Meet Senator Tina Smith - DFL Candidate for US Senate
*We are continuing our Meet the Candidates conversations for the November 3rd 2020 elections. We recently talked with Senator Tina Smith (DFL) who is running for reelection. She is running against Jason Lewis (R). You can hear our interview with him here.
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*KAXE/KBXE News and Public Affairs Director Heidi Holtan recently spoke with Senator Tina Smith. The following transcript has been edited for clarity. The audio of this interview is available at the top of this page.
(Heidi Holtan) Q: Senator Tina Smith was appointed to the US Senate in 2018. She won the Senate seat in a special election, and prior to that, she served as Minnesota's Lieutenant Governor under Mark Dayton. She's now running for reelection against Republican Jason Lewis. Senator Smith is back with us on KAXE/KBXE. Thanks for being here.
(Tina Smith) A: Oh, Heidi, it's great to be with you. I'm sorry I'm not with you in person. I understand that there's been a lot of snow falling lately, right?
Q: Yeah, and it stayed. Nobody expected it to stay on the ground.
A: Right. Well, welcome to October in northern Minnesota.
Q: Well, so here we are, living in a pandemic. It's just such a politically divisive time. So many inequities have come forth because of the pandemic, which is good in some ways, but why are you running for reelection in the midst of this really difficult time?
A: Well, as you say, we're in the midst of an economic crisis and a health crisis...the economic crisis brought on by this global pandemic. And, three years ago, when I went to Washington, I went there as Minnesota's senator, because I wanted to do everything I could to help Minnesota...help them in their lives, help them with better childcare, with better economic opportunity. I never could have anticipated that I'd be serving in the Senate in this moment, but that still drives me.
What can I do to be useful to the state that I love so much and the people that I care so much about. And so, I go to Washington every single week trying to figure out what I can do, listening to Minnesotans, and then going to work to try to get things done for people. And I really think in this moment, which as you say is so divisive and there is so much sort of fear and uncertainty and concern, that people are looking for leaders that are about listening and then taking action to make things better. And that's the kind of leadership that I have provided as senator. And I think it's also one of the reasons why listening, and then going to work, I've been able to get so many things done in Washington, even at a time when the city and our federal government has been so, so divided.
Q: What are some of the things you're most proud of that you've done in Washington?
A: Well, I'm very proud of the work that I've been able to do, working with Democrats and Republicans, to help expand rural broadband, and the farm bill, to help provide better mental health care services in schools, the work that I've done to help lower prescription drug prices, [which is] something that I have heard so much about from people in northern Minnesota. There's still so much work left to do.
What I'm excited about right now is the possibility that we can move forward with the pandemic, and through this pandemic, and make this an opportunity to do the things that we know that we need to do. Here's an example: why don't we, out of this economic crisis, use this as a moment to rebuild American manufacturing. Let's use it as a moment to fix our broken childcare system, which means that so many people in northern Minnesota are driving so far to find a good, safe place for their children to be. We can kind of build forward out of this moment. And that's what I want to be able to do, going back to Washington next year, I hope, if Minnesotans elect me.
Q: There's a lot I want to dig into with what you just said, but I also want to talk about the pandemic. We're seeing rising numbers in Minnesota, as they predicted, but I think we all hoped wouldn't happen. Especially in rural areas, the numbers are going up, but people still have a hard time grasping that it is here in rural areas. So what do you think your role is in terms of COVID, and if you're reelected for the people of Minnesota?
A: Well, Heidi, you're so right. We are seeing a significant uptick in cases in Minnesota, especially in rural parts of the state, and I'm greatly concerned about this. I think it shows that with COVID, we're all in this together. Everybody is touched by it one way or another. In the Senate, I'm very proud of the work that we did earlier this year, strong bipartisan work to get direct help to individuals and small businesses. The work that we did, bipartisan work, to expand unemployment insurance and enhance it for people, especially people who are self-employed, that was a big help. And the help that we got to rural hospitals, which is something that I really fought for. I'm really disappointed that we haven't moved another COVID relief act forward, and that is desperately needed. And of course, just yesterday [October 26], Mitch McConnell adjourned the Senate, recessed the Senate until after the election, which means that we're not going to be able to make headway on that.
Honestly, I think that the Trump administration's approach to COVID has been deeply flawed. I think they tried to run away from it. They tried to say that it wasn't a big deal. The president said that it was going to be over really quickly, and we can see now how wrong that is. So now what we have to do is to really double down on the things that we know work, to control the spread of this virus, which can be so dangerous. We have to practice good social distancing and wear masks in public. I think Governor Walz has provided really strong leadership on this. We have to continue to do the work that needs to be done to develop therapeutic drugs for people and medicines for people who are diagnosed with COVID, and then the work that is happening to develop a vaccine for COVID. But in the meantime, we can't walk away from the kind of the nuts and bolts things that we know work: wearing masks, practicing good social distancing. And we know that that saves lives. It saves tens of thousands of lives if people would just do it.
Q: We're talking with DFLer Tina Smith. She is running for reelection to the US Senate. So, in a conversation we had with your opponent, former Congressman Jason Lewis, he described that this hunkering down is not the American way, and that people shouldn't be cowering in place. He even had a lawsuit, that was later dismissed, towards Governor Walz, because he felt the Walz Administration's COVID related restrictions were hampering his campaign. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about those very different ideas from what you just said, and then expand on how the state has handled things.
A: Well, I think that my opponent and others are offering people this false choice between kind of cowering in your basement...and frankly, I don't know anybody who's doing that. I don't even know what he's talking about. I don't even know what that is, but on the one hand sort of cowering and hiding, and so-called lockdown, and on the other hand, having everything be open and ignoring the best science and data about how we keep ourselves safe. And of course, that's not the choice. And that is not what I think most people want to do. What we have to do is to get this virus under control, which we can do. And that is the best way of getting our economy growing again.
