REGIONAL— Gov. Mark Dayton confirmed on Wednesday what has been widely rumored for days— he has chosen Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to replace U.S. Senator Al Franken, who announced his resignation on …
REGIONAL— Gov. Mark Dayton confirmed on Wednesday what has been widely rumored for days— he has chosen Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to replace U.S. Senator Al Franken, who announced his resignation on Dec. 7.
Smith, who previously served as chief of staff to Gov. Dayton and former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, indicated that she will seek election to the position during the 2018 campaign.
“Though I never anticipated this moment, I’m resolved to do everything I can to move Minnesota forward,” Smith told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday. Smith called the current political moment an “extraordinary time” and said she decided this was the best way for her to continue to serve Minnesota. “I’m prepared to do this. I’m qualified to do this. I have a unique role to play here.”
Smith also acknowledged that not all Minnesotans are benefitting from the current economy, noting that in her travels across the state she’s seen and heard their economic struggles. She vowed to be an advocate for “economic opportunity and fairness,” especially for women and people of color.
Dayton praised her as a public official of “impeccable integrity” who’ll make Minnesota proud in the Senate. Smith, 59, is a New Mexico native who moved to Minnesota for a job with General Mills. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband. They have two grown sons.
Smith has been a remarkably active Lt. Governor and has frequently represented the governor for events around the state. She has been in the North Country on several occasions, including the dedication of the Lake Vermilion Soudan Underground Mine State Park and the most recent Governor’s Fishing Opener on Lake Vermilion. Smith is an outdoor enthusiast, who had set a goal to visit each of the state’s 67 state parks.
Smith has also led several administration initiatives, including rural broadband expansion, early childhood education and economic development. Smith had been widely considered to be a likely candidate to succeed Dayton, but she had announced earlier this year that she did not intend to run. “For me it was a personal decision as I thought about how I want to spend my time and where I can make a big difference,” she told Minnesota Public Radio at the time. “There are so many different ways of contributing to the future of this state.”
Smith’s promotion comes in the wake of Franken’s decision to resign over allegations of sexual misconduct from before and during his time in office. In his Dec. 7 remarks on the Senate floor, Franken said he strongly supports the current conversation about sexual harassment by powerful men and said that women’s allegations need to be taken seriously. At the same time, he said some of the allegations against him are untrue, while others differ from his own recollection of events. He said he was confident that the ethics committee would have exonerated him.
“But this decision is not about me, it is about the people of the state of Minnesota,” said Franken. “And it has become clear that I cannot both pursue the ethics committee process and remain an effective senator for them.”
Equally clear was that the steady drip of new allegations had reached a tipping point, and had prompted several Democratic senators to call for Franken’s resignation earlier this week. Those calls came just one day after longtime Democratic Representative John Conyers had stepped down over alleged sexual improprieties.
Franken noted the contrast between how such allegations are affecting Democrats versus Republicans “I of all people am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for a seat in the Senate with the full support of his party,” he said, alluding to President Donald Trump and Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore.
Franken also paid homage to his staff and those who have helped him over the years, including his colleague Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Franken hasn’t said yet exactly when he’ll be leaving the Senate, although Smith said she’s been told it will be sometime in early January. While she applauded Franken as an effective voice for Minnesota, Smith made it clear she will not be in his shadow and that she should not be underestimated as a politician or as a candidate for election next year in what likely will be a highly competitive race.
“I will take on this role in my own way using my own judgment and experience,” she said.
Smith’s appointment to the Senate does create some uncertainty surrounding leadership in the state Senate. Minnesota’s succession plan calls for the Senate president to become lieutenant governor in the event of a vacancy, and that would fall to state Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville. With Republicans currently in control of the state Senate by a single vote, the move could alter the balance of power in the assembly.
Minnesota Public Radio contributed reporting for this story. You can hear Minnesota Public Radio at 89.3 FM in Ely and at 92.5 FM on the Iron Range.