Smith becomes Minnesota U.S. senator

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WASHINGTON —

Tina Smith says she understands greater Minnesota's needs as she takes over for U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

"I have traveled every corner of the state," the Minneapolis resident told Forum News Service in a telephone interview Wednesday, Jan. 3, after she took the oath to become senator.

That, she said, included learning how important agriculture is to Minnesota. "It is sort of the foundation stone to the economy."

Smith touted the importance of more federal funding to help greater Minnesota, including expanding high-speed internet in rural areas, fighting opioids and improving rural health care.

Smith offered few specifics. "Stay tuned. I have been in this role for not quite two hours. ... I am literally still finding my way around the halls of the Capitol."

Vice President Mike Pence, a Republican, delivered the oath to Democrats Smith and Doug Jones of Alabama at 11:04 a.m. Central time in the Senate chamber.

Minutes later, the ceremony was reenacted in the smaller, ornate old Senate chamber with family standing alongside Smith. Accompanying her at both ceremonies were Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Vice President Walter Mondale, also an ex-senator.

In taking the oath, Smith became the 22nd woman in the 100-member body, a record high level.

Smith was Gov. Mark Dayton's lieutenant governor since 2015 and was his chief of staff for the four previous years. Dayton named her to fill the position that was vacated Tuesday by Franken, who left after eight women accused him of sexual misconduct.

Smith, 59, says she will run in the November election to fill out the remaining two years of Franken's term.

The new senator faces one announced candidate, Republican state Sen. Karin Housley of St. Mary's Point. Former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann last month said she is considering a run and many Republicans want former Gov. Tim Pawlenty to run.

Housley said Smith has been "a lifelong Democrat political operative" and criticized her time as a Planned Parenthood official.

Minnesota GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan added: "Minnesotans will be watching closely to see if Smith can attempt to govern in a bipartisan fashion, or if she will continue on as the consummate Democrat Party insider."

The political left was happy with Smith taking office.

"Tina Smith is stepping into the seat that progressive hero Paul Wellstone once held," Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said. "We wish her well and hope she upholds his legacy with a commitment to the progressive values that Minnesotans voted for in 2016, fighting for working families, protecting consumer rights, and challenging powerful corporate interests."

In the interview, Smith said that her private business and government experience will be valuable. As lieutenant governor, she was much more visible than others in that job have been, frequently traveling the state and often filling in for Dayton.

"I feel like I have been invited into Minnesota's living room," she said.

If she is the eventual Democratic candidate, Smith can expect to do well in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where her party dominates. The suburbs and greater Minnesota likely will be battlegrounds, and the rural part of the state is where Republican Donald Trump did the best in the 2016 election.

Visiting all parts of the state has well prepared her for rural issues, she said.

High-speed internet, known as broadband, is critical in rural Minnesota, Smith said. She called it a "core issue" that will need more federal money.

Fighting highly addictive opioid painkillers is another issue she has discussed as lieutenant governor. "It is especially hard hitting in greater Minnesota."

"We need to think about prevention and treatment and recovery for people," she said about opioids. "That requires funds. We need to put money where our mouth is."

Rural health care is too expensive and difficult to obtain, Smith said. "The talk about health care costing too much needs to be followed by action to really bring health care costs down."

While saying issues such as broadband, opioids and health care need more federal funds, she added that "I am not naive." She said she understands Republicans, who want to cut spending, are in charge and getting the money will be difficult.