brushing up against power.
“The reason those guys want to talk to me is not because I am me, but because I am the chief of staff for the governor,” Smith said in her expansive, sparse Capitol office. “The moment you forget that, you are missing the party.”
Many people in that position bail out after a year or so. Smith, 55, is into her third. The $124,000-a-year post, about $6,000 more than her boss, has only gotten tougher in recent weeks. Polls show Dayton’s approval numbers slipping as the state faces a $627 million deficit. Many say Dayton botched the rollout of a much-criticized proposal to tax business services, which he withdrew last week.
Now Smith and the rest Dayton’s team must finesse passage of a smaller package of tax hikes as Republicans and some business groups are trying to muster a full-scale political meltdown of his plan.
And she must worry about getting her boss re-elected.
“She has an incredibly difficult job,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership and former chief of staff for Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “You are going to disappoint your friends in that job, either today or tomorrow.”
About 5-foot-5, Smith is rail thin, with wispy blonde hair and an easy, contagious laugh. When she speaks to small groups, she often lowers her voice; drawing listeners in close and making them feel they are in on a special moment.
Smith was not well-known around the Capitol before taking the job, despite deep ties to the DFL elite. She dines with former Vice President Walter Mondale regularly; Moroccan Ambassador Sam Kaplan and his wife, Sylvia, longtime DFL activists and donors, are among her biggest supporters.
But she also has impressive ties to the local business community, even among many Republicans who spent millions trying to defeat Dayton.
“We always referred to her around here as every Republican’s favorite Democrat,” said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, her former boss.
As part of her boss’ commitment to bring business-minded ideas to government, she helped persuade corporate tax lawyer Myron Frans to become the state revenue commissioner. She encouraged Charlie Zelle, president and CEO of the Jefferson Lines bus company, to become the state’s transportation commissioner.
Smith’s story is one of a political warrior with a history of hitching up to a losing candidate, only to quickly find herself with the winning one. That is how she came to join Dayton.
Smith served as Rybak’s chief of staff for about four years and left 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.
Soon after his 2010 primary win, Dayton spoke with his former wife, Alida Messinger, a longtime friend of Smith’s. Messinger, a descendant of the Rockefeller fortune, proved a crucial financier for the DFL effort to win the governor’s office.
You should meet with Tina Smith; she is someone who could help, Messinger told Dayton.
On a glorious summer day in 2010, Smith and Dayton dined outside at the Common Roots Café on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis.
They did not talk about past political scuffles or any lingering bad feelings in the DFL. She mapped out a vision for a statewide campaign.
“All I knew was that I really wanted him to win,” Smith said.
Rybak said that shows a trait of Smith’s that is crucial as problems flare up in the world of government and politics.
“One of the things about Tina is that she jumps into a problem and tries to fix it rather than complain about it,” said Rybak, who added that Smith was known as the velvet hammer around City Hall. “There were so many people sitting back, complaining, wringing their hands, second-guessing: `Can Mark really win this race?’ That’s not her deal.”
It’s a trait Dayton knew was essential, too.
“She’s a natural leader, very charismatic, very smart,” Dayton said. “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.”
‘We got chewed out’
Raised in New Mexico, Smith got an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. After moving to the Twin Cities for an entry-level marketing job at General Mills, she became active in local politics, generally preferring candidates with a long liberal streak. She once served as a vice president of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Smith joined Dayton as he was returning to political life after what the governor himself called a largely unsuccessful term in the U.S. Senate. In terms of temperament, Dayton, who has a reputation for being critical, demanding and occasionally blustery, is far different from her former boss Rybak, the kinetic and relentlessly optimistic Minneapolis mayor.
Among those close to her, Smith is known for cajoling Dayton in a certain direction rather than confronting him toe-to-toe. She tries to surround him with a diverse range of voices and opinions, allowing him to draw conclusions and make decisions.
“One of the things I have learned is that the person has to be who they are,” said Smith, who is married and has two grown sons. “You can’t turn them into a version of who they are. If you do that, you are not really serving them very well.”
Smith and Dayton have had to grapple with some of the most complex problems in recent state history, from the state government shutdown to building a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.
At a delicate point during stadium negotiations, Dayton and Smith got wind that team owners were secretly exploring a rival plan with Republican leaders, who controlled the Legislature at the time. The proposal turned out to be vastly different from the one the administration spent months negotiating, and brought with it a host of new financial and logistic problems.
Dayton and Smith grew furious. Pulling up to a memorial service he and Smith had planned to attend, they agreed that she should return to the Capitol and deal with the Vikings.
When Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley came in the room, the usually upbeat Smith lowered her voice and looked him dead in the eye.
“We have to get this figured out,” she said. “And we have to get this figured out now. Otherwise this whole thing is going to fall apart, or we are all going to look like fools.”
Bagley recalled it as a “watershed moment” in the negotiations in which everyone returned squarely to the main plan.
“We got chewed out,” Bagley said. “But once we got that behind us, we got over it.”
Carrots vs. sticks
Dayton and the administration dove headlong into another challenge about two months ago when he presented the most comprehensive tax overhaul in a generation, including new sales tax on business services. Despite a year of meetings and preparation, the plan endured relentless criticism even as Smith and his revenue commissioner embarked on a parade of private meetings to address concerns of business leaders. Dayton ditched the plan after just six weeks, but at a recent Chamber of Commerce event this week he delivered a blistering critique of their efforts to sink the plan.
“She’s better with the carrot and I am better with the stick,” Dayton said.
“It’s not my job to make him be less Mark Dayton,” Smith said. “It’s my job help him to be as successful as he can possibly be. He needs to be who he is. That’s why people respect him so much.”
The most pressing question for Smith is, What’s next?
Many allies are pressing her to launch a bid for Minneapolis mayor, pledging money and support.
“She just moves with great ease among all those different segments of society,” said Sam Kaplan, the ambassador to Morocco.
“You feel good about Tina, and you want to buy whatever it is she is selling,” added Sylvia Kaplan.
For now, Smith said, she is firmly focused on her work at the Capitol.
“I have a great job right now and I am 100 percent focused on this job and not the next job.”