Science & Environment

‘The Velvet Hammer’: Sen. Tina Smith, A Rising Progressive Force

WASHINGTON ― Back residence, her nickname is the “velvet hammer.”

In Congress, she’s been out in entrance on just about each precedence difficulty for progressives, significantly abortion rights, local weather change and Supreme Court growth. Social justice advocates and organizers take into account her one in all their fiercest and most dependable allies in Washington.

“She’s an unsung hero,” as one longtime environmental advocate, Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters, put it.

Who is that this daring progressive chief? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Elizabeth Warren?

It’s the junior senator from Minnesota, Tina Smith.

Smith doesn’t generate nationwide headlines like different progressive firebrands in Congress. She doesn’t have the star energy of former presidential candidates within the Senate, like Warren or Bernie Sanders. She didn’t unseat a outstanding Democrat in a major election, like Ocasio-Cortez. And though she’s been within the Senate for greater than 5 years, she’s nonetheless junior to many colleagues.

Smith additionally doesn’t give a shit about making nationwide information. She’d actually use that alternative phrase, too, given the profane salty streak that runs by way of her in any other case disarming “Minnesota nice” disposition. Smith isn’t searching for a highlight. She by no means even deliberate to be a senator or to carry elected workplace. She was unceremoniously appointed to her seat in January 2018 after Democratic Sen. Al Franken resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.

There’s a motive she was elevated to a management function she wasn’t searching for ― and why it’s occurred all through her profession, taking her from group organizer to behind-the-scenes adviser to larger workplace. The expertise she sharpened as an organizer have earned her a fame as a savvy operator who is aware of tips on how to construct coalitions and get outcomes.

It’s why Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback (D) selected Smith to be his chief of workers in 2006, plucking her from her job as vp of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota. It’s why she grew to become a high adviser to Gov. Mark Dayton (D) in 2010, when she helped him narrowly win his gubernatorial marketing campaign. It’s why he picked her to be his chief of workers after that, and when he ran for reelection in 2014, he picked her to be his lieutenant governor. They received.

When Franken resigned, Dayton needed to scramble to fill the Senate seat with somebody competent, who understood the wants of the state and who may deal with the calls for of the job with no time to arrange. There had been actually larger profile candidates. But for anybody paying attention, Smith was an apparent alternative.

“Gov. Dayton, everybody loves him. But there’s no question ― not even a close question ― if you wanted to see something actually go down, Tina was the one to go to,” mentioned Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D), who has identified Smith for years. “Tina was involved as lieutenant governor as a kind of operator, convener, negotiator…. So people just got used to being like, well, if you really want to make sure things happen, you’d better call Tina.”

Smith’s rise to the Senate is as uncommon as the way in which she approaches her job. She’s carried out with being in comparison with her predecessor, and she or he’s loath to distinction herself to her Senate counterpart, Amy Klobuchar (D), a longtime buddy. She merely sees her work by way of the identical lens that she at all times has: as a progressive organizer. If she is within the mildew of anybody from her state, it’s the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), additionally a grassroots organizer.

“In the Senate, you have to understand the sources of your power and how you use that power in order to move forward on big, important issues,” Smith advised HuffPost in a current interview. “The source of my power is that I understand how to organize people toward a common goal. I’ve been doing that my whole life.”

Except the distinction now could be that she’s straight shaping federal insurance policies. A lot of them.

Last 12 months, she worked closely with the climate movement to drag off a serious win with passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which included the largest-ever funding to struggle local weather change. She’s a go-to senator for abortion rights advocates, taking the lead on legislation to guard entry to medicine abortion and routinely countering GOP misinformation about abortion. She has fast become a champion for increasing the U.S. Supreme Court, stunning even activists on this sphere together with her willingness to step up and turn out to be a number one voice on their difficulty.

Smith is such an unapologetic progressive that it’s onerous to seek out a problem she isn’t utilizing her place to advance. LGBTQ+ rights. Tribal sovereignty. Marijuana legalization. Child care funding. She’s even pushed President Joe Biden to behave on points that aren’t as mainstream, similar to releasing the long-imprisoned Indigenous rights activist Leonard Peltier and using the 14th Amendment to go round Congress to boost the nationwide debt restrict by himself.

“Her issues all connect to each other,” mentioned Warren, who works intently with Smith on various fronts. “Student loan debt. Reproductive freedom. Empowering Indigenous communities. Child care. They’re all about lifting up the voices of people who can’t hire an army of lobbyists but who need a government on their side.”

