Dayton's recovery from surgery puts campaign load on running mate

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 20, 2014 - 8:15 AM

With her boss back in St. Paul recuperating from hip surgery, Tina Smith is front and center in Gov. Mark Dayton’s re-election effort, retracing the campaign route through coffee shops, cafes and businesses similar to one the governor traveled over the past 35 years building his political name.

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Tina Smith is leaving the Capitol and shifting to retail campaigning.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com,

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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.”

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  • At Deidra’s Espresso Cafe in Willmar, Minn., Tina Smith showed how she is going from behind the scenes to Gov. Mark Dayton’s surrogate.

  • Tina Smith

    Party: DFL

    Age: 56

    Home: Minneapolis

    Family: Husband, Archie; two grown sons, Sam and Mason

    Last job: Chief of staff to Gov. Mark Dayton

    Known for: Led the governor’s efforts to build the new Minnesota Vikings stadium and to win passage of the multibillion Destination Medical Center plan in Rochester

    Before that: Chief of staff to then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak

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