Sen. Tina Smith doesn’t want to talk about Al Franken.
When asked about her Democratic predecessor, who resigned the Minnesota seat amid allegations of sexual misconduct, she avoided even saying his name in a recent interview with POLITICO’s Women Rule podcast, instead concentrating on the economic implications of the #MeToo movement.
“I believe it’s a cultural change that we’re going through as a country, and it’s not really a partisan issue,” Smith, Minnesota’s former lieutenant governor, told POLITICO. “But I think that my party, the Democratic Party, needs to continue to lead the way in … paving the path for more economic opportunity for women. And to me, this is really part of that challenge, whether it is paid family leave, whether it is improved child care.”
Franken’s checkered history on sexual harassment is an issue Smith hardly wants to focus on, given her intention to run a campaign for office this fall – a feat that can typically take up to two years – even as she acclimates to her new job. Adding to the task: It’s also her first solo run for elected office.
It’s a daunting enough task that it had Smith questioning whether it could be done.
Eventually, she said, “I became convinced that it was.”
Smith believes that her stint as lieutenant governor for three years – as well as her three decades in the state – have primed her for the seat.
“Being lieutenant governor is sort of like being invited into everyone’s living room, and you just get an understanding of the state,” she said. “That gives me comfort that I can carry forward.”
“That’s not to say it’s not going to be a challenge,” she acknowledged.
Smith became senator following reports from several women that Franken forcibly kissed and groped them. After Franken’s resignation from Congress last year, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Smith to the seat until a special election is held in November. (Minnesota’s other senator, Amy Klobuchar, will also be running for a third term this year.)
But of the truncated campaign schedule – Smith has less than 35 weeks to run, and at least one Democrat has already declared intentions to stage a primary challenge – she opted for a positive spin.
“Maybe it’ll be a little bit of a blessing,” Smith mused on the podcast. “It’ll give us permission to be a little bit more innovative and try some new things.”
Her game plan is simple, hinging on her brief time in national office: “Demonstrate by the way that I do this job what kind of senator I will be, and then just to go out and have conversations with people about their lives.”
Smith’s job in the Senate is a doubly tricky one in the age of President Donald Trump. While the Democrat has been vocal in her criticisms of the White House, she has been hesitant to categorically denounce the president, who lost Minnesota in the 2016 election to Hillary Clinton by a slim 1.5 percentage points.
When asked whether she believed Trump was capable of being president, Smith demurred.
“I think that it is up to the voters of this country to decide whether he is fit for office,” Smith said. “I strongly disagree with him on almost everything. But I also believe that my state didn’t send me to Washington, D.C., or any of us to Washington, D.C., to just throw bombs and fight.”
She explained Trump’s appeal to her state’s voters.
“In many parts of Minnesota outside of the big metro areas, and the college towns, and the regional centers like Duluth or Rochester, the state has a lot of people who work incredibly hard,” Smith said. “I think that what happened is that Trump was able to connect with that sense of real concern.”
But Smith – whose long career in politics includes stints working on her mentor Walter Mondale’s Senate campaign, along with work as a regional vice president for Planned Parenthood – is optimistic about the Democrats’ chances in the upper chamber in 2018.
Of the party’s prospects for taking back the Senate this year, Smith acknowledged that “it’s a tough map.
But, she added, “it’s an extraordinary time.”