WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Tina Smith was trying, with limited success, to fold a tiny paper crane.
Around Minnesota’s newest senator sat some of the most powerful women in the country, grumbling and mangling paper birds under the watchful eye of their host and impromptu origami instructor, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. The 23 women of the 100-member Senate share a bipartisan meal every month, but every Senate tradition is a novelty for a newcomer like Smith, who can still number her tenure there in weeks.
“I thought to myself, ‘Who ever would have imagined four months ago that I would be sitting around folding cranes with Dianne Feinstein?’” said Smith, Minnesota’s former lieutenant governor, who was appointed to the Senate in January after Sen. Al Franken resigned amid sexual harassment accusations.
Smith recently passed the first 100 days in the Senate, and she is just under 200 days away from facing the voters who will decide whether she gets to stay. It’s a special election that could cost Democrats a seat they never thought they’d be defending, in a year when control of Congress could easily hinge on a single seat.
“Learning how to be a good senator isn’t something you’re born knowing how to do,” Smith told the Star Tribune. “That takes time to figure out.”
Racing against the clock
Time is one thing Smith lacks. Republican state Sen. Karin Housley is challenging Smith in November; whoever wins will have to pivot immediately to campaign for a full six-year term in 2020, turning a run for office into a three-year marathon.
When Smith first entered the Senate, a Star Tribune poll found that more than a third of respondents didn’t recognize her name, 41 percent didn’t know enough about her to form an opinion, and 17 percent didn’t like what they’d heard.
Republican critics cast her as the consummate insider, a former chief of staff to the Minneapolis mayor and then to the governor, who had never served in a legislative body at any level and was out of touch with lives of voters in the rest of the state.
Her Republican opponent had a less-than-glowing review of Smith’s first 100 days.
“Of the 79 votes she has had as a U.S. senator, 20 of them have been to obstruct government, to block a vote on a nominee or vote against a [Trump administration] nominee,” said Housley, who like Smith is juggling a campaign with lawmaking work. “She’s not voting to get anything done; she’s just voting to obstruct things ... I will be a new voice in Washington.”
In the first three months of 2018, Housley raised just over half a million dollars for her campaign — less than a third of Smith’s $1.8 million haul over the same period.
Even as she ramped up fundraising and got up to speed in Washington, Smith held 67 official events in 16 Minnesota counties since taking office. She’s talked pensions in Duluth, poultry in Willmar, food stamps and the farm bill in Mankato.
She also sought advice from a range of Minnesotans. Tony Sertich, a former state legislator and commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board who’s now president of Duluth’s Northland Foundation, was one of the people she called. She had questions, he said, about what she’d need to know to do the job right.
“The questions she asked, it wasn’t ‘Should I do this?’ It was ‘What are the things I should be thinking about?’ That mind-set, I think, has helped her in the first 100 days and will continue to help her,” Sertich said.
Sertich’s advice to the new senator?
“Do a good job,” he said, “and Minnesotans will reward that hard work.”
Smith’s pep talk from Gov. Mark Dayton, her former boss and a former U.S. senator himself, was even more concise.
“Senator Smith doesn’t need any advice from me,” Dayton said in a statement relayed via his office. “She is doing a sensational job!”
Replacing Franken meant following one of the Senate’s most true celebrities, a former comedian and performer who stepped down amid a wave of allegations by women of unwanted physical attention. As Smith stepped up, the headlines repeated the same three words: Al Franken’s replacement.
“Hi there, @politico, the name is Tina Smith, and I’m a U.S. Senator for the great state of Minnesota,” Smith tweeted after the Capitol Hill newspaper Politico introduced her under the headline “Franken’s replacement tries to turn the page.” The publication edited its headline to include Smith’s name.
In a Q&A with Elle Magazine — under the headline “Yes, Tina Smith Replaced Al Franken. Now She’d Like to Get to Work” — Smith described the home-state reaction to her appointment.
“I stood next to the governor, and it was this really incredible moment,” she said. “I felt quite prepared to take the task on. Here I have a graduate degree, I ran my own business, I worked at General Mills, I’ve been a lieutenant governor, I’ve been the chief of staff for the governor, which is like COO for the whole state — 34,000 people reported to me when I was chief of staff, and I was responsible for billions of dollars.”
But then: “One of the reporters looked at me and said, ‘So, do you think you’ll be able to do this? How are you ever going to raise the money?’” she said. “And isn’t that kind of a classic moment that every woman has had to cope with? I just said, ‘I should not be underestimated.’”
Friends unpacked Smith’s new D.C. apartment, and staffers picked out a few pictures for the bare walls of her office. She took crash courses in Senate protocol, agriculture policy, Russia sanctions, and which stairwell would get her to her next subcommittee hearing.
“The good news is, I wear a Fitbit,” she said, fast-walking toward a committee that’s trying to save 1.5 million Americans from losing their nest eggs if their pension plans collapse. “The bad news is I’m too busy to check to see how many steps I get every day.”
Smith has added a few personal touches to the spare decor and bare bookshelves in her Senate office. Pictures of her mom and dad and her husband, Archie. A “Paul Wellstone” nameplate from the desk of the late Minnesota senator, whose former seat she now holds.
“Decorating has not been my highest priority,” she deadpanned.
One hundred days in, Smith has things figured out. The fastest route from her office to the Senate chambers. (Subway.) Where to sit in the hearing rooms. (The side farthest from the bathrooms, if you’re in the minority.) Whether she’ll vote to confirm Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. (No.)
The hardest moments, Smith said, were learning the limits to a senator’s power. She met with young Minnesotans who had been brought illegally to the U.S. as children as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was set to expire — then watched as a bill to let them stay in the U.S. died on the Senate floor. Liberian refugees came into her office “to tell me how petrified they are” that they will lose the protected status that allowed them to stay in this country, Smith said.
“I’m new at this. I was overcome. I was so upset for them,” Smith said. “You do everything you can, but you realize, ‘I’m not all-powerful.’ ... My pledge to myself is to never get to the place where that kind of stuff doesn’t sink in.”