When Tina Smith first contemplated taking on the role of lieutenant governor, she consulted former Vice President Walter Mondale.
She said he offered some great advice and told her to be an ambassador of sorts to Gov. Mark Dayton — someone with access to his decision-making process and great information so she could serve as a trusted advisor.
“I really took it to heart,” she said.
Smith, a southwest Minneapolis resident, previously served as Dayton’s chief of staff, and before that, as chief of staff to former Mayor R.T. Rybak. In addition to roles in government, she founded a marketing and communications firm and served as vice president for external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Smith will remain focused on her work as chair of the board of directors for the Destination Medical Center — the largest economic development project in the state’s history focused on building on the strength of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She is also planning to focus on promoting economic development and job creation throughout Minnesota.
“I’m anticipating my role as working to advance a shared agenda with the governor,” she said.
Here are highlights from a recent interview with Smith in the Linden Hills neighborhood.
Q: In your inaugural address you talked about the spirit of invention as the state’s competitive advantage. How do we nourish that spirit?
Smith: I believe Minnesota doesn’t always appreciate what makes us exceptional. We talk about our Midwestern humbleness, but appreciating that spirit of invention and that willingness to make things better for the good of the whole is really intrinsic to what makes Minnesota exceptional. You see that in business and government. I think there are good inventors and thinkers walking the halls of the state Capitol everyday and they need to be inspired to think about things differently. Part of it is just a culture of trying to make things better.
Minnesota is blessed with having a very diverse economy, but we don’t do as well as we need to when it comes to nourishing small business expansion. And we don’t do nearly as well as we should when it comes to attracting the venture capital and investment capital to help those small businesses grow.
If you talk to small businesses in Minnesota and ask them what they need the most, almost all of them will say right up front, ‘I need working capital.’ … As the governor said in his speech, you need to invest to grow. It doesn’t just happen organically.
Q: How can state leaders help facilitate access to capital?
We have done some things in our first term to help with that, including an angel investor tax credit, which helps those really early-stage investors with a little bit of a tax credit. Other states do this and it just helps us be competitive with other states.
We also have reinvested in some of the state grants to businesses that are working to grow. That has helped create thousands of jobs. …
In general the public sector shouldn’t be investing in business. That’s the role of the private sector, but every once and a while there’s an opportunity. It might mean a business is ready to grow and expand in a specific spot but they just need a little help with a freeway entrance or exit — just something to give them a hand. I think that’s really valuable.
The third thing that is so important is to continue to invest in our education system.
Q: What can be done to address the tension between urban and rural areas?
For political reasons I believe some are trying to make a lot of this so-called division between Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities. I don’t think we should make too much of that. People are overstating that division for political reasons and we shouldn’t fall into that. …
Having said that, I want to add, if you travel around Greater Minnesota you never meet someone who doesn’t have some connection to the Twin Cities. Our economies are really intertwined. Think about the big companies in the Twin Cities like Cargill and General Mills — they are here in the Twin Cities because of their connection to Minnesota’s agricultural economy. They wouldn’t be here otherwise. We have to make the most of those connections rather than focusing on our divisions. It just doesn’t get us anywhere.
Q: Both you and Gov. Mark Dayton have talked about the importance of striving for excellence in schools. How do you define that?
I would say first, I don’t think we appreciate enough how excellent our schools are overall. Minnesota has one of the highest graduation rates in the country. Just last year Minnesota fourth graders scored at the top of the country in math and our eighth graders scored way at the top as well. So we have an excellent education system. That doesn’t mean we should be complacent. It’s part of our heritage that we invest in education.
Having said that, Minnesota is [in the middle] of other states in per pupil investments in education. Our investment in K-12 took a real dive over the last 10, 12 years. While the governor has made a real point of increasing those investments in the first four years of his term, we’re not pouring money into education.
I’m not saying, nor is he, that we should be measuring ourselves in terms of how much we spent several years ago and trying to get back to that, but we need to understand that if we want our schools to be excellent we have to pay for them. … Some of the schools are in deep need of reinvestment.
Q: How are you working to reduce racial disparities in the state?
We have focused like a laser on early education because if you think about the things that really make a difference for getting kids ready to learn — that is the most important thing. That is why we have invested in that. We’re going to continue to do that.
Q: Do you have any specifics on early education proposals?
[Gov. Dayton] has supported the early learning scholarships and he has also supported expanding preschool in our public schools. Often that is one of the most effective ways in making sure kids have access to really high quality early learning experiences. So I think you can expect to see a continued commitment there.
In some districts across the state … you have kids in schools that come from very, very poor families. They are hungry. They have lived in six different places — not all of them going to the same school.
We have kids in our public schools that 30 or 40 years ago would never have been in our public schools. This is a good thing. We have special needs kids in our public schools getting great educations. We don’t say to those families anymore, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. That child is your responsibility.’ We don’t do that anymore but that costs a lot of money. It gets to the point about underfunding special education. The federal government has never lived up to its [promise] to fund special ed.
There are a lot of kids in our schools who have mental health issues. …
The long and short of it is how we take our schools from very good to excellent is a complex answer, but we know what to do. We just have to have the will to make it happen. We know that we have to invest in our schools. We know that kids can’t be hungry when they walk in the door. We know that our high school students have to have access to a counselor so they don’t make choices about their future without good information about where the jobs are and where the opportunities are.
Q: Are you optimistic about this legislative session?
The joke between the governor and me is that he always says, ‘She’s hope and I’m reality.’
I am always optimistic. I think there have been early signs from our new Speaker [Kurt Daudt] to being open to working with Democrats in the House and the Senate, and that’s good.
I think that what really matters is not what they say but what they do. We were disappointed in the early bill that came out in the House on transportation. The proposals put forth fell so far short of their rhetoric around actually addressing our transportation needs in this state. I appreciate they say that was a first step. I would say it was a baby step.
The Republicans now need to lead. They need to put forth their own ideas about where the think the state ought to go. I look forward to seeing how they do, and I wish them the best because we need to make progress this year.