Inside a conversation with Senator Tina Smith


Courtesy of Senator Smith's Office

Since 2017, Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota has served as a voice for Minnesotans in the Senate.

By Mia Rheineck, Benilde-St. Margaret's School

Democratic Senator Tina Smith has been serving as a voice for Minnesotans since January of 2018. Since her appointment, she has been championing gender equality, doing bipartisan work, and making sure that her constituents’ concerns are part of her work.

From a young age, Smith saw firsthand the importance of working to better a community. Her parents were involved in their community, and Smith knew this would be passed to her. But she did not see it entailing running for public office.

“I had no idea what shape it would take. When I first graduated from college, I was very interested in going into public service, but I never thought about running for office myself. I ended up going to business school and working at General Mills and then starting my own business. But during all that time, I was active in my local community, and just because that’s the way I had been raised, I knew that was going to be how I wanted my life to be. I certainly never had any idea that I was going to one day run for lieutenant governor or run for senator and become [a] United States Senator… The message is you never know what path your life is going to take, you just need to be ready for it,” Smith said.

The transition into politics came while Smith was the Chief of Staff for Former Governor Mark Dayton. Although she was not holding public office, it was a job she enjoyed, and she envisioned herself having the job for quite some time. But when Former Lieutenant Governor Yvonne Prettner Solon decided she was not going to run for re-election, Former Governor Dayton approached Smith about running for Lieutenant Governor.

“I had never really thought about it. [It] never had even occurred to me. But, as I thought about it, I realized it was a good idea, and I was in a unique position to be able to do that job and do it well and be a part of the Dayton administration in a new way. A lot of times women when they think about getting involved in their community, [they] don’t think about running for office. So I want to suggest to everybody, men and women… that they should consider whether running for office is something that is right for them. It was not anything I planned to do, but it’s been an amazing gift,” Smith said.

I want to suggest to everybody, men and women… that they should consider whether running for office is something that is right for them. It was not anything I planned to do, but it’s been an amazing gift,”

— Senator Tina Smith

Although Smith had to adjust to life as a politician, when she was appointed to the Senate in 2018, she underwent another period of adjustment. This time it was going from a state to federal level. Although it is a different job, Smith has been able to apply skills she has learned throughout her career to her job as a senator.

“Prior to my appointment to the Senate, I had worked in the private sector and in state government on the executive branch, so I had a lot of familiarity with the job of the executive branch and the work that you do to take a law that’s been passed by the legislative branch and implement it, make sure that it’s being implemented well,” Smith said. “When I moved to the Senate, it was my first experience being on the legislative branch side, and it’s completely different. I think though that my experience figuring out how to implement good public policy is good experience for being [in the Senate] because I care a lot about how things are going to work, how will they work. I think another key skill that’s important on the legislative branch side, in the Senate, is knowing how to build relationships and really listen to people so that you can understand what their goals are and you can figure out how to build the coalitions that you need in order to pass legislation.”

As Smith began working in public office, she was able to take the issues she was passionate about and incorporate them into her political work, one of these issues being women’s reproductive care. Prior to her work in politics, Smith started as a volunteer with Planned Parenthood and went on to take leadership positions for Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

“The reason I care so much about that work is because I know that there are too many women and men who struggle to afford the healthcare that they need, and if you don’t have access to healthcare, nothing else in your life is going to work. Reproductive healthcare, family planning, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections and basic preventative care is the work that Planned Parenthood does,” Smith said. “That basic providing of healthcare service––I know how important it is. As I did that work more and more, I really came to understand that if women don’t have access to reproductive healthcare… you can’t go to school, you can’t do your job if you don’t have that fundamental choice about when and how [and] under what circumstances you want to start a family.”

Aside from working on reproductive rights, Smith has been working on achieving racial and gender equality, a cause which she values and believes others need to support.

“I believe that fundamentally everybody ought to have the freedom and opportunity to live the lives that they want to live, to build the kind of lives that they want to build and that they should not be held back because of who they are. That to me is a core human value. Yet we know that we still have a long way to go before we have the kind of equal opportunity for women and for people of color, for everybody. I think that’s a cause that we all need to focus on and work toward,” Smith said.

I believe that fundamentally everybody ought to have the freedom and opportunity to live the lives that they want to live, to build the kind of lives that they want to build and that they should not be held back because of who they are. That to me is a core human value.”

— Senator Tina Smith

Currently, in a time where the main news stories are about the partisanship of the legislative branch, Smith has been using her ability to reach across the aisle to show bipartisan work can get done. Most recently, Smith has worked with Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, as well as other Republicans to address pressing issues.

“When you watch the cable news, when you watch CNN and Fox News and MSNBC, you would think that all we do in Washington is argue with one another, and let me be clear, there [are] some very important arguments we are having about the future of our country right now, and I don’t mean to say that isn’t important, but there is a lot of work that happens below the radar that you don’t necessarily see on the news shows where you have Democrats and Republicans working together, and that’s the Washington that I try to live in…

So, the issue of climate change is I think one of the most important issues that we have confronting our country and our world. There is no one answer to that problem, we need to do lots of things well. So one of the things I’m working on as an example is with some of my Republican colleagues to pass a bill that would have strong support for battery storage so that when you’re relying on renewable energy, like wind and solar, you can store that energy in batteries for when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Battery storage is going to be an important part of our long-term solution to addressing carbon pollution. That’s an example of a place where I’m working with Republicans. I am also working with Republicans on the important issues of mental health and approving access to mental health care services. I’ve worked with my colleague Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska to expand mental health care services in school. Those are two examples of places where we are trying to get things done working across party lines,” Smith said.

Aside from supporting certain pieces of legislation in the Senate, Smith also has shown support for legislation and actions from the House of Representatives. Most recently, Smith has expressed her support for the Impeachment Inquiry opened by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to examine President Donald Trump.

“I support the House opening impeachment proceedings… I believe it’s important that we have enough information out there to… investigate and get to the bottom of what we know because that’s what the president has told us about how he asked a foreign government, Ukraine, to engage and investigate the president’s political opponent,” Smith said. “This is a grave concern; this is a very serious time for our country, and as a member of the United States Senate, it will be my job, should the House put forward articles of impeachment, it’ll be my job to serve as jury. So I think that it’s very important that I maintain an open mind, but I do think there was enough information out there to begin the proceedings. My job is to make sure that as this progresses, that it happens in a fair and open and transparent way.”

While continuing her work in the Senate and preparing for the 2020 election, Smith has advice for young women who are interested in getting involved in politics.

“Get involved right away. Find a campaign or an issue area that you care about and get involved. [It] doesn’t have to be a campaign either. It can be an issue that you care about,” Smith said. “Maybe you care about gun safety or climate change or women’s healthcare issues. Look for mentors… you can sort of see how they do it; don’t think that there’s one right way of being a leader when you are a woman; there’s so many different ways that you can be a woman leader, just like there are different ways you can be a leader as a man. Just dive in and give it a try.”

This story was originally published on Knight Errant on October 28, 2019.