Tina Smith had never held an elected office when Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton asked her to be his running mate in 2014 – and that may have been to her advantage.
That’s because before she was Dayton’s lieutenant governor, she was his chief of staff, a role in which she had the kind of relationship with the governor that assured she’d be more than a sidekick.
“It wasn’t a surprise to any of us when he decided to turn to Tina Smith because there’s no one he trusts more to get things done,” said Ken Martin, chairman for Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
Smith insists it was a surprise to her.
“I never thought about it,” Smith, in an interview with Roll Call, said about running for lieutenant governor at Dayton’s suggestion. “It never dawned on me. But the more I thought about it the more I realized it would make a lot of sense.”
Now, folks in Minnesota say Dayton appears to be grooming Smith to be his successor when he steps down at the end of 2018.
“If Tina wants to run for governor, she would be considered a front-runner right off the bat,” Martin said.
If she does run for governor — she has been cagey about the prospect —her close connection to Dayton could also be an advantage or a disadvantage in quirky Minnesota, where voters in have sent an eclectic collection of conservatives (Tim Pawlenty), independents (Jesse Ventura) and liberals (Al Franken) to office.
“She rises or falls as he does,” Roger Moe, a former state Senate leader and unsuccessful DFL candidate for both governor and lieutenant governor told the Minneapolis StarTribune last fall. “That’s the gamble she took with this.”
While Dayton may see Smith as someone who gets things done, her agenda does not always come out on top.
Smith sat in for Dayton during contentious budget talks last year as the administration tried to push through a universal pre-kindergarten program. Ultimately, Smith and Dayton were unable to convince lawmakers, including leaders of their own party, to back the governor’s priorities.
Despite the loss, Dayton had praise for how Smith handled herself during the talks.
“I put myself on the sidelines,” Dayton said. “But she was handling everything so very well that frankly I thought, under the circumstances, she was more effective in that situation than I could be.”
Before going to work in government, Smith was a marketing manager for General Mills and later started her own consulting firm. She spent three years as vice president for external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Even as she worked in the private sector, Smith, 58, was an active behind-the-scenes political player, working on local and national campaigns. In 2006, she became chief of staff for Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak before serving as an adviser on Dayton’s campaign and becoming chief of staff after his election.
Rybak said Smith so impressed him with her negotiating skills that he called her the “Velvet Hammer.”
“I can think of a number of situations where she was able to deliver a tough message without others feeling bad,” Rybak said. “She was able to be tough when she needed to be tough, but she starts most conversations with the idea that people are generally good and want to work together.”
As lieutenant governor, Smith says she has followed the advice of her mentor, former Vice President Walter Mondale.
“He told me was that if you are going to serve as a close adviser to the governor, you have to have excellent information and the same information that the governor has,” she said. “Everyone on staff knows I’m invited to any meeting the governor is having and I get the same briefings and same information, and that makes a huge difference in our ability to be effective.”
Asked about her plans for 2018, she offers the standard response – that she’s focused on her current job for now. Indeed, even people she’s close to, including party leader Martin, say they have no idea.
“I guess that’s only something she knows at this point.”
Emily Wilkins covers education issues for CQ’s State Report team.