WASHINGTON, D.C. — There are not too many lawmakers in Washington who got there having not been elected.
But that’s exactly how Minnesota U.S. Senator Tina Smith first ended up in the nation’s capital.
After Al Franken resigned due to scandal, Governor Dayton looked no further than his right hand woman, appointing then-Lieutenant Governor Smith to the seat.
It was meant to be temporary.
But after focusing heavily on healthcare and the state’s drug crisis as Senator, Smith decided she found her true calling.
We traveled to Washington and spent time with now-elected Senator Smith, at a time when the shutdown and border security were top of mind.
“It’s very good to be elected,” said Smith.
Being sent to Washington, D.C. by Minnesota’s Governor feels good.
According to Senator Tina Smith, being selected to stay there feels even better.
“Knowing that the people of Minnesota sent me to Washington, D.C. makes a huge difference, and the fact that I won with a good strong margin makes a difference for me,” said Smith.
Just days into her first full term as Senator, Smith found herself in the middle of the fight over a border wall that led to a shutdown.
The president and republicans were asking for $5.7 billion for a wall, saying the situation’s a crisis.
Smith says it’s not that simple.
“Sometimes a wall isn’t the best way to secure the border. It’s best to have technology. Right now one of the main ways illegal drugs come in is through legal border checkpoints, and they’re smuggled in so a wall wouldn’t fix that problem. What would is technology and intelligence,” said Smith.
But immigration isn’t typically a focus for the Senator.
Since her first day in D.C., healthcare in Minnesota has been front and center.
“I think the single biggest issue I hear about from Minnesotans is the rising cost of healthcare and prescription drugs,” said Smith.
Even dating back to Smith’s time as Lieutenant Governor, she aimed to expand the Minnesotacare program, to make healthcare more affordable for more people.
In 2017, she hosted a town hall in Duluth to pitch the idea.
Two years later, she’s still making the push.
“We talk about people rationing their healthcare, which basically means they can’t afford the healthcare they need, so they only get a portion of the healthcare they need. And that’s bad for their health, bad for their families and bad for their economic security. So I’m going to continue to fight,” said Smith.
Smith has also watched the opioid crisis grow out of control.
With it reaching epidemic levels in the Northland, the Senator says a lot’s being done, but the fight is far from over.
“Well, we passed last year a comprehensive bill to improve state efforts for treatment and recovery for the opioid epidemic,” said Smith.
Healthcare and the opioid crisis have been the focuses of Tina Smith’s time in office, but it was her time working in the Governor’s office that has her uniquely focused on the Iron Range.
“Polymet has gone through extensive environmental review. And the state regulators have determined it can be done safely and i support that,” said Smith.
During Smith’s time as Lieutenant Governor, the fight over Polymet’s proposal to build a copper-nickel mine on the Iron Range was one of the state’s most controversial issues.
Smith supports the plan and proposed an amendment last summer to force completion of a land swap needed to make it happen.
“It’s really important for people to understand about Polymet that there’s going to be water treatment with that project is going to be unprecedented,” said Smith.
The project is very popular on the Range, but remains controversial in other parts of the state.
But with everything she does, Senator Smith says now that she’s an elected official, she feels a certain level of vindication.
“Knowing I have a strong vote of confidence from Minnesotans gives me more ‘oomf’ when I get up in the morning,” said Smith.