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DSCC Vice Chair Tina Smith has high hopes, even for the race in Texas

Smith's sanguinity extends even to Minnesota winters

Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Subcommittee. After graduating from high school, she worked on the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Subcommittee. After graduating from high school, she worked on the trans-Alaska pipeline. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“For me, despair isn’t really an option,” Sen. Tina Smith said.

Sitting in her sun-filled office for a recent interview, the Minnesota Democrat was a study in hope and realism. The former Planned Parenthood executive told CQ Roll Call that she couldn’t be despondent over the sudden rollback of abortion rights.

But the new vice chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee could have also been referring to how she’s responding to predictions of a likely GOP takeover of the Senate. “Everybody looks at this from the topline and says, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s really going to be hard, you’ve got so many seats to defend,’” she said.

But moving to Minnesota after growing up mostly in the warm parts of the country, as Smith did, takes some innate optimism — an internal flame for sunnier days ahead amid the cold, harsh realities of winter. Or, as Smith put it, “You have good years and bad years, good days and bad days, but you keep on fighting.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You spent your summer between high school and college in Alaska working in an oil pipeline construction site’s kitchen. How did that come about? 

A: It’s important to put in context that I went to middle school and part of high school in Anchorage.

Then the summer before I went off to Stanford, I just got it in my head that it would be really interesting and I could make a lot of money working on the trans-Alaska pipeline. So, I flew back up, and I joined the union and worked at this construction camp at Prudhoe Bay for about six weeks.

For the job I had, you worked every day for six weeks, and then you had two weeks off. You worked 12 hours a day and you got time-and-a-half when it was over 40 [hours] and double time on Sunday, and I made a lot of money — like, a lot of money. It wasn’t like what I could’ve made at a restaurant in Santa Rosa. I still remember, I made $10.71 an hour, and this was in 1976 [Ed. note: $56.61 in 2023 dollars].

Q: You recently became a vice chair of the DSCC along with Alex Padilla, working with Chairman Gary Peters. How are you three divvying up the responsibilities?

A: It’s such a big year. We have a lot of incumbents that are up for reelection and some open seats and some possible pickup opportunities. So, as we are figuring out together how to approach this, it just made more sense that we would do this as a team rather than having one person do it.

We all agreed on what we would do to help. We’re all focusing on fundraising; everybody’s helping with everything.

Q: Sticking with 2024: What races are you most worried about defending and why?

A: I’m most focused, like we all are, on the true battleground states and candidates. So, you’ve Jon Tester [of Montana] and Sherrod Brown [of Ohio], and we’ll see what Sen. [Joe] Manchin [of West Virginia] is going to do — he hasn’t announced yet. Those are states where the former president won the last time around, but we’ve got candidates that are well-known and respected in their state. They’ll be tough, but they’re winnable.

Those are the top three, but then there’s a group of senators and states that are also going to be competitive — they’re always battleground states — Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Everybody looks at this from the topline and says, “Oh my gosh, that’s really going to be hard, you’ve got so many seats to defend.” But when you break it down and look at each state and each candidate, you can see there’s clearly a path for keeping the Senate.

Q: Do you think there is a place where you can go on the offensive?

A: Yeah. First, we have an open seat in Michigan — which is a different situation, but I feel really good about our chances in Michigan. 

Then there are other places — you think about Texas. I mean, it’s always going to be hard; we don’t know who exactly the Democratic candidate might be. But, as an example, Congressman [Colin] Allred has suggested that maybe he’ll be interested. He’s a really dynamic candidate, 39 years old. And Texas is like Georgia was a few years ago. We’re going to get there with Texas, we just don’t know exactly when. Maybe it’ll be in 2024? [Ed. note: Allred announced his candidacy for the Texas Senate race on Wednesday.]

Q: You sit on the Senate Banking Committee. We saw the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank. Is there an appetite in Congress for either raising deposit insurance limits or reimposing some parts of the Dodd-Frank Act on mid-sized banks that Congress lifted in 2018?

A: The people responsible for what happened in those banks — the owners and executives and shareholders — they’re wiped out, and that’s on them because it appears that some really bad decisions were made.

So, the question becomes, what do you do next? We need to understand what happened here. Was this a problem with the way the banks were regulated? Or was it a problem that the capital requirements and stress testing weren’t stringent enough? We have to get the data together and look at everything before we figure that out.

Of course, back when we were dealing with that bill in 2018, I introduced amendments to say that the capital requirements should be higher, that we need stringent stress testing. If they had passed, would it have made the difference in what happened on Friday? I don’t think we know that yet. 

Q: So, when you do get that data, do you think there’s any potential for a bipartisan response?

A: There’s sort of a real discussion that’s happening among some reasonable folks. I heard my colleague today, Mike Rounds, [R-S.D.], on the radio making much of the same argument I’m making. And [House Financial Services Chairman Patrick T.] McHenry, [R-N.C.], has been pretty reasonable.

And then there is this fake argument that other people are making: “This is all about wokeness.” I mean, that’s not real. That’s just pretend — I mean, it’s damaging, but it’s not real to solving the problem. So, can we come together? We’ll see.  

Q: Abortion is a big issue for you, given your background. And, more broadly, so is gender equality. But progress has stopped on those issues, which has been a reason to despair for so many women I know, but you don’t appear to share in that despair. Why?

A: For me, despair isn’t really an option. I’ve seen over and over again that you make progress, and then you fall back, and then you have to make more progress. But I’ve never seen progress made if you don’t believe that it could happen.

The basic idea that women are people who should have autonomy and control over their own lives, and over their own bodies, is something that most people agree with. Sticking to that and then figuring out what we can do to make that real for more and more people, especially women of color and native women, who experience even greater challenges being able to realize their full life and their full self because of the discrimination that they face — I mean, that’s a mission. That’s something that you have good years and bad years, good days and bad days, but you keep on fighting.

And I’ve seen so much about the power of women to speak up and to have their voices have meaning. That’s what gives me hope even when bad shit happens.

Quick Hits

What was the last book that you read?

I’m in the middle of reading Louise Penny’s “A Fatal Grace.” It’s really great.

In politics, can the ends justify the means?

Yes.

What is your least popular opinion?

Maybe ending Daylight Savings Time? That’s maybe pretty popular. … I feel like this question is like one at a job interview, y’know? “What’s your worst trait?” And you say, “Oh, my handwriting is too neat.”

What’s one thing your friends know about you that your constituents might not?

My friends know I’m a good cook; my constituents might not know that?

You grew up in New Mexico and have a second home there. If you had to pick one to deal with forever, is it a New Mexico summer or a Minnesota winter?

Minnesota winter. And I’m answering that question even in March, when everyone is really wondering why they chose to live in Minnesota.