Meanwhile in Minnesota, Ms. Smith Goes to Washington

U.S. Sen.-designate Tina Smith (D-Minn.)

Today, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Lieutenant Governor Tina Flint Smith to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Al Franken until a special election next fall. Smith then announced she will run for the opportunity to complete Franken’s term, which expires two years later in 2020.

Call it a cliche if you want, and one political writer already has, but it’s not often the title of one of my favorite movies can be used as an accurate, in-context headline for a post here at MinnesotaBrown.

I mean, come on, the Frank Capra movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” depicts someone named Smith appointed to fill a Senate vacancy. The last name of the political boss in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is even the same as today’s owner of the Minneapolis Star Tribune! But I digress.

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks in Minnesota politics. A new chapter begins with Dayton’s appointment of his former chief of staff and current running mate Tina Smith to fill the Franken seat.

Most expected this pick. Smith is not only close with Dayton, but is a statewide elected leader who has experience in the private sector, nonprofits and the public sector. Smith holds a reputation as a competent fixer. And, despite being associated with the Twin Cities, Smith spends most of her time in the Lt. Governor’s office on the road around the state.

In fact, of all the political officials I’ve met with over the years, Smith is the only one who traveled to Balsam Township, home of MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters. I sat with her at the Balsam Cafe two tables away from the guy who dug my septic.

We met in 2014, as she prepared to run for Lt. Governor after serving as Dayton’s chief of staff. My impression of Smith then was that she was very serious about learning everything she didn’t know about greater Minnesota. She met with lots of different people and, importantly, asked good questions.

In fact, Smith could end up being a very competent senator. However, while she’s been elected statewide as Lt. Governor, she’s not run for office on her own before. Smith demonstrates leadership ability, but typically inside administrations or board rooms. The klieg lights of the Senate require a slightly different set of skills. Dropped into the current state of affairs, Smith must hit the ground running. Most Democrats seem confident in her abilities. Republicans express anger that she commenced her campaign from the start.

Dayton’s selection of Smith creates another twist. By state constitutional law, the next Lt. Governor will be the Minnesota Senate President. That’s State Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville). However, with a one-vote majority, the GOP doesn’t want to lose Fischbach in the Senate.

So, on Wednesday, Fischbach announced she’d keep her Senate seat while serving as Lt. Governor. While that would be logistically possible (the Lt. Governor has no stated job duties), it’s not clear if that’s constitutionally allowable. A legal fight will likely ensue.

This crazy movie just started. This is no sequel. This is a reboot.

NOTE: I’ll be on Morning Edition with Cathy Wurzer Thursday morning talking about state politics from a Northern Minnesota point of view. Tune in!


  1. Supposed anger at her announcement that she will run seems pretty much to be posturing for the audiences, given that at least two Republican women have already more or less declared their own plans to run and that former governor Tim Pawlenty has planted stories in everything from the STrib and Pioneer Press to national and beltway news sources that he is likely to run as well, all even before the announcement of Smith’s appointment.

    This is obviously a late start by current standards for everyone considering a run next November. There are only 55 days — including the weeks of Christmas and New Year — until the party caucuses on February 6, and anyone planning on running in either party is going to have to move very fast to be ready for that important step toward party endorsement. I fully expect to see at least three or four GOPers jumping in by no later than next Monday or Tuesday, and would not be surprised to see one or two DFLers decide they would be a better fit than Smith.

    Sound bites aside, the real questions are will anyone oppose Smith in the DFL, who will emerge from what is sure to be a contentious battle among the very diverse segments of the state GOP to be the anointed challenger, and just how much blood will be spilled in the process in both parties.

  2. Franken hasn’t resigned yet. And now multiple Democrats in the Senate are telling him he shouldn’t (the Moore election is over). Maybe Ms. Smith will be staying home.

  3. Not one person I’ve spoken to thinks Franken should step aside. Women in particular seem particularly adamant that he ought to stay in office. He’s been railroaded by members of his own party, who mistakenly believe they’ve captured the high moral ground. Take this cynical game a few steps further and you’ll see Tina Smith and family portrayed as a multi-generational babykillers in the next election cycle. Franken, whatever the gravity of his misconduct, has been contrite, and his most credible accuser has accepted his apology. It will be impossible by contrast for his *appointed successor* to shed the electoral baggage of Planned Parenthood. Realpolitik, like it or not.

  4. Interesting that there has been no more accusations against Franken since he said he would resign.

  5. Abortion issues mean almost nothing politically any more, after the 2010 election in which anti-abortion forces turned aggressively against long time Democrat allies like Jim Oberstar and others. The reason is not at all a surprise, since Democrats as a group favor pro-abortion stances and Republicans anti-abortion, and a Republican Congress and Court favors the anti-abortion side while Democratic ones favor abortion. For now, anyone for whom opposing abortion is a political priority is virtually guaranteed to vote Republican in all elections, while anyone for whom supporting abortion is critical will vote Democrat. The large number of voters who do not have strong feelings about abortion will continue to ignore it as an issue, as they always have. Consequently, Smith is unlikely to suffer from her association with Planned Parenthood since anyone for whom that makes a difference would be unlikely to vote for her anyhow, unless of course the GOP picks a pedophile for its candidate.

    The crocodile tears over Franken among some prominent Democrats just now are exactly that, an attempt to have it both ways. Republicans are enjoying the spectacle and urging Democrats to fight among themselves. Franken continues to have his supporters among people for whom political party trumps (pun intended) principle, but the ship has sailed.

    The more interesting question is whether we will see some declarations by Republicans or Democrats wanting to oppose Smith, or whether any opponents are writing off a drive to win the party endorsements in favor of going directly to primary.

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