5 questions with Sen. Tina Smith

Sen. Tina Smith
Chris Juhn Solomon Gustavo (l) & Sen. Tina Smith // Photo Credit: Chris Juhn

Sen. Tina Smith once seemed to be backing away from the political spotlight. The former lieutenant governor had no plans on making a run for her boss Gov. Mark Dayton’s job upon his retirement.

But then Dayton tapped her to fill former Sen. Al Franken’s seat in Dec. 2017. Smith answered the call and went on to win the special election last fall to serve the last two years of Franken’s term.

Now she’s positioned herself to make waves at the Capitol working alongside the most diverse U.S. Congress in history. She sat down in an exclusive conversation with the MSR on Martin Luther King’s holiday to discuss pressing issues for Blacks and people of color and what she’s doing to address them.

MSR: How is the government shutdown affecting the poor and people of color?
Sen.Tina Smith: This shutdown is a waste, it is unnecessary, and it is increasingly harmful. We think first of the federal employees who are furloughed. A lot of federal workers are just like the rest of us — they are working paycheck to paycheck.

And then we have a group that I’ve been really paying attention to. They are people that are often just invisible to the rest of us. They are subcontractors for the federal government. The folks that are the security guards at federal office buildings. The people who clean the office building when everyone goes home. A lot of these people are people of color. A lot of them are women.

And they were basically laid off as part of the shutdown. Unlike federal workers, who get their back pay when we resume operations of the government, these low-wage workers don’t have any recourse. So, they just lost that income.

A woman I talked to last week isn’t taking her high blood pressure medicine. Another woman is not able to pay for her children to go to college.

Silence is our enemy.

MSR: Any specific measures for these problems?
TS: I’ve introduced a bill to make sure that those folks get their back pay just like federal workers do. This is really important because, through no fault of their own, they’re being used as pawns and negotiating chips in this battle that has nothing to do with them. I just think it’s immoral what’s happening to these families.

Then there are the people that rely on the federal government for their basic needs. I’m deeply worried about the impact — if this goes on much longer — on people that rely on nutrition assistance. There are 400,000 such people in Minnesota. They are seniors, and they’re kids, and people with disabilities.

If that money runs out, they are going to literally go hungry. This is completely unacceptable. The president and Mitch McConnell ought to open up the government tomorrow. We can have a debate about how to fix a broken immigration system, but not while we’re holding hostage hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Senator Tina Smith
Chris Juhn Sen. Tina Smith // Photo Credit: Chris Juhn

MSR: What do you see as the worst ills plaguing the Black community, and what can be done about them?
TS: There are systems in place that keep people in the Black community from having the same access to opportunity that White people do. Whether it’s access to health care, education, economic opportunity, home ownership — this is systemic, and it has to change. We have to dismantle that.

What can we do to make sure career and technical education is available broadly, so people have an opportunity to go to college and get a degree in computer technology or become a person that wants to build wind turbines?

We need to think about what the barriers are to access capital so that Black entrepreneurs can start a business. They don’t have the same opportunities for access to capital that a lot of White people have. So that great business idea, that doesn’t get brought to fruition. I’m a strong proponent of what Gary Cunningham is doing at Meda — he is working really hard to change that.

Think about the disparities in health outcomes. That’s another place where we have to just dive in and fix it and just stop it. There are some great examples of that happening in Minneapolis and St. Paul [including] the work Pillsbury United is doing in bringing better access to healthy food into the community.

The strength and assets in the African American community in Minneapolis and St. Paul, there’s so much there. But we need to break down the barriers keeping these incredibly talented people from being themselves.

MSR: Congress is more diverse than ever. What are you doing to maintain and increase diversity?
TS: That has not been the case forever. One of the reasons why is, in too many parts in this country, we have voting laws that systematically discriminate against poor people and people of color. It’s important that the very first bill that the Democrats in the House introduced was a bill [against discriminatory voter ID laws] to make our elections fair.

TS:That has not been the case forever. One of the reasons why is, in too many parts in this country, we have voting laws that systematically discriminate against poor people and people of color. It’s important that the very first bill that the Democrats in the House introduced was a bill [against discriminatory voter ID laws] to make our elections fair.

Instead of making it hard for people to register to vote, we ought to make it automatic if they are citizens. Why is it that we draw our legislative districts in such a way that people don’t get represented? We have to fight all of those efforts.

Senator Tina Smith
Solomon Gustavo (l) & Sen. Tina Smith // Photo Credit: Chris Juhn

MSR: This political climate is discouraging all around, but especially so for groups like the Black community. What are ways to get energized and engaged by 2020?
TS: First, let’s just acknowledge that we’re living in a country right now where our president uses all of the tools at his disposal to divide us rather than to unite us.

He engenders fear rather than hope. He tries to turn us against one another. And, a lot of what he does is, I believe, is racist.

I don’t believe that he reflects the values of most Americans. What we all have to do — White people and Black people and everybody — is we all have to rise up and not be silent about this.

Silence is our enemy. We need to speak up for basic American values, social justice, and equality and basic fairness, and that everybody has to have the opportunity to build the lives they want.

What do you do? Well, you vote. Turnout in this last election was dramatically higher than a lot of people anticipated.

Think about the election of Senator Doug Jones of Alabama. Jones won because people said ‘I’m not gonna put up with this anymore. I’m gonna speak out.’ People’s voices are strong, but they have to use them.

Think about who we elected in Minnesota this last year. In addition to Senator Amy Klobuchar and me and Governor Tim Walz, we elected Keith Ellison to be attorney general, the first African American to be elected to a statewide Minnesota office. We elected Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, the first Native woman to be elected anywhere nationally to a statewide office. We elected Ilhan Omar to represent the Fifth District.

So, there is great hope. We’re making progress. But Dr. King said progress does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability. It happens through the tireless work of dedicated individuals.