Minnesota's new senator: Quiet organizer, late to politics

FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2015 file photo, Minnesota Democratic Lt. Gov. Tina Smith speaks to attendees at the North Star Ball in St. Paul, Minn. Minnes...

FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2015 file photo, Minnesota Democratic Lt. Gov. Tina Smith speaks to attendees at the North Star Ball in St. Paul, Minn. Minnes...

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The woman who is being touted as Minnesota's newest U.S. senator is a largely behind-the-scenes player who came to elected office late in her career and passed up a major shot at power just a few months ago.

Tina Smith isn't passing a second time. Two Democratic sources tell The Associated Press that Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday will name his trusted lieutenant governor and former chief of staff to fill Democratic Sen. Al Franken's seat until a special election next November.

Smith, a Democrat, will also run in that election to complete the final two years of Franken's term, one of the sources said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak ahead of Dayton's 10 a.m. announcement.

The appointment comes less than a year after Smith, widely seen as being groomed to succeed Dayton, announced that she wouldn't run for governor. Smith didn't give a clear reason why, but the announcement came as the Democratic field was filling up.

Smith said in a Facebook post at the time that she "never expected nor planned" to serve in elected office.

And her path to politics was indirect.

Smith, 59, a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, moved to Minnesota in 1984 after earning an undergraduate degree at Stanford and an MBA from Dartmouth, to take a job in marketing for General Mills.

She became increasingly politically active in the 1990s, founding a marketing and political consulting firm in 1992. She managed a losing 1998 gubernatorial campaign for Ted Mondale, then led Former Vice President Walter Mondale's unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2002 after Sen. Paul Wellstone's sudden death.

She was vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota from 2003-06, a post that doesn't appear on her official state bio page nor on her LinkedIn account. After that, she served as chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Rybak, a former Democratic National Committee vice chairman, said voters shouldn't confuse Smith's decision to skip the governor's race in 2018 with a lack of grit for a grueling campaign. He thinks she is uniquely suited to the Senate.

"It plays to a couple of her strengths: The ability to really dig in and understand issues in depth and a pretty off-the-chart ability to find common ground among people who don't always agree," he said.

Adam Duininck, a longtime Democratic operative who served in Dayton's cabinet, said he saw Smith's public political skills grow after she became lieutenant governor in 2015.

"She's not afraid to jump on a stage and give a speech or rally a room in search of a cause. She's able to do both of those roles pretty well," Duininck said.

Rybak called Smith instrumental as a liaison between his office and the state in responding to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in 2007 — then rebuilding it. She left her City Hall position to manage his unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

Dayton hired Smith as his chief of staff in 2011. Their close relationship helped her turn the historically undemanding post of lieutenant governor into something more substantive when Dayton needed a replacement in his second term.

The online news website MinnPost reported that Smith met with Mondale before she took the job, interested in learning how he transformed the position of vice president into a more responsible position under President Jimmy Carter.

Her current duties include overseeing the Destination Medical Center initiative, a public-private partnership involving the Mayo Clinic in Rochester that backers say will create 35,000 to 45,000 new jobs in southeastern Minnesota and attract more than $5 billion in private investment. She also led state officials and agricultural leaders on a trade mission to Cuba in June in an effort to find new markets for Minnesota crops and poultry.

Smith spent much of her three years as lieutenant governor traveling the state to tout Dayton's agenda, building connections and visibility throughout Minnesota — an asset for a 2018 campaign.

But her own politics are somewhat of a mystery. She's known largely as a liberal Democrat who has maintained connections to the state's large and politically powerful business community.

Mondale discounted any concern about Smith's stomach for a U.S. Senate campaign that's likely to be more intense than the run for governor she passed up.

"I've worked with her on many different things," he said. "When she gets into it, she's committed, disciplined, strong, unrelenting."


Associated Press writers Steve Karnowski and Doug Glass in Minneapolis and Alan Fram in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

Updated : 2021-02-28 21:58 GMT+08:00