“That’s when Tina really digs in,” she mentioned.

The Massachusetts Democrat mentioned Smith’s behind-the-scenes work on youngster care advocacy stands out particularly. It’s been difficult attempting to boost consciousness on the necessity for common youngster care, Warren mentioned, and it requires continually shifting the arguments for various teams they’re attempting to carry into the struggle, from small companies to oldsters to lecturers to fellow senators. Smith, she mentioned, deftly navigates all of those discussions.

“She doesn’t walk into a conversation threatening to lecture people and break arms. She comes in very politely, always listening, but she knows exactly the point she is driving,” Warren mentioned. “And she does not give up until she has pushed her idea all the way home.”

Smith speaks at a June 22 occasion organized by Demand Justice, urging structural modifications to the Supreme Court. She has quick turn out to be a pacesetter in progressives’ struggle for courtroom growth.

Paul Morigi by way of Getty Images

Spend any time with Smith on Capitol Hill and also you’ll discover that she operates with an ease that the majority senators don’t.

For starters, she prefers that you simply simply name her Tina. That’s what she established early on with this reporter. That’s what her workers calls her, which is virtually extraordinary within the Senate, the place elected officers need their senatorial title to be honored, thanks very a lot.

“This is our selection of black licorice,” she mentioned, motioning to a bowl of sweet sitting on a desk in her Senate workplace. “I am very fond of black licorice. And also Atomic Fireballs. And Hot Tamales. I eat like a 12-year-old.”

Always prepared with a narrative, Smith mentioned it was sweet that powered her by way of the Senate’s final grueling vote-a-rama, which is when senators go right into a session of voting on a limitless variety of amendments on budget-related payments. The course of is fairly depressing for everybody concerned and sometimes drags into the wee hours of the morning.

“This is the great thing about Fireballs; they don’t go bad,” she continued. “I ate a lot of Atomic Fireballs. But at 4 in the morning, they’re not that great anymore.”

“Some senators get alcohol,” chimed in Smith’s press secretary, Shea Necheles. “You had a bowl full of Atomic Fireballs.”

That’s one other factor you’ll discover in regards to the Minnesota Democrat: how joyful her workers is. She treats them extra like colleagues than staff. Many are former Franken staffers she saved on; many have labored within the Senate for years. Her chief of workers was Franken’s chief of workers.

Smith has a transparent agenda, and it’s fairly easy. She’s not all for larger workplace. She is aware of that at 65 years of age and with the Senate’s seniority system, she’ll by no means be a chair or rating member of a committee, by no means thoughts in high management. Her mission is to make use of her function to push ahead on as a lot progressive change as potential ― whether or not it’s passing payments, building relationships, mobilizing teams or talking out ― after which name it a day.

It’s liberating, actually. She floats freely amongst her Democratic colleagues, teaming up with them on laws that she cares about and publicly calling them out after they stand in the way in which.

“This is bullshit,” Smith tweeted at Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) when he introduced he wouldn’t help the vitality and local weather provisions in final 12 months’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Manchin later ended up sitting subsequent to Smith in a Senate eating room. “‘This is bullshit,’ he quietly said to her. ‘Tina, I didn’t know you talked like that.’” It was a lighter second between the 2, and he ultimately got here round on the invoice.

Smith is as snug working with Democrats within the Senate as she is with Republicans. She spoke simply as fondly of her relationship with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who isn’t precisely a favourite amongst progressives, as she did with Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), her GOP counterpart atop a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs subcommittee.

Back residence, Smith earned a fame for having the ability to work successfully with just about anybody, too, as lieutenant governor. She constructed a a lot larger profile than her predecessors, touring across the state to advocate for the governor’s insurance policies and getting far more concerned in legislative dealmaking. She primarily grew to become the face of Dayton’s administration, along with his blessing, as he had health points and was unable to journey.

“They call her the velvet hammer because she can go into a space and just command the room, but do so in a way where she is humble and thoughtful and people feel heard,” mentioned Minnesota’s present lieutenant governor, Democrat Peggy Flanagan. “But also it’s because she’s not going to take any shit.”

The means Smith redefined the place is what impressed Flanagan to run for the job in any respect.

“A very good friend of mine said that’s where careers go to die,” Flanagan laughed about her job. “But watching Tina really completely change the role is the only reason, to be very candid, that I even decided that this was an opportunity that I would say yes to.”

