When former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak needed a steady hand to manage the city’s highly scrutinized response to the collapse of the I-35W bridge, he turned to Tina Smith. When Gov. Mark Dayton needed a similarly deft touch in the final push to approve state funding for a new Vikings stadium, he also turned to Smith.
Smith’s prowess at navigating Minnesota's overlapping political, business and labor interests at the highest level prompted Rybak to dub her “the velvet hammer” for her mix of personal warmth and toughness. After several decades working mostly behind the scenes in DFL politics, Smith as Dayton’s choice for U.S. senator is now stepping in a very public way into the national spotlight.
Smith is expected to join the U.S. Senate in early January, upon the formal resignation of Sen. Al Franken. In accepting the appointment Wednesday, the longtime DFL insider said it’s her chance to do more than just carry out the political vision of others.
“I will do this in my own way, using my own best judgment and experience, but always with Minnesotans in mind,” she said at a news conference with Dayton, her current boss and longtime political partner.
Defying expectations that she’d serve only as a caretaker for the next year, Smith said she’d run next November in the special election to fill Franken’s last two years in office — and use the time until then to convince Minnesotans why she’s best for the job.
For those who worked with Smith during her long and successful career as a DFL operative in Minnesota’s largest city and in its Capitol, that resolve isn’t surprising.
“She knows how to implement someone’s agenda, but don’t expect her to roll over because she is much tougher, and deeply principled,” Rybak said of Smith, who served as his mayoral chief of staff.
Born in New Mexico, Smith, 59, moved to Minnesota in the 1980s to work in marketing for General Mills. By the ’90s, she’d parlayed that into regular work on political campaigns. She managed Ted Mondale’s campaign for governor in 1998, and in 2002 was a top adviser to Walter Mondale in his last-minute bid to hold onto Paul Wellstone’s Senate seat after Wellstone's death in a plane crash.
Through her work with the Mondales, Smith got to know Sylvia Kaplan, a longtime DFL donor and activist from Minneapolis. Both of those races ended in a loss, but Kaplan said Smith made a good impression.
“Everybody was relying on Tina to sort of pull the different factions together and figure out how you do things,” Kaplan said.
By 2006, Rybak was starting his second term after a difficult first four years. Smith took over his office, quickly developing a reputation as someone who could cut through personal and political division despite a lack of experience in the intrigue-ridden Minneapolis City Hall.
“She was able to carefully listen to what was important to staff, leadership and elected officials and distill from that common ground that allowed us to move forward,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman.
Rybak said her skills were critical during some of his most difficult moments in office, including the bridge collapse in 2007. He said Smith was key in uniting him and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had often been at odds, in making a quick response to the crisis.
Smith stuck with Rybak as he launched a bid for governor in 2010. After Dayton emerged as the DFL candidate, he recruited Smith to help his own campaign. When Dayton was elected, he made her his chief of staff, one of the most powerful positions in state government. And four years later, running for re-election, Dayton elevated Smith further by making her his running mate for lieutenant governor.
“I’ve worked with many superb public servants in my 40-year career,” Dayton said as he announced Smith’s Senate appointment. “Tina Smith stands first and foremost among them.”
Growing public role
In office, Smith redefined the lieutenant governor post, making it a more involved and public position, said Michele Kelm-Helgen, who was Smith’s legislative affairs deputy for several years.
Her time as lieutenant governor helped Smith understand how to be a politician and public figure, Kelm-Helgen said. She presided over major initiatives, including the often-contentious work to secure the agreement for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium. Lester Bagley, the team’s vice president, said Smith was critical to the outcome of what was “an extremely high-profile, very intense, bruising battle.”
“The stadium deal would not have gotten done without Gov. Dayton. And Tina’s role was to make it happen for the governor,” Bagley said.
Smith knew how to work with the Legislature and was protective of taxpayer money, he said, noting that she helped extract an additional $50 million from the team to pay for construction.
State Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, worked closely with Smith on the stadium deal and on other efforts, including a state trade trip to Cuba earlier this year. Despite their political differences, Rosen said she’s always had a positive working relationship with Smith, whom she calls an “astute learner,” able to quickly pick up on new concepts and on the feelings and motivations of people around her.
Rosen said Smith will have to overcome some challenges as she works to make an impact in Washington. Chief among them: unlinking her political identity from Dayton, a governor who has had a highly contentious relationship with GOP leaders in Minnesota, and making her way as a high-profile elected official with little experience running for office.
“I do think it is a little quirky that she really has not ever run for a state office and served as lieutenant governor and now as a senator, and I believe that will be an issue,” Rosen said. “But I think she can handle it.”
Smith considered a run for governor in 2018, but announced in March that she’d sit out the race. She said she wanted to pour her energy into her current role, and help another DFLer win the governor’s seat next year.
Standing at Wednesday’s news conference alongside her husband, Archie, and the couple’s two sons and daughters-in-law, Smith said she’s learned about what Minnesotans worry about most, such as finding good jobs, securing affordable health insurance, and getting their children into high-quality schools. She said those concerns are part of the reason she decided to accept the governor’s appointment, and mount her own campaign in 2018.
Asked if she was up for the grueling pace of serving in the Senate while running for office, Smith was quick to respond.
“I can tell you I shouldn’t be underestimated,” she said. “And if I wasn’t confident, I wouldn’t be doing this.”