Dayton's chief of staff Tina Smith: Bridge-builder with a hammer

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2013 - 7:26 AM

Tina Smith, “every Republican’s favorite Democrat,” moves easily among business leaders and DFL elite.

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Tina Smith, right, is into her third year as Gov. Mark Dayton’s chief of staff — far longer than most last in the demanding position.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com ,

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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.

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