Tina Smith arrived in Washington last week as the U.S. senator brought into office by the #MeToo movement.
That’s not the political handle Smith likely would have chosen. It’s not the identity she built, bit by competent bit, through a dozen years of top-aide service to a Minneapolis mayor and a Minnesota governor.
It’s also not true, at least not literally. This season’s burst of anger among manhandled women undeniably fueled the feminist uprising within the U.S. Senate’s Democratic caucus that led to Sen. Al Franken’s resignation. But the #MeToo-ers didn’t choose Lt. Gov. Smith for Franken’s seat. Gov. Mark Dayton did — and he says he did so with little input from those who had called for Franken’s political head.
Nevertheless, last Wednesday, Smith took over an office made vacant when, after repeated reports that his hands had been where they didn’t belong, Franken yielded to the clamor for him to step aside.
That connection to an insurgent and surprisingly potent social movement may bring Smith more national notice than she would have received had she come to the Senate more conventionally — and given that her seat will be on a ballot just 10 months from now, one could claim that any notice beats none at all.
But that claim is strained by sentiment back home. A late-December poll by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP) firm found fully half of Minnesota voters thinking Franken should not resign. Three-quarters of those polled thought Minnesotans — not Senate Democrats — should have been the ones to decide Franken’s fate. That thinking ran stronger among women and DFLers than others polled.
Those numbers say that a whiff of disappointment and even illegitimacy clings to Smith where it matters — in Minnesota.
Shaking that off is a task of both delicacy and urgency for Smith. She dare not go too far in acknowledging the disappointment of Minnesotans who regret Franken’s departure, lest she minimize earnest demands for more respectful treatment of women. But if she becomes the go-to senator among scribes seeking political reaction to the latest #MeToo headline, Smith will repeatedly remind Minnesotans about how and why their U.S. senator is named Smith, not Franken. That’s a memory she should want to bury, not stir.
That pretty much sums up the analysis I heard from two DFL elder stateswomen who watched with particular interest as Minnesota became one of only a handful of states to be represented by two female U.S. senators at the same time. In 1984, Joan Anderson Growe was the first female major-party candidate to seek one of Minnesota’s seats in the Senate; 10 years later, Ann Wynia was the second. (Neither succeeded. Though Muriel Humphrey was Minnesota’s appointed U.S. senator for nine months in 1978, it was not until 2006 that this state’s voters finally elected a woman, Amy Klobuchar, now serving her second term.)
Wistfulness was plain in Growe’s voice when I mentioned Minnesota achieving the two-female-senators milestone.
“This would have been a dream come true for all the women who have worked so hard and so long to bring more women into leadership in this state,” the former Minnesota secretary of state said with a sigh. “But I think that for a lot of us, it’s a bittersweet reality. I did not think Al Franken should resign. It’s the state’s loss and the country’s loss.”
Growe said Smith would do well to choose a few issues with broad appeal and that she knows well, and make them her everyday themes.
“I don’t see a necessity for her to take the lead on sexual harassment,” she said. Better treatment of women requires cultural change within individual workplaces and institutions, Growe observed. That comes slowly and not necessarily at the impetus of government. Better to choose issues where quick results are possible.
Wynia, a former community college president and state human services commissioner, seconded that advice.
“Tina’s got to be ready to speak out about sexual harassment. But it would be a mistake if that’s all we hear from her,” Wynia said. “She should never deny the #MeToo movement. But she must be a senator for everybody.”
Judging from the media blitz of her first day on the new job, Smith evidently got the memos from Wynia and Growe. When the new senator was asked about issues on which she wanted to work, she didn’t start with sexual harassment. Instead, she listed goals long pursued by the women’s movement and now deemed Everybody Issues — child care, paid family leave, affordable and accessible health care. Bringing broadband to rural Minnesota got particular mention, as it should. Broadband is an economic lifeline for everyone in Greater Minnesota, women every bit as much as men.
Predictably, Smith was asked about the movement that ousted Franken. Predictably — knowing Smith — she had a carefully crafted answer ready. To MPR’s Phil Picardi, she said, “We are at a turning point in our culture right now when it comes to people’s views about sexual harassment. … I think it would be a tragedy if we lost some of this momentum. So, yes, I feel a strong obligation to continue that forward momentum for just basic respect and decency.”
With MinnPost’s Sam Brodey, she added: “I will look for opportunities to try to advance questions of what it’s like for women to work, whether they’re working in the U.S. Senate or whether they’re working in a small business in Worthington.”
So far, so good, Growe and Wynia would say. I’d add that Smith should keep those Minnesota-sensitive lines at the ready. The uprising that upended Franken’s political career does not appear to have run its course.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.