Dayton weighing Senate appointee
ST. PAUL — Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s top pick to fill Sen. Al Franken’s Senate seat, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, is considering also running for the seat next year, as Dayton faces pressure from top Democrats in Washington to appoint more than a mere caretaker, according to two Democrats familiar with the discussions.
Franken said Thursday he would resign over allegations of sexual harassment, leaving Dayton to appoint a replacement until a special election next November to complete Franken’s term, which runs through 2020.
Dayton’s initial inclination was to pick Smith, a longtime aide and his second-in-command since 2015, to serve as a placeholder until next year’s election, a Democratic official told The Associated Press. The official requested anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss private deliberations surrounding the appointment before Dayton’s announcement.
The official said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has reached out to Dayton and pressured him to instead appoint someone who can use the opportunity as a running start for a 2018 campaign.
A senior Senate Democratic aide confirmed that Senate Democrats do not want a placeholder appointee. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss private discussions.
Amid that pushback, Smith is now considering running for the seat next year, according to the official and a separate Democratic operative familiar with the discussions surrounding the appointment. Smith had previously explored a run for Minnesota governor in 2018, when Dayton’s second and final term ends, but she ruled it out this spring.
Smith did not immediately reply to a text or voicemail seeking comment.
Speaking to reporters earlier Friday, Dayton reiterated he plans to make the appointment “in the next couple days” but would not discuss the factors or candidates he is weighing.
In more than two decades in Minnesota politics, Smith has earned a reputation as more of a behind-the-scenes mover than a front-lines politician. She played outsized but quiet roles in the response to the 2007 Interstate 35W bridge collapse, the building of a new Minnesota Vikings stadium and a multi-million dollar investment in the state’s famed Mayo clinic.
Before ascending to be Dayton’s second-in-command, she served as his chief of staff, worked as the top aide to a former Minneapolis mayor and ran campaigns, including former Vice President Walter Mondale’s last-minute run for U.S. Senate in 2002 after Sen. Paul Wellstone’s death. She also served as a top executive at Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Soft-spoken and constantly smiling, Smith has provided a touch of polish to a governor without much of it. She’s served primarily as a bridge-builder for Dayton, both to the state’s business community that Dayton regularly lambastes and Republican legislative majorities with whom he has quarreled.
Her rising visibility after joining Dayton’s ticket for a 2014 re-election stoked speculation that she would run for the job when he leaves office next year. But Smith eventually turned it down, citing personal reasons.
Her former boss, ex-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, said voters shouldn’t confuse that decision with a lack of drive or grit for a grueling campaign. Rybak, for whom Smith worked as chief of staff for four years, said he thinks Smith is uniquely suited for the U.S. Senate.
“It plays to a couple of her strengths: The ability to really dig in and understand issues in depth and a pretty off the chart ability to find common ground among people who don’t always agree,” he said. He called her instrumental as a liaison between his office and then-Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in responding to the bridge collapse.
A Smith appointment and 2018 campaign would cause both celebration and heartburn among Minnesota Democrats. With a foot in the Senate, Smith would get an instant visibility boost and fundraising edge, not to mention help from Schumer and Washington Democrats in mounting a campaign in short order.
But the head start could also work against her, tying up valuable campaign time with Senate activity and risking a backlash from liberal Minnesota voters who feel their role in choosing a nominee was given to Dayton and Schumer.