ST. PAUL, Minn. – The woman who will be Minnesota’s next 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. Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday named his trusted lieutenant governor and former chief of staff to fill fellow Democrat Al Franken’s Senate seat until a special election next November.
Smith said she will run in that election to complete the final two years of Franken’s term.
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 said in a Facebook post at the time that she had “never expected nor planned” to serve in elected office.
Indeed, 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 former Vice-President Walter Mondale’s unsuccessful 2002 Senate campaign, four years after she ran the unsuccessful governor campaign of Mondale’s son Ted.
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. 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 deadly Interstate 35W bridge collapse in 2007. 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’s first lieutenant governor chose not to run with him for a second term.
The online news website MinnPost reported that Smith met with Walter 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 travelling 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 is 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 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.