WASHINGTON – After just two weeks as a U.S. senator, Tina Smith already has some vocal opponents as she begins her campaign for the November election.
Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) recently launched radio ads critical of her past work as a leader at Planned Parenthood.
“Tina Smith doesn’t just support abortion,” MCCL executive director Scott Fischbach says on the organization’s website. “She lobbied on its behalf. She worked to defeat any conceivable limitations on it. She was an executive for the state’s abortion leader. She is the abortion senator.”
But Smith isn’t running from her past.
Noting Planned Parenthood’s reach — it serves 66,000 people in Minnesota annually — Smith said, “It is an organization that is deeply trusted to be there for women, men and families when it’s needed, and that’s something I’m very proud of.
“I believe that my work extending health care to women through Planned Parenthood is something that most people will respect and do respect,” Smith said in a Friday interview. “When the extreme right-wing … charges forward with a defund Planned Parenthood, anti-Planned Parenthood focused message, what happens is that people rally even more around Planned Parenthood.”
She spoke as thousands of abortion protesters marched in the U.S. capital in an annual demonstration, and President Donald Trump and GOP leaders rallied in support of them approaching the 45th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal across the nation. With Republicans controlling the House, Senate and White House, reproductive issues are even more prominently in the political spotlight.
Bill Poehler, communications director for MCCL, said that while the state Legislature has abortion-opponent majorities, and four of the eight Minnesota members of the U.S. House are against abortion rights, there’s no representation of that view among the state’s U.S. senators. Though Smith’s predecessor, Al Franken, was an abortion rights advocate, “she is an abortion industry insider,” Poehler said.
“We think it’s something that’s going to follow her and dog her,” Poehler said. “Abortion continues to be a campaign issue for a lot of candidates.”
So far, state Rep. Karin Housley is the only confirmed GOP challenger for Smith’s Senate seat. She issued a statement after Smith’s swearing-in saying that the new senator’s career as a longtime Democratic operative “and role as a leader in pushing for abortions at any cost as a Planned Parenthood executive gives reason to be concerned as to whether she will stand up for everyday Minnesota values.”
Smith has spent much of her career advocating for reproductive rights at a local level. Now she’s being propelled into high-profile federal debates: The U.S. House last fall passed a ban on abortions for women who are at least 20 weeks pregnant, and the bill is expected to come up again in the Senate as early as this month.
Last week, the Trump administration approved protections for medical professionals who don’t want to perform abortions or other procedures because of their religious or ethical beliefs. Additionally, officials rolled back a warning from the Obama administration to state Medicaid directors that they could not cut funding for Planned Parenthood because of its abortion services.
Sarah Stoesz hired Smith in 2003 as first vice president for external affairs for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota (PPMNS). Stoesz said she was impressed by Smith’s work in the 1990s managing the first gubernatorial campaign of Mike Freeman, now the Hennepin County attorney.
Smith oversaw Planned Parenthood’s education and outreach, and her background in business made her a key part of the executive team, according to Stoesz, who has served as president and CEO. Staff who lobbied on reproductive issues also reported to Smith, and she worked with the action fund on electoral strategies.
“I wanted to step up our game within the public policy and advocacy arena, and she was the perfect candidate in that respect,” Stoesz said.
She described Smith as a strong leader at a time when Planned Parenthood was trying to update antiquated business and technology systems.
“Tina is a very smart, sophisticated leader and was key for us in developing our strategies and our messages and helping to advance our agenda,” Stoesz added.
Smith served in the role until 2006. She highlighted a program that she led at the time on training teens to lead and counsel their peers on sex education, along with the organization’s work to make its health care more efficient and modernized. She said that during her tenure, Planned Parenthood also worked to expand family planning to low-income women.
Smith worked at Planned Parenthood during GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration, when Republicans controlled the House and the DFL held the Senate. At the time, Smith and Planned Parenthood spoke out against a law passed in 2003 called Women’s Right to Know, which required women to be given information, 24 hours before getting an abortion, about the medical risks of abortion and childbirth and the state aid and child support available after a child is born.
Smith said she opposed another proposal to forbid organizations that provide abortions or refer patients to abortion providers from receiving state family planning grants.
Smith also led the organization as it unsuccessfully challenged in court a 2005 South Dakota law that required physicians to obtain written consent for abortions from pregnant women after they were provided information that the procedure would terminate the life of a human and posed medical risks.
The Minnesota measures had the backing of Pawlenty, who drew buzz as a possible challenger to Smith last fall but recently said he would not run for the Senate.
Smith spoke out against the Positive Alternatives Act, a law that would provide state grants for organizations that offer support for needy pregnant women without promoting abortion. She said that taxpayer money shouldn’t go to groups that don’t tell women about all their alternatives, according to a 2005 Minnesota Public Radio story.
Republicans on the House Health Policy and Finance Committee pressed Smith that year about her organization’s advice for pregnant women and its abortion services. Smith responded that Planned Parenthood had come before the panel to urge them to spend taxpayer funding on programs “that provide women with a full piece of information about all of their options,” according to MPR.
Tim Stanley watched Smith testify before state lawmakers during her Planned Parenthood years. He was executive director of the state chapter of the National Association of Reproductive Rights Action League at the time and now serves as executive director of the Planned Parenthood action fund.
“She took the opportunity to say, ‘Well, let me take the opportunity to tell you about the good things that Planned Parenthood does in the communities that we serve,’ ” Stanley said. “I can’t tell you how hard it is to do that when you’re under fire at the testimony desk.”
She went on to serve as lieutenant governor under Mark Dayton, who has vetoed bills that restrict reproductive rights.
Defunding Planned Parenthood has been a perennial issue in Washington, where lawmakers have pursued measures to make it harder for Medicaid users to seek health services at the organization.
Smith noted that federal support for family planning started under the administration of President Richard Nixon, a Republican.
“I will proudly work to maintain that source of family planning because I see it as being core to women’s economic opportunity,” Smith said. “I’m sure there will be other issues that come up that will try to place limits on abortion, and my fundamental view is that I trust women and their families to make decisions for themselves.”