Tina Smith

U.S. Senator, Minnesota; Former Lieutenant Governor, Minnesota

Essentially what happened over the course of my career was my vocation in strategy and marketing traded places with my avocation, which was community service.

Editor's note: U.S. Senator Tina Smith T'84 was sworn into office on January 3, 2018.

It’s 7:45 a.m. on a Friday in September, and Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith T’84 is already moving at a blistering pace. She’s en route to Bemidji, Minnesota, a northern fishing and forestry town, where she’ll talk to workers and compete in a log-loading contest. “We’re all still trying to figure out what all it takes to load a log, but we’ll see about that,” she says with her characteristically warm laugh. Later, she’ll travel back to Minneapolis, speak at a conference for state employees, and meet with a representative from the Minnesota Vikings to discuss the stadium they are building as a public-private partnership—a project that has generated an estimated $900 million in economic activity on the underdeveloped, but now booming, eastern edge of Minneapolis.

Historically, many lieutenant governors and vice presidents have been left sitting on the sidelines. Tina Smith is not one of them. Since assuming the office—her first elected position—in January 2015, Smith has worked with Governor Mark Dayton to redefine and reinvigorate the role. She has spearheaded major public-private partnerships, successfully brokered support for educational programs and work-force development, and, using her business background, led the charge to bring more useful data to legislative decision-making.

Smith never imagined she would run for office. Growing up in a community-minded family in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in which her dad ran for school board and her mom volunteered for the League of Women Voters, Smith always fostered an interest in service. She majored in political science at Stanford but then veered toward business, attending Tuck and taking a job in marketing at General Mills. After three years, she heeded her entrepreneurial instincts, took a leap, and started her own consulting business, cultivating it into a 20-person organization.

Meanwhile, for 30 years, Smith volunteered for Democratic campaigns, from city council and legislative races to Obama’s 2008 presidential bid. Eventually she took a position as chief of staff for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and, in 2011, a role as chief of staff for Governor Mark Dayton.

“Essentially what happened over the course of my career was my vocation in strategy and marketing traded places with my avocation, which was community service,” says Smith. “I’d like to say I had it all planned out but that wouldn’t be true.”

In 2014, when Dayton needed a running mate for his second gubernatorial campaign, Smith’s name was top on the list, in no small part because of her ability to make friends across the aisle. While she moves fast—Smith keeps fit with a steady regimen of hiking and biking—she comes across as easygoing, authentic, and open-minded.

Smith is currently leading Destination Medical Center, a partnership with the Mayo Clinic to position Rochester as a global center for health and wellness, an initiative expected to generate 35,000 to 40,000 jobs and attract $5.6 billion in private development. She also has led the charge to bring broadband Internet access to rural areas, to develop a better-trained work force through partnerships between schools and corporations, and to bring early childhood education to every Minnesota four-year-old. For most, this sort of motivation and energy smacks of a leader bent on bigger places—but don’t expect a juicy response when you ask the obvious question.

“In the public sector, we spend too much time thinking about the next election and not enough time focusing on what it is we’re doing to improve people’s lives,” says Smith in her friendly, practical tone. “I’m spending almost all of my time thinking about how this state can be as great as it can be—and there will be plenty of time later to think about what’s next for me.” 

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