Plain talk has always been key to Sen. Tina Smith's success
Hollies Winston, who's running for mayor in Brooklyn Park, introduced U.S. Sen. Tina Smith at a pep rally last month for volunteers who were about to knock on doors for Democratic candidates.
"She's been doing the work quietly for a long time," he said.
Not anymore. For years, Smith toiled behind the scenes for Democrats and their causes, but Gov. Mark Dayton put her in the spotlight when he made her his running mate in 2014. Last year, he appointed her to the U.S. Senate.
Now Smith is a Capitol Hill rookie who faces Republican state Sen. Karin Housley in the special election to finish the last two years of former Sen. Al Franken's term. If she wins, she'll run again in 2020.
The contest reflects stark political divisions and the high-stakes fight for control of the Senate. Housley is loyal to President Donald Trump and calls Smith "Taxin' Tina" in a bid to tie her to unpopular Dayton administration policies.
Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat running for re-election, also spoke before Smith in Brooklyn Park in September. He said it was "like opening for the Rolling Stones."
No rock diva qualities were evident when Smith spoke. Her public persona is low-key and earnest. She wore her trademark Converse sneakers.
"I've always found that if you listen to people you can find common ground," she told volunteers. Smith said that talk of a Democratic "blue wave" worries her. "That's not how democracy works," she said, urging them to work hard.
She learned that lesson years earlier. Smith managed losing campaigns: Ted Mondale's 1998 gubernatorial bid, Walter Mondale's brief 2002 U.S. Senate campaign after Sen. Paul Wellstone's death, and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's 2010 run for governor.
She also knows hard work. Before studying political science at Stanford University, she worked in Alaska, where her family had once lived. She made $10.71 an hour at a construction camp, doing "everything in the kitchen that didn't require me to touch anything hot or sharp."
After Stanford, Smith moved to Washington for a job at a research organization in the pre-internet era, tracking down things like "what's the [gross domestic product] of Estonia and how big is the market for aircraft simulators."
Why Washington? "I was interested in how power works," she said in an interview at Common Roots Café, the same Minneapolis restaurant where Dayton asked her to run his 2010 campaign after Rybak withdrew.
Smith went next to Dartmouth College to earn an MBA and, from there, to a job here with General Mills in 1984. She had never been to Minnesota, but had an aunt who grew up in Detroit Lakes.
Smith started her own consulting company and began her association with Planned Parenthood — an alliance that echoed a commitment made decades earlier by her father.
F. Harlan Flint served on Planned Parenthood's board in northeast Ohio when he was a Standard Oil executive.
Around 2000, Smith volunteered to serve on the organization's board here. She was hired later as vice president of external affairs.
Smith hasn't tried to downplay the relationship. She joined Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, at a September news conference objecting to Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It's not controversial [for Smith], because she believes that women should have an equal place at the table, so it's logical," Stoesz said.
Smith is proud of her role. "I would never want to walk away from it or try to hide it," she said. Opponents who focus on that part of her résumé "do it in error because I think that Planned Parenthood is respected by many people."
Plain talk is a key to Smith's success, her allies said.
Dayton said that Smith goes "right to the crux of the issue or the problem. … People feel they're working with her." He misses having her at his side.
"She's somebody who looks you straight in the eye," said Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle, who has known her for more than a decade. "People often comment that she has a soft side, but she also has a spine of solid steel."
Rybak and Smith met when they volunteered for Democrat Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign here. She helped navigate the aftermath of the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse and bored into the details of street repairs when she was his chief of staff, he said.
Her confidence means she doesn't need to "crawl all over everybody to get the credit" — a trait that makes her more effective, Rybak said.
Smith, 60, lives in an apartment between the White House and the Capitol when she's in Washington. Her husband, Archie Smith — an independent investor whose stake in a Bermuda hedge fund has been a target of GOP critics — remains in Minneapolis with Moose, their new chocolate lab. They have two adult sons.
Senate work "is intensive and rewarding and frustrating sometimes because you want it to go faster," Smith said.
Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, said that when Smith arrived in Washington, she asked to serve on the panel — an unusual request because Sen. Amy Klobuchar was a member.
"She said this is really important to people in Minnesota and farmers in my state are hurting," Stabenow said.
Smith's impact was immediate on energy investments, broadband access and help for new farmers, Stabenow said. "She's very bipartisan, which I appreciate because that's the way I operate as well."
Smith has also worked to expand mental health services in schools, advance workforce development and lower prescription drug costs.
Smith contacted Nicole Smith-Holt in May after learning that the Richfield woman's son, Alec Smith, 26, had died because he couldn't afford insulin for his type 1 diabetes.
"It was really great" that Smith called her, she said. She was used to struggling to get elected officials' attention. "She absolutely cares about people," said Smith-Holt.
None of that adds up to an unimpeded path to victory. A Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll last month found Housley within striking range.
Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor and former ethics chief in President George W. Bush's White House, lost to Smith in the primary. He said she should sell her family's stock in medical device companies, which have been the subject of a taxation debate in Congress.
"It's the right thing to do," he said. "She needs to … show that she's going to be conflict-free."
For years, Smith didn't want to run for office. When someone proposed a run for lieutenant governor, "I literally said 'that's ridiculous' and walked out of the room," she said.
But her life now might be close to matching the career goal she has long envisioned: "I want to go places where there are really well-meaning people doing work that is interesting and seems to really matter and where everybody looks like at least once a day they have a really good laugh."