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From Minnesota, Tina Smith Replaces Al Franken In U.S. Senate


The U.S. Senate has two new members today - Doug Jones, whose race in Alabama against Judge Roy Moore caught the nation's attention, and Tina Smith of Minnesota. She replaces fellow Democrat Al Franken after his resignation amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Senator Smith inherits a seat that has changed parties four times since 1990 and faces a November special election that's likely to be competitive. Here's Brian Bakst of Minnesota Public Radio.

BRIAN BAKST, BYLINE: Where Al Franken was an outsized political figure, Tina Smith was practically tugged into public life. Until yesterday, Smith had been Minnesota's lieutenant governor, the only elective office she's held. For most of her career, she focused on the images and agendas of others as a trusted adviser to a big city mayor, a governor and a former vice president.

TINA SMITH: You know, sometimes I think people in politics are always looking for the next job and the next opportunity. And frankly, that's just not the way I'm wired.

BAKST: Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak says that doesn't mean people should take his former chief of staff lightly.

R T RYBAK: She is not a person to go crawl over every other political body to get to the place. She's a person who wants to get stuff done, and she's in the right position to do that.

BAKST: Rybak once dubbed Smith the velvet hammer. It reflected what Rybak saw as her charm and mettle in helping close deals at City Hall and providing a steady hand in times of crisis, like when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed during rush hour. As senator, Smith says her focus will be on bread-and-butter economic issues such as health care and paid family leave.

SMITH: I don't think Minnesotans are sending us here to Washington D.C. just to fight with each other. They're sending us here to actually deliver results for people.

BAKST: Smith is 59, a New Mexico native, a wife of 33 years and a mother of two. She has an MBA from Dartmouth and came to Minnesota for a job at General Mills. She left to start her own business before migrating toward jobs in politics. That includes running the campaign for Walter Mondale in a 2002 Senate race the former vice president lost. It was for the seat Smith will now hold. Mondale says he's looking forward to having Smith represent Minnesota.

WALTER MONDALE: She's very honest. You can - that's a touchstone of her career. She's not going to cut any corners. She's - we'll hear it straight from her.

BAKST: Smith must now get acclimated to the Senate while building a statewide campaign. She passed last year on a chance to succeed retiring Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, who appointed her to the Senate. The Democratic field looks clear, but that's only part of the battle in a state that neither party has a lock on. It's a historically blue state where Republicans have made substantial inroads lately. Suburban State Senator Karin Housley is the only Republican to jump in so far, but former Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann are considering campaigns.

Jennifer DeJournett runs a political group called VOICES of Conservative Women. She says this seat is ripe for Republicans if they pick the right candidate. She expects Republicans to hammer Smith on abortion, linking it to her past stint as a Planned Parenthood executive.

JENNIFER DEJOURNETT: She's kind of got the worst of both worlds, quite frankly. Totally unproven, no hard base, but she's got an ideological record that is completely - you know, completely there.

BAKST: Smith's allies hold her out as a champion for women's health and say they're ready for the 2018 fight. For NPR News, I'm Brian Bakst in St. Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Brian Bakst