Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith delivered her maiden speech on the floor Tuesday with a message seemingly designed to turn the page on the circumstances that brought her to Congress.
Joining the Senate in January, Smith took over the seat vacated by fellow Democrat Al Franken, who stepped aside following allegations of sexual misconduct.
Smith said Tuesday she knew her name would be known in part for the series of events that led to her appointment by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. But she said she intends to be a strident advocate for her state, as well as a staunch champion for women’s rights.
“Do not underestimate me. I believe that as a woman, a progressive, and a Minnesotan, I have a lot to contribute and I am so ready to do that work,” she said.
Watch: Smith Speaks About #MeToo, Franken in Maiden Speech
Before the Senate
The New Mexico native first arrived in Minnesota in the 1980s to take a job with General Mills before getting involved in state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party politics. She eventually became vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
She later worked as chief of staff for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Dayton, who then asked her in 2014 to join his ticket in his successful race for re-election. As Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, she said she “spent as much time as I could just talking to people.”
Instead of shunning her predecessor, Smith called Franken a friend who brought “heart and passion to his work” in the Senate and a “champion” for the progressive values that brought her into politics.
She also said she understands that the story of how she got to the chamber is linked to Franken and the broader story about how men should be accountable for their actions, and she hopes the #MeToo movement represents a “turning of the tide.”
Smith said she grew up in a time of “incredible progress for women,” and hopes to be a reminder of the contributions women can make when they have the freedom to do so.
“When women are empowered to contribute more fully, we all benefit,” she said.
Smith said she sees common ground with the other female senators from both parties, who get together regularly to discuss policy solutions.
“I have always been surrounded by strong women and thoughtful men. I don’t have a horror story to share like the ones we have heard from so many women in the #MeToo movement. … But when you really listen to women, you begin to understand the million little ways in which all women are made less and denied the opportunity to contribute to their communities and their country.”
Smith credited Franken for being a leader on women’s rights, but said many issues have endured for too long because women did not have a seat at the table.
“I am the 51st woman to take the oath of office as United States senator,” Smith said. “But we’ve had 50 different senators named Charles, and I mean no disrespect to my minority leader. Put another way, nearly half of all the women who have ever served in the United States Senate are serving right now.”
Highlights so far
Smith is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and she has made health policy a focus of her short tenure in Congress so far, including sponsoring legislation to tackle high prescription drug prices by expanding access to generic drugs.
She also joined with Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski on legislation to allow mental health workers with the National Health Service Corps to provide mental health treatment in schools, community organizations and homes, flexibility aimed at expanding treatment for young people in rural areas.
In addition to being on the HELP panel, Smith is also on three other standing committees — Energy and Natural Resources; Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry; and Indian Affairs — as well as the newly formed Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans.
Since her appointment to the Senate, the chamber has added another female senator — Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith — bringing the number of women currently serving to a record 23.
She is running in a special election this fall to fill out the remainder of Franken’s term, which expires in 2021. She will be sharing the ballot with Minnesota’s senior DFL senator, Amy Klobuchar, who is running for a third term.
Among her challengers in the Aug. 14 DFL primary is law professor Richard Painter, a former chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration. State Sen. Karin Housley is running for the Republican nomination.