MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – When Minnesota lawmakers returned to the State Capitol after the bruising 2014 election campaign, Tina Smith was outside their offices to greet them.
The newly elected lieutenant governor was doing what she has always done.
“I always think of myself as a bridge builder,” she said.
Smith is settling in to a job she never sought and considers herself an “accidental” politician.
As the chief of staff for Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and former Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak, she made a name for herself behind the scenes and never expected to serve in public office.
“You don’t think every little girl wakes up and says, ‘Someday I want to be Lieutenant Governor?'” she asked with a laugh.
In fact, on paper, the Dayton-Smith ticket shouldn’t have worked.
Smith has no Democratic political base and, like Dayton, she’s a Minneapolis liberal.
But she accepted the challenge on the advice of her long-time mentor, Walter Mondale.
“As I said to Gov. Dayton: ‘I’m no Fritz Mondale, and you’re not Jimmy Carter, but I think there are some lessons we can learn from that relationship,'” she said.
Like Mondale at the White House, Smith has out-sized influence at the Minnesota Capitol.
As Dayton’s first-term chief of staff, she was directly involved in the state’s most visible–and polarizing–issues:
- Legalizing gay marriage
- A new Vikings stadium
- A three-week government shutdown, after battling Republicans to a budget standoff
- The economic development of Rochester and the Mayo Clinic.
Despite having more experience than most at the Capitol, when Dayton asked her to be his running mate, her immediate reaction was less than enthusiastic.
“At first I thought it was a crazy idea,” she said, “but then, the more I thought about it, I thought ‘This could be really great.'”
Smith works on economic development issues, but in a different role.
As lieutenant governor, she will have no specific portfolio, but hopes to work more on Greater Minnesota businesses, where she says the state’s economy is quickly improving.
“I am very interested in those small and mid-sized businesses in Greater Minnesota,” she said. “What makes them tick? What do they need? How can we help them not only survive, but thrive?”
Smith said she and Gov. Dayton are “good friends, good partners, good colleagues,” and she counts herself among his closest advisers.
Her own political future is uncertain.
Dayton, who turns 68 on Jan. 26, is Minnesota’s oldest governor and has said he will not seek a third term in office.
Smith calls rumors that Dayton might resign before completing his second term “ridiculous” and skillfully deflects questions about her own political future, including a possible run for governor herself.
“I’m going to follow the path that I have followed my whole professional life,” she said, “which is just to do the very best I can at this job right now.”
She added: “Four years is a long way away.”