Smith helps to lead a climate change news conference outside the Capitol on Oct. 17, 2021, with other Democratic senators. Her background as an organizer lends itself well to working with advocacy groups at events like this.
Smith helps to steer a local weather change information convention outdoors the Capitol on Oct. 17, 2021, with different Democratic senators. Her background as an organizer lends itself effectively to working with advocacy teams at occasions like this.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

If anybody is stunned that Minnesota has delivered one of many Senate’s boldest progressives, look no additional than what simply occurred in its state legislature. Democrats entered this 12 months with management of the manager department, House and Senate ― a legislative “trifecta” ― and pushed by way of a era’s value of liberal reforms in simply 4 months, launching the state to the forefront of progressive policymaking.

Minnesota now gives 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, the possibility for any resident to buy into Medicaid, free public college tuition for low- and middle-income households, a brand new child tax credit, free meals for all public faculty college students, driver’s licenses for all residents no matter immigration standing, and stronger protections for unions, for abortion rights and for transgender youth who journey to the state for health care. That’s not even a complete listing.

None of those progressive victories occurred in a single day. They had been the product of years, if not a long time, of individuals organizing and building help for them. The key was having these insurance policies able to go when the time was proper. In this case, the time was proper the second that Democrats took management of the federal government and started churning out laws.

Smith helped to put the groundwork for just about all of these wins, Ellison mentioned.

“Tina has a finger on all of that,” he mentioned. “She shows up at meetings. She drives conversations. She is there. Even now, it doesn’t feel to me like Tina is off in Washington, in some faraway place. She is a Minnesota person, and she knows the state issues as well as anyone.”

National organizers in Washington are actually glad she’s right here, although. On a wet Thursday morning final month, Smith joined them for a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court, calling for courtroom growth within the aftermath of Roe v. Wade being struck down. The occasion was organized by the progressive judicial advocacy group Demand Justice.

“I am here today because I understand the Supreme Court is fundamental for democracy and for the rule of law. And I understand that it is broken,” Smith advised the group. “When you are a citizen of a great democracy and you realize something is broken, you can’t just turn away. You can’t just wring your hands. You have to be willing to get down and make a commitment to fixing the problem.”

She thanked Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) for introducing laws to broaden the courtroom, from 9 seats to 13. But Smith mentioned a lot of the credit score is as a result of advocates who’ve carried out the work to even get this difficulty on senators’ radars.

“Mostly, I want to thank the activists and the organizers who are using their power and their voices to lift up this issue and help us come to grips with something that is fundamentally important for us to understand,” she mentioned.

Smith was the second senator to signal on to Markey’s laws two years in the past. It was a shock to Brian Fallon, co-founder of Demand Justice and a longtime Democratic operative, who conceded to HuffPost that she hadn’t been on his radar at that time as somebody prepared to assist lead the courtroom growth struggle.

Fallon first engaged with Smith in September 2021, when he observed her tweeting about Texas passing the strictest anti-abortion regulation within the nation. Smith vowed to do no matter it took to guard abortion rights, so Fallon tweeted at her that her phrases had been “hollow” except she supported increasing the courtroom. To his shock, the senator personally tweeted proper again and zinged him.

“Always love when a man has the gall to question my abilities,” Smith tweeted. “I hope @brianefallon didn’t sprain a finger tweeting this from his K Street office. Sincerely, a former Planned Parenthood exec, receiver of death threats for my work, and decades-long fighter for reproductive rights.”

“She clapped back at me,” Fallon mentioned with an embarrassed giggle.

But that alternate led to a dialogue between Smith’s workforce and Demand Justice. Within two weeks, Smith had joined Markey’s invoice. And a couple of weeks later, Smith confirmed as much as a Demand Justice occasion outdoors the Capitol and urged help for courtroom growth.

“I apologized to her for my tweet. She said, ‘It’s forgotten, great to be working with you on this issue,’” Fallon recalled. “She’s been one of the leaders on this ever since.”

He credit Smith with bringing momentum to the group’s trigger ― Markey’s invoice now has three co-sponsors within the Senate and 62 within the House ― and significantly credit her with influencing Planned Parenthood’s determination to endorse courtroom growth, getting one of many greatest forces in Democratic politics on board.

“The main thing about Smith, she’s willing to stick her neck out on things before it is conventional wisdom,” Fallon mentioned. “Usually, the sequence is that advocacy groups coalesce around a proposal and then lawmakers follow. In a complete flip of the script, Smith’s early support for this proposal helped bring the advocacy groups along.”

