U.S. Sen. Tina Smith has had to master many things quickly in the months since she was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton to fill the seat of former Sen. Al Franken after his resignation last December.
Smith wasted little time, producing a flurry of lower-profile but substantive legislative proposals and forming relationships with senators in both parties. She teamed up with Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski on a measure to expand student and community mental health services as part of a larger opioid package. Despite her freshman status, Smith gained a leadership role on the bipartisan Senate Rural Health Caucus and worked with Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., on a rural health measure.
Drawing on her experience pushing broadband in greater Minnesota as lieutenant governor, Smith has fought for rural broadband funding in Congress. When the farm bill passed the Senate in June, her provision was in it.
Smith, 60, asked for and received an appointment to a special bipartisan pension panel, working on ways to keep vulnerable pension funds solvent. She’s worked with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to broaden access to free online textbooks, a small but important part of holding down college costs.
While in the Dayton administration, Smith took the lead on changing the way the state contracts for Medicaid, switching to a competitive bidding process and other managed-care reforms that have saved taxpayers $1.5 billion.
You may not know any of these things, in part, because Smith is still more accustomed to working on goals rather than touting her successes. Especially among the larger, more bombastic personalities that dominate American politics today, Smith is a quieter presence, connecting one-on-one but still lacking the facile touch of a veteran pol.
Smith has had only months as an incumbent, but shows great promise and has earned the endorsement of the Star Tribune Editorial Board. If elected, she will have but two years — the remainder of Franken’s term — to prove her worth before running for a full, six-year term on her own.
Smith’s life experiences are diverse. As a young woman, she worked the kitchen at a construction camp on the Trans-Alaska pipeline at Prudhoe Bay. She got degrees from Stanford University in political science and Dartmouth College in business, giving her a lifelong appreciation for business’ role in a vital economy. She’s worked for a global corporation — marketing at General Mills, has run her own consultant business and has served in leadership at nonprofit Planned Parenthood, advocating for women’s health.
Until recently, most of Smith’s political life was behind the scenes. Known for a smart, no-nonsense approach, she was sought after by Democratic leaders, serving as a campaign manager or chief of staff to some of the most influential politicians in the state. She was Dayton’s point person on some of the most complex, high-profile tasks he faced, including shepherding Mayo’s Destination Medical Center project through a critical juncture at the State Capitol and riding herd on the controversial Minnesota Vikings stadium.
As a senator, she has displayed the same style and focus on outcomes that led her to be nicknamed the “velvet hammer” earlier in her career. Those are necessary qualities in a body where, it is no secret, a minority of senators do the heavy lifting on the toughest issues.
One of those issues is the possible repeal of the medical-device tax, and the Editorial Board has urged that Smith should distance herself from her and her husband’s stock holdings in some of the device firms that are seeking that repeal. The Smith campaign said she has taken additional steps to ensure transparency and guard against conflicts of interest.
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Republican state Sen. Karin Housley, 54, has been an energetic, likable presence on the campaign trail. Warm and engaging, she also shows promise on a larger stage. She’s had experience running her own real estate business and credits the recent tax bill for jump-starting the economy.
Housley’s passion on issues that have touched her personally, such as elder abuse, is evident. While she did not achieve all she set out to do in the Legislature, she worked hard on the issue and has pledged to continue doing so.
In an interview with the Editorial Board, Housley acknowledged that running for the U.S. Senate “was never on my bucket list.” Sometimes opportunities come unexpectedly, but when they do, preparation is even more important. On too many significant issues, Housley was unable to speak with depth, saying she was focused on her state legislative duties.
We hope Housley will continue developing her expertise on the problem of elder abuse and on other vital issues, and further grow as a political force in the Republican Party.
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Meanwhile, Smith has demonstrated her depth of knowledge and dedication to issues important to Minnesotans. We look forward to her future accomplishments on behalf of this state in Washington.