WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Tina Smith was sworn into office Wednesday, capping a stormy period of upheaval in Minnesota politics as this former behind-the-scenes player stepped into the glare of the national spotlight.
“What I intend to do is be just a really fierce advocate for Minnesotans here in Washington, D.C.,” Smith said in an interview a few hours before she formally replaced former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. Minnesotans, she added, want leaders who get things done and not just talk, “and that’s the energy I’m going to bring.”
Franken stepped down a day earlier following a series of sexual harassment allegations. Smith, who served three years as Minnesota’s lieutenant governor following a career as an influential DFL strategist, was Gov. Mark Dayton’s choice to replace him.
Smith enters a closely divided Senate, with 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats, that must immediately grapple with pressing issues that include another looming deadline to avoid a federal government shutdown. Also on tap are divisive debates over health care, immigration policy and other controversial pieces of President Trump’s agenda that will play out against the backdrop of the approaching 2018 election cycle, in which Smith will run to finish the last two years of Franken’s term.
Just before noon Wednesday, Smith walked into the Senate chamber with former Vice President Walter Mondale, a longtime mentor, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. Also sworn in Wednesday was Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat whose surprise special election win in deeply Republican Alabama boosted the number of Senate Democrats by one. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the close divide would force a more bipartisan tone in the Senate.
McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, shook Smith’s hand and greeted her warmly before the ceremony began. Smith was sworn in holding the hefty black Bible of her great-great-great grandmother in front of about 20 senators and former Vice President Joe Biden, who accompanied Jones for his swearing-in. Smith’s husband, father, two sons and their wives also flew in to Washington to watch the event.
“Congratulations, senators,” Vice President Mike Pence said after administering their oaths of office.
By serving alongside Klobuchar, Smith will make Minnesota just the fourth state to have two women as U.S. senators; the Senate now has a record 22 women as members.
McConnell said he looked forward to making bipartisan compromises and “to find common ground on behalf of the American people. The Senate will need to tackle a number of important issues this year.”
He highlighted the need for lawmakers to come to an agreement soon on a government spending bill, particularly for the Department of Defense, to avoid a shutdown.
A New Mexico native, Smith, 59, moved to Minnesota in the 1980s for a marketing job at General Mills. She later founded a public relations firm before becoming an operative and strategist for several well-known DFLers, along with a stint as a vice president for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.
After Smith served as Dayton’s chief of staff during his first term, he recruited her as his lieutenant governor running mate for his 2014 re-election bid. As Smith prepares to run in the November special election, she has one announced Republican opponent in state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point.
“Smith’s career as a lifelong [DFL] political 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,” Housley said in a statement.
Friends and supporters gathered on the ninth floor of the Hart Senate Office Building for an afternoon reception. At the gathering, Kathy Tunheim, Dayton administration senior adviser Bob Hume, and Lee Sheehy of the McKnight Foundation all voiced pride in Smith, while also acknowledging some sadness about abruptly losing Franken as a senator.
“It is bittersweet … but Tina will be a fantastic senator as well,” Tunheim said.
Said Sheehy: “History doesn’t always move in nice, predictable arcs.”
Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, predicted that Jones would wield more power in the Senate than Smith, given that he’s a moderate Democrat from a Republican state. “People will really want to get his vote on key issues,” Ostermeier said.
“Her vote will be seen as more of a given [for Democrats] than Mr. Jones’,” Ostermeier said.
Lawmakers have a busy agenda. They will soon have to determine the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that protects people who illegally immigrated to America as minors. Trump wants to link the continuation of the program — scheduled to end in March — to the building of a wall on the Mexican border.
Noting that she’s worked on the issue of undocumented immigrants as lieutenant governor, Smith said it “seems unconscionable” to send young immigrants back to a country that has never been their home.
Like Franken, Smith is also against Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She said Minnesotans want lawmakers to fix what isn’t working in the law, “as opposed to just flat-out repealing it, because all that does is create even more chaos in our health care system.”
And she is critical of the GOP’s recent overhaul of the tax code, pointing to the Dayton administration’s move to raise taxes on the top 2 percent of Minnesotans, and to put more money into rural education and broadband.
“That’s not what this tax bill that just passed does at all, so we have a big hill to climb in terms of finding common ground when I think our approaches [as Democrats and Republicans] are so different,” Smith said.
Smith said she’s still waiting to receive committee assignments, but is interested in several of the panels that Franken served on: the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; and Energy and Natural Resources. She’s also eager to work on agricultural issues, calling it the foundation of Minnesota’s economy, and said she wants to work on the farm bill as it comes up for renewal this year.
“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we can work together,” Smith said, “but I’m not naive about the big differences that divide us.”