Tina Smith is not Tammy Baldwin.
Tina Smith isn’t Tammy Baldwin.

Sen. Tina Smith’s Facebook web page

For all of the accolades she will get from colleagues and advocates, Smith doesn’t take herself too significantly. On the stroll again to her workplace from the Supreme Court occasion, she acknowledged a well-recognized face on the road.

“Cokie! Cokie!” Smith known as out to a girl passing by below an umbrella. In reality, it was veteran NPR authorized affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, not the veteran NPR journalist Cokie Roberts, who died in 2019.

Both of them had amusing in regards to the mix-up.

“I’m good, but not that good,” Totenberg advised Smith. “I can’t come back from the dead.”

Smith didn’t appear embarrassed as we walked on. “I knew who she was, but it just is what popped out of my mouth. It’s like calling your kid by the wrong name.”

The Minnesota Democrat is commonly combined up with different individuals herself. People frequently assume she is Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). A reporter as soon as known as Smith’s workplace asking about Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tapping her to steer on the Equality Act, a sweeping LGBTQ+ rights invoice, when it was Baldwin the reporter wanted. In one other mix-up, The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, ran a narrative about Baldwin that includes a photograph of Smith.

Sinema truly called out the publication on Twitter, tweeting on the paper, “That is Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota, guys. They don’t even look alike.”

Smith and Baldwin get confused for one another so usually that they made a spoof video about it, wearing the identical outfit, appearing like the identical individuals. Smith conceded there have been instances when she’s even pretended to be the senator from Wisconsin.

She as soon as walked previous a gaggle of scholars outdoors the Capitol and so they shouted, “We love you, Sen. Baldwin!” So Smith shouted again, “Thank you!”

Except the scholars saved attempting to have interaction, saying how a lot they appreciated the Wisconsin Democrat’s work. It started to get awkward.

“So I said, ‘Actually, I’m Sen. Smith,’” she mentioned. “They said, ’Oh! We love you, too!”

Smith emphasised that she advised Baldwin afterward that she’d briefly pretended to be her. The Wisconsin senator didn’t appear to thoughts.

“I think Senator Smith and I feel the same way: it’s not the worst thing in the world to be mistaken for a fellow hardworking Midwesterner,” Baldwin advised HuffPost in an announcement. “As long as folks don’t mistake me for a Vikings fan.”

Smith speaks to the press after Senate Democrats' weekly policy luncheon. Flanked by fellow Democratic senators, she is used to being one of few women at the table with lots of men.
Smith speaks to the press after Senate Democrats’ weekly coverage luncheon. Flanked by fellow Democratic senators, she is used to being one in all few women on the desk with a lot of males.

Pete Marovich by way of Getty Images

HuffPost shadowed Smith for a day on Capitol Hill, watching her bounce from conferences with constituents to talking on the Demand Justice occasion, to diving into sophisticated housing coverage in a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee listening to, to talking at an off-site occasion about bipartisanship with Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.).

It wasn’t till the tip of the day, when Smith was alone within the quiet of her workplace, that she provided, maybe unintentionally, a deeper perception into why she operates the way in which she does.

She was musing about graduating from enterprise faculty in 1984, the 12 months she took a advertising job at General Mills earlier than occurring to enter the political fray. In her class of 135 individuals, perhaps 25 had been women, and all of the women dressed to appear to be the boys of their class picture. It was a mirrored image of how women had been anticipated to behave in management roles.

“I came up in my life, in the business side and the political side, with a clear understanding that if I wanted to get in the room where it all happened, where there weren’t any women, I was going to have to figure out how to not be too scary to the people who already had the power,” Smith mentioned. “Or they were just going to say, ‘Sorry, this room is full.’”

Women of her era had been taught to smile as a result of individuals will assume you’re imply in any other case, she mentioned, and likewise taught to not smile an excessive amount of as a result of then individuals received’t take you significantly. It’s an virtually unattainable steadiness to strike. To Smith, women, together with her, are sometimes underestimated as leaders till they start to ship outcomes.

But it’s a systemic drawback that she turned on its head a very long time in the past. She discovered tips on how to be good, tips on how to smile simply sufficient and tips on how to avenue struggle till she wins. It means enjoying the lengthy sport. It takes the work of building coalitions. But it’s how she wins. It is, in spite of everything, why she bought her nickname, the velvet hammer.

“Sometimes it’s mistaken, that kindness is mistaken for niceness or softness, but that’s just part of it,” Smith mentioned. “You show somebody that you’re not to be trifled with.”

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