Washington – Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith will join the U.S. Senate this week, vowing an early emphasis on economic development and other bread-and-butter issues even as she plunges into the heart of what promises to be another turbulent year in national politics.
Forced to immediately begin mounting a campaign for a November 2018 special election to hold the seat for two more years, Smith is setting goals and eyeing issues to take on as she prepares for at least a year as Minnesota’s junior senator. She said in an interview at the end of last week that she hopes to focus on issues she worked on at the state level: rural broadband expansion, access to child care and paid family leave.
With Washington more polarized than ever as President Donald Trump and fellow Republicans continue to dismantle major pieces of former President Barack Obama’s legacy, Smith said she would try to find a way to make a mark in the GOP-controlled Senate.
“There are fundamental differences in values and approaches between me and the president and some of my new Republican colleagues,” Smith told the Star Tribune. “But I am looking forward to working with my colleagues across the aisle on places where we could accomplish something.”
Appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton following the resignation of Al Franken, Smith will be sworn in Wednesday, the day after Franken formally steps down. She’ll join the Senate along with Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama, whose surprise win this month will reduce the Republican majority to a precarious 51 members out of 100.
While Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell has promised a more bipartisan emphasis in 2018, the close balance of power and continued volatility of Washington under Trump could lead to chaos as the two parties speed toward next November, when control of both the Senate and U.S. House will be up for grabs.
Against that backdrop, Smith has a mere 10 months to make her mark with Minnesotans not yet well-acquainted with her political style.
“I have a job to do to hit the ground running and be the most effective senator I can be — and also to go to Minnesotans and ask for their support as I run for Senate in 2018,” Smith told the Star Tribune.
Smith is certainly not the first Minnesotan to enter the U.S. Senate under unexpected circumstances. Former Republican Sen. David Durenberger, who served from 1978 to 1995, won a special election following the death of Hubert Humphrey; he recalled getting a letter from legendary Louisiana Democrat Russell Long that noted the common interests of their respective states.
“Honest to God,” Durenberger said. “If that isn’t a different environment from today I don’t know what is.”
Durenberger said it’s important for new senators to seek out meaningful conversations with colleagues, especially those from the other party.
“I think it’s much harder across the aisle today,” Durenberger said. “Everybody is fighting for that one extra vote — not to lose it, or try to gain it.”
In recent weeks, Smith said, she’s met with or talked by phone to Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and other influential Democrats including Patty Murray of Washington, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Dick Durbin of Illinois (all of whom called on Franken to step down over a mounting series of sexual harassment allegations by women).
The day after she’s sworn in, Smith plans to attend her first Thursday lunch meeting of the Democratic caucus.
“There are a thousand details when you first join the Senate, and there are many, many rules that are difficult to master,” Smith said. Other senators have “given me the good advice that I should not worry about that too much right away,” she added.
Smith doesn’t yet know if she’ll take over Franken’s committee assignments, which include seats on Judiciary; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Energy and Natural Resources; and Indian Affairs. But she is inheriting much of Franken’s staff — most of his team of about 50 employees are staying on in Washington and Minnesota.
Smith said an early priority will be making sure that all Minnesota businesses have the internet access needed to succeed, no matter their location.
“If I am a small business person from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, I have access to high-speed internet,” Smith said. “But if I’m trying to create and grow a business out of my grandparents’ farmhouse outside Fergus Falls, I can’t do that. … That’s another example of an issue where there’s a lot we can accomplish at the federal level.”
She sees infrastructure improvement, frequently cited by Trump as a top priority, as an area where the parties could find common ground in the coming year.
In the past century, more than 200 lawmakers have come to the U.S. Senate via appointment. Six were from Minnesota. Some served essentially as caretakers until a special election, but others built formidable careers — including former Vice President Walter Mondale, who will swear in Smith on Wednesday.
After Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash weeks before the election in 2002, Gov. Jesse Ventura picked his former campaign manager and political ally Dean Barkley to fill out the term. He served for just two months.
Barkley, an independent, entered a Senate even more closely divided than now: He was one of two independents serving alongside 49 Democrats and 49 Republicans. He said he scouted out like-minded moderates who formed a coalition to decide key legislation, like the bill that created the Department of Homeland Security.
Barkley noted that Smith, though entering the Senate rather abruptly, will still have had more time to get used to her new role than he did: “Governor Ventura gave me a one-hour heads up,” Barkley said.
It’s not yet clear if Smith or Jones will hold the 99th and 100th seniority slots. The Senate has several procedures to determine the rank of members who enter on the same day: taking into account, for example, someone’s previous service in the Senate or current service in the House or as governor. Since none of those apply, it’s likely that the Senate will fall back on ranking Smith and Jones according to the population of their home states. That would give Smith seniority over Jones.
For now, Smith has been more consumed with logistical details. As Franken’s staff in the Hart Senate Office Building packed boxes and loaded servers with documents destined for the Senate archives, Smith signed a lease for an apartment a mile from Capitol Hill. On the day of her swearing-in, she plans a subdued celebration with family and a few close friends, an acknowledgment that she was not elected to the seat. She’s also planning a series of community events in Minnesota soon after taking office.
Smith has been placing hundreds of calls to leaders of important state constituencies, from tribal leaders to agricultural interests to John Noseworthy, the president and CEO of the Mayo Clinic.
At a recent news conference, Dayton, a one-term senator who served from 2001 to 2007, said that the Senate was dysfunctional when he left and had only gotten worse. In the past year alone, “I would give it a failing grade; I think most American people would concur,” Dayton said.
He praised Smith for being a high-caliber politician who works well with people across the spectrum, but added: “No single member is going to be able to reverse the trends that have made it more divisive and more gridlocked and less responsive to the real needs of the country.”