Chief of staff Tina Smith brings strong business connections, DFL ties and trust from the governor
Gov. Mark Dayton upended the dynamics in the race for governor Tuesday, selecting chief of staff Tina Smith to be his running mate as the DFLer begins his campaign for a second term.
In making his pick, Dayton has chosen a steady dealmaker who has quietly emerged as the most powerful and well-connected force in the administration.
“Tina is the best administrator with whom I have ever worked,” Dayton said Tuesday to a standing-room-only political rally at the St. Paul headquarters of the AFL-CIO, one of the state’s largest unions. “She has the exceptional ability to get people working together to make things happen.”
Smith was Dayton’s point person for some of the most complex, high-profile and politically dicey development projects of Dayton’s term. She took a leading role in the effort to build a new Vikings stadium and a multibillion-dollar, state-backed expansion of Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
A figure in local politics for years, Smith has gained a reputation for being approachable, likable — but with tough, get-it-done edge. In her earlier job as chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, she was known as the “velvet hammer.”
Smith has run political campaigns and offices but has never faced voters on her own. Now she will start close to the top, becoming Dayton’s chief surrogate in what is expected to be a fierce fight for re-election. At 55, Smith is more than a decade younger than the governor and is expected to bring a jolt of energy to the ticket.
On Tuesday, she fired up the crowd on an issue close to many: “Our work is not done. … Are we going to raise the minimum wage?” she said to cheers from union members.
GOP blasts ticket’s urban slant
Republicans were already taking aim at the ticket’s urban slant, amplifying earlier GOP criticism that the administration has shortchanged rural Minnesotans to benefit the Twin Cities. Smith lives near Lake Harriet in south Minneapolis. 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.”
Dayton’s campaign rejected the notion of any metro-area bias, saying the evidence shows the administration has improved lives across the state.
“Governor Dayton has been representing all Minnesotans for his entire public service,” Smith said.
Smith will step into her new role almost immediately. She resigns her position this week and heads out to travel the state as the campaign gets underway.
Smith’s presence on the campaign trail comes at an opportune time for Dayton. The governor is scheduled for surgery at Mayo Clinic next week to reattach tendons in his hip, which he injured in a fall at his residence last year. Dayton, 67, will take several days to recuperate but could have to wear a brace for up to six weeks, which could restrict his ability to campaign.
Current Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, who late last month said she would not run for re-election, will continue to carry out the duties of her office through the end of the year.
Prettner Solon helped Dayton through a competitive primary in 2010, with strong ties to Duluth and the Iron Range. Smith offers no geographic advantage but brings a different set of attributes expected to shake up the race.
A former vice president for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, Smith has long, deep DFL connections that range from grass-roots activists to mega-donors. Smith, who has an MBA and once worked for General Mills, also has strong ties to many Minnesota business leaders.
Those business connections may blunt what is expected to be strong support from the business community for the eventual GOP nominee.