And I think that, it's not a political question. It is a question of what we do to keep ourselves and our families safe. Our son and daughter-in-law had our first grandchild in June, and they live just a mile or so away. And I work in Washington, DC. I travel back and forth on airplanes every week. And so, I'm really careful to make sure that I don't inadvertently transmit any germs to them because they're trying to take such good care of my little grandson. That's not locking down anything. That's just doing what I want to do to, because I love my family, and I want to keep them safe. And I think that that is what most people, honestly, are trying to figure out how to do.
Q: Let's talk about the role of women during this pandemic. National Public Radio reported recently on a study that found that these multiple demands on women during the pandemic are causing them to leave the workforce at four times the rate of men. I'm sure this concerns you. What do you think it means? And how's it going to affect women when it comes to things I know you fought for, like pay equity.
A: Well, you can see, can't you, when any of us talk to our friends and our sisters and mothers. I hear this all the time when I'm out talking with Minnesotans...just the level of stress and worry and uncertainty. And often this burden falls particularly heavily on women who are trying to do their jobs and also make sure that their children are following through on their remote learning, or just trying to keep track of everybody's schedule when...are you in school this week or not this week? It's just overwhelming. That's the word that I hear over and over again. It's just overwhelming. And, it would be such a loss to families, and such a loss to our economy if women end up permanently leaving the workforce. We can't afford that, families can't afford that.
So this is one of the reasons that I have been really pushing to get urgent help to childcare centers during this pandemic. The childcare centers in northern Minnesota and all across rural Minnesota were already really struggling before COVID. There aren't enough of them. Many people live in childcare deserts, where there aren't enough childcare providers. And then with COVID, it became even more of a crisis. So that's why I'm pushing hard on this legislation. And there's some bi-partisan support for taking action on this, to get additional help to childcare providers, to help them improve their facilities, to help them get additional training, and to help them stay open during this pandemic, because that's going to be a key thing for women as they go back to work, for women and men, for families, that they have a good, safe place for their, for their children to be.
Another thing that I think is just so vitally important right now is that we protect people's access to healthcare. Healthcare is an economic issue for families, and it's why I've been so opposed to the efforts of this administration to roll back the Affordable Care Act, which is what has provided health insurance to millions of Americans and provided protections for people who might have pre-existing conditions like heart disease or asthma. And of course, now COVID is a pre-existing condition, and there are some people who've had COVID who have lingering health challenges as a result of that. So those are two things that I think that we should do. A third thing I'll just mention quickly is how important it is that we push to expand broadband, especially in the rural areas where there is such a shortage. If you're a woman or a man and you are working from home, and you're trying to help get your child connected up with school, and you're trying to get access to healthcare...I mean, broadband is not just nice, it's essential, and we have so much work to do to get that fairly and equally available to everyone in our communities.
Q: Before we go, I want to give you a chance to respond to something that your opponent said about you. Jason Lewis told us, when we talked about childcare with him, about the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that doubled the childcare credits. He said that you want to repeal that, and he also said in our interview that he believes that people could afford childcare before the pandemic. You've already addressed this somewhat, but I wonder if you want to respond to that.
A: Well, my opponent must not be talking to the very many families in Minnesota who have struggled to afford childcare. Before the pandemic, some families were paying upwards of 30, 40, 50% of their income for childcare. And in fact, childcare for an infant in Minnesota costs about as much as sending a person to a year at the University of Minnesota. So that may be affordable in his book, but it is certainly not affordable to most Minnesotans. He is talking about the big Republican tax cut bill. And of course I oppose...I should say I support providing additional tax credits to families to help pay for childcare. And in fact, that's what I'm pushing for in the United States Senate right now. So, that's just wrong. He's just wrong about that. I did oppose the portions of that bill that sent 80% of the tax benefits, the tax cuts to the richest people in the country and the biggest corporations. I think that that is the wrong priority. That's not putting Minnesota families first. And, I strongly oppose that. After that tax bill passed, 91 of the biggest corporations in this country paid no taxes the next year. And that, to me, is a sign of just the absolute wrong way of going about this.
Q: I want to talk about one more thing before I let you go. I know how busy you are, but let's talk about your role, what you've done, what the future looks like to you when it comes to serving a really important part of the state of Minnesota, and that's our tribal nations.
A: I am so proud of my being able to represent Minnesota's tribal communities, the Dakota and Ojibwe people, and also the urban indigenous communities that we see all across the state, including in Brainerd and Bemidji, and Grand Rapids. I think that it is extremely important to respect the sovereign rights of tribal nations and to be responsible for making sure that the federal government lives up to its treaty and its legal responsibilities, and relationships with tribal communities. I served on the Indian Affairs committee in the Senate, which I'm just so happy to do, and I fought very hard to make sure that tribal governments in Minnesota received resources to help them respond to this COVID pandemic, which has been extremely difficult for them. All of the tribal nations in Minnesota voluntarily shut down their tribal enterprises in the midst of the COVID outbreak in March and April and May, in order to keep their members safe and their communities where they work safe. And that was a very challenging and difficult decision. It not only created unemployment, but it also took a big hit on their tribal revenues. And so I'm fighting right now to make sure that tribal governments get the help that they need to recover from that.
Q: You can find more information on Senator Tina Smith's campaign for reelection at tinaforminnesota.com. Thanks for your time today, Senator.
A: Thank you so much, Heidi. Take care and be well, everyone.