Senator Tina Smith’s First Floor Speech
I am so proud to be here. This is my first time speaking here on the Senate floor. And because I represent the great state of Minnesota, I thought I’d do the polite thing and start by properly introducing myself.
I came to Minnesota right after business school, just married, with my husband, Archie; our beat-up orange car; and a ton of student loans.
You know, most people who’ve never been to Minnesota know us for our weather, but we have a thriving business community with a number of Fortune 500 companies. And I got my start working for one of them: General Mills.
The winters were every bit as cold as we’d heard. But Archie and I fell in love with it anyway. And before long, we started putting down roots.
We had two sons: Sam and Mason. Instead of just building a career, suddenly we were building a life.
I’m so glad that Archie, and my dad Harlan, whose 88th birthday is this Saturday, could come to Washington to cheer me on today.
Anyway. That’s the story of how I became a Minnesotan. The story of how I wound up here in the Senate really starts in 1990. I had left General Mills and started a small business that I ran out of our house. Sam was three, Mason was one. It was a busy, exciting and happy time for us.
But my parents raised me to believe that, if you’re truly going to be part of a community, it’s not enough just to pay your taxes and keep your lawn nice and say hi at the grocery store. You have to find a way to get involved in civic life.
When I was young, they’d been involved in local politics. So I looked around the community where Archie and I had decided to raise our kids, and saw that we had a state senator who was really out of touch with the values my neighbors and I shared. Not only that, there was a young, energetic candidate running against her — and he had young kids, just like us.
In those days, campaigns tended to put their focus on traditional neighborhoods with single-family homes. I guess the idea was that, if you own your own home, that probably means you’re old enough to be likely to vote and invested enough in your community to really care about what’s happening.
But a lot of my neighbors lived in apartment buildings. And they had things to say about the way things were going, too. Frankly, they were kind of tired of being ignored.
Besides, the way I’ve always seen it, if you really listen to people, you’ll find that everybody has a story worth hearing. Everybody has a problem worth working to solve. And, when it comes to making big decisions as a community, everybody deserves a seat at the table.
So I packed up the stroller with Sam and Mason, and went off to organize in the apartment buildings in my neighborhood. People were surprised to see me. But I had a great time. I got to know my neighbors, I asked them questions, I listened to the answers. We built relationships.
And the guy I was organizing for became the first Democrat to win that state senate seat in a decade.
After that, I stayed involved in campaigns and causes I cared about — especially when it came to women’s issues. My dad had been on the board of Planned Parenthood in Ohio, and I got a chance to work for Planned Parenthood in Minnesota.
And then, one day, I got a call from the mayor of Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak. He’d been in office for a few years, and was working on a whole range of challenges — starting with an epidemic of violence among young people.
R.T. is a creative thinker, and he thought that, if I brought my business experience to the position of chief of staff, we could do some good work together. I was intrigued. So I made the leap.
It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I loved the challenges that came with the job. And later, I held the same job for the governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton.
And then, one day, to my utter shock, Governor Dayton asked me to run with him and serve as lieutenant governor.
I’ll be honest: It took some getting used to. When it comes to public service, I’ve always been a lot more comfortable with the “service” part than the “public” part.
But the job involved a lot of the same skills I used in my business career: building relationships, looking for new solutions to old problems, and creating coalitions to get things done.
It involved a lot of my favorite part of politics: listening to people’s stories.
You know, a lot of times, when a big, powerful politician walks into a room full of people, everybody kind of clams up and waits for him to say what’s on his mind.
After all, that’s why they came. And at the end, he maybe has time for a couple questions before he has to run off to the next event, but there’s rarely a chance to have a real conversation.
And this is where being kind of a low-key person worked to my advantage. I’d go into coffee shops or community centers or even people’s homes, and I’d introduce myself, and then I’d just ask people questions. What’s going on with your family? What have the last few months been like for you? What’s keeping you up at night?
And that’s when people would really start to open up.
You know, it’s one thing to go around the table at a forum and have someone say,
Health care is my big issue.
But when you’re in someone’s living room, and you’re drinking the coffee they made — Minnesotans love coffee — and you’ve met their dog, you get a chance to hear what that means. You hear stories like this:
I just went to visit my mom in a nursing home. She’s 40 miles away, and with the kids in soccer and karate and the school band, I’m so busy, I really only get out to see her a couple times a month. The nurses are really great, they work so hard, but they only stay for six months, because they get hired away by a big hospital system that can pay them more.
So I worry that my mom has to get used to new nurses all the time. And I wish there was some way these nurses could get paid what they’re worth without having to leave.
I can’t tell you how much those conversations mean to me. And so, I made Minnesotans’ living rooms my office. And I spent as much time as I could just talking with people about their lives.
I’ve always found that when you ask people what they think — and really listen to what they say in response instead of just waiting for the answer you were looking for — that’s when you really start to get a sense of what you can do to help make their lives better.
And now that I have this opportunity to serve the people of Minnesota in Washington, I’m focused on the issues they tell me about when we’re sitting on their couch, surrounded by family pictures, and talking about their lives.
And the thing that keeps coming up in these conversations is a very simple, but very powerful idea. And that’s freedom.
In this country, you’re supposed to have the freedom to build the kind of life you want to have. And not just the freedom — the opportunity.
And if you’re putting in 16, 18 hour days and still struggling to make rent and put food on the table, let alone pay for child care. . .
Or if you’ve got a kid who doesn’t want to go to a four-year college and you have no idea how he or she is going to find a decent job after high school. . .
Or if someone in your family is sick and the cost of their medicine blows a gaping hole in your monthly budget. . .
Well, then you aren’t getting that opportunity — are you? You don’t have that freedom.
Minnesotans who aren’t getting that opportunity — who are being denied that freedom — they deserve to have their voices heard in Washington. That’s the kind of Senator I intend to be.
So, that’s the story of how I came to be here and what I want my work here to be about.
But I am also well aware that the way the story sometimes gets told out here in Washington, it’s not a story about me at all. Sometimes, I’m barely even a character in the story.
Instead, it’s a story about the man who held this seat before me — a man I consider to be a good friend and a champion for the progressive values that brought me into politics.
Or sometimes it’s a broader story about how we should hold powerful men accountable for their actions, and about the hope so many of us have that this moment represents the turning of a tide.
And you know what? I get it. I understand that.
My presence here in the Senate will always be seen by some as a symbol of the “broader conversation” we’re having about the experience of women in America. And so I thought I give my perspective about where I hope that conversation goes.
My grandmother Avis was born in 1898. She was 17 years old when the suffragettes crashed Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration to demand the franchise. And she grew up to be the president of a small community bank in rural Indiana, at a time when such a thing was unheard of.
She didn’t seize it in a hostile takeover or anything. Her father had owned the bank, and he had three daughters, so the only way to keep the bank in the family was to pass it on to them. Which he did. And then, instead of handing it over to their husbands, my grandmother and her sisters went ahead and ran it themselves.
Avis’s daughter — my mother Chris — was 33 years old the year Griswold vs. Connecticut was decided, confirming that married women have the right to contraception and, thus, control of their futures. But when Mom graduated from college a few years earlier, the options for women were still pretty limited.
Mom wanted to be a journalist. But her father told her she’d better come out of school prepared with a career that would allow her to take care of herself. And back then, that meant being a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher. Mom picked teacher.
We lost Mom not quite two years ago to Alzheimer’s. And she was an inspiration to me. I think she would have been an incredible journalist.
But Mom didn’t sit around and feel sorry for herself. Like her mother before her, she was a fighter who figured out how to make the best possible life for herself and the people she loved, no matter what constraints anyone else tried to impose on her.
As for me, I was 16 the year of Roe v. Wade. Growing up at a time of incredible progress for women. And with women like my mother and my grandmother in my family tree — I believed it when my Mom and Dad told me I could do whatever I wanted to do when I grew up.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t notice the way the world worked.
I graduated from business school in 1984. That year, the big story among MBA types was about Mary Cunningham. She was a brilliant woman: When she graduated from Harvard Business School, the dean had said she might someday become Harvard’s first female graduate to become chairman of a non-cosmetic company. Which was what passed for a compliment back then. And, indeed, she went on to become one of the first women who ever held a senior leadership role in a Fortune 100 company.
But that’s not why she was famous. Mary was famous because of gossip that she’d slept her way to the top of the corporate ladder.
That was the context when young women like me started in business. I remember that my graduating class at business school was more than a third women — but we all dressed like men. Suits and white shirts and even red power ties. We were dressing for a world where women could dream of professional success — but where the best way for a woman to succeed was to pass as a man.
I’ve been fortunate in my career, and in my life. I’ve always been surrounded by strong women and thoughtful men. I don’t have a horror story to share like the ones we’ve heard from so many women in this #MeToo moment — or the millions of similar stories that have gone unheard simply because the men in those stories aren’t famous.
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.
The day Governor Dayton announced that he was appointing me to fill this Senate seat, I stood next to him feeling proud and excited and ready to serve the people of Minnesota.
And why not? Here I was, with a graduate degree, having worked at General Mills and started my own business, having managed 34,000 people and a multi-billion dollar budget as chief of staff for the governor, having served as lieutenant governor. And then a reporter raised his hand and asked a question:
“So, do you think you’ll be able to do this? How are you ever going to raise the money?”
And, like a lot of women, I sort of brushed it off. It’s like when you get asked to clean up after the office party, even though it isn’t your job and you’re pretty sure the boss wouldn’t have asked a man to do it. You learn to deal with stuff like this.
The indignities are one thing. But there are also a lot of injustices that hold women back, and a lot of them start with the policy that gets made right here in Washington.
There’s the stuff that gets lots of attention: trying to defund Planned Parenthood, which millions of women rely on for health care, rolling back women’s access to contraception and abortion, standing in the way of equal pay for equal work.
And then there’s the stuff that you only really understand when you listen to the realities of women’s lives.
The high cost of child care isn’t a “women’s issue,” per se — but who winds up having to drop out of the workforce when a family can’t afford child care? Women do!
The high cost of prescription drugs isn’t a “women’s issue,” per se — but who winds up shouldering the responsibility of caring for aging parents? Women do!
And just last month, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court decided that employers should be able to force workers into signing mandatory arbitration agreements that prohibit them from going to court when they’re mistreated.
And that wasn’t a “women’s issue,” per se, either, but millions of women who are being sexually harassed or abused in the workplace lost their ability to seek justice in the process.
All these things add up to a world in which women are unfairly denied that freedom I was talking about earlier — the freedom to build the lives they want. We may have moved past the days when that freedom depended on your father or your husband, but much of it still depends on the policies that get made here in Washington, and we are letting too many women down, leaving too many women behind.
Now, you don’t have to be a woman to care about these problems, or to be part of the solution. In fact, Senator Franken led the fight to ban those mandatory arbitration clauses when he was serving in this seat.
But the fact is that a lot of these problems have endured because women haven’t been at the table here in Washington.
I was the 51st woman to take the oath of office as a United States Senator — but we’ve had 50 different men just named Charles.
You can slice the numbers a million different ways. They’re all sobering.
But it is changing. Since I took the office, my friend from Mississippi became the Senate’s 52nd-ever woman — and 27th-ever “Smith.”
Or, put it this way: Nearly half of all the women who have ever served in the United States Senate are serving right now.
So instead of my place in the Senate reminding people of all the ways in which women have been held back from contributing to our country, I want it to be a reminder of the contributions women can make when we have the freedom to do so.
One of the best things about my time here so far has been getting to know the other women of the Senate. Some of us are very progressive Democrats, and others of us are very conservative Republicans. But we all get together once a month, and once we start talking — and listening — we usually find a lot of common ground.
Sometimes, it’s really unexpected common ground. My friend Lisa Murkowski and I have something in common. Turns out, we both worked on the Trans-Alaska pipeline on the North Slope of Alaska. I know, I don’t look like someone who worked on a pipeline, but after high school, I joined the union and spent a summer working in the kitchen at a construction camp up on Prudhoe Bay. It was only an entry-level job — I wasn’t allowed to touch anything hot or sharp. But it was a really interesting summer, and, all these years later, it gave me and Lisa something to talk about.
And once we started talking about that, we found ourselves talking about something else we have in common: we’re both really concerned about the fact that kids in rural communities don’t have access to the mental health services they need. We’ve both met with too many parents and teachers who worry that kids are slipping through the cracks.
So, we decided to team up, and now we have a bipartisan bill to bring mental health professionals in the National Health Service Corps into more schools so more kids who need help can get it.
The truth is, when women are empowered to contribute more fully, we all benefit. We’ve seen it in our economy over the last generation. We’re seeing it in our politics, as women drive the resistance to policies that hurt working people and leave our children vulnerable to gun violence. We’re seeing it more and more here in the Senate. And I’m proud to be part of that.
I know that I’m always going to be known in part for the circumstances that brought me here
But I’ll tell you what I told that reporter who asked whether I thought I’d be able to handle this job: Do not underestimate me.
I believe that, as a woman, and as a progressive, and as a Minnesotan, I have a lot to contribute to this body, and to the work we do here.
I intend to stand up to this administration when it attacks the values I believe in, but I’m also ready to listen, ready to learn, and so ready to work with anyone who wants to expand freedom and opportunity for women — and men — across this country.
I believe we can find ways to work together and make some progress for the people we represent.
And I’ll tell you something else: I believe we can actually enjoy doing it.
I know that’s not a trendy thing to say. I know we’re supposed to come here and immediately start complaining about how broken everything is, and how horrible the other side is, and how much we hate these jobs we spend all this time and money campaigning for.
And, I have to say, I don’t get it. I think it’s so amazing that we get to go out and talk with people about their lives, and bring their ideas and their concerns to the table here in Washington, and try to find ways to make progress for them.
I grew up out west, in New Mexico. In fact, Senator Udall and Senator Heinrich tell me I’m the only Senator currently serving born in New Mexico.
Our town was sort of informally divided into two parts. And mine was one of the only white families in our neighborhood, which was mostly populated by Hispanic families that had been there for generations. Most of the kids I grew up around spoke Spanish at home.
And so, from a very early age, I grew up with this sense that everyone around me had something different to offer.
My parents sent me to the public school in our neighborhood, and my school frankly lacked some of the resources that the schools where more of the white kids went had. So my parents got involved. My dad joined the school board, and my mom volunteered. And they both devoted part of their lives to making things better.
And, you know what? They loved it. My parents loved talking with other parents about what was going on at the school, and brainstorming ideas to help make things better, and working to put those ideas into action.
So, I was raised to believe that the world is full of people who share the same hopes and dreams, but have very different experiences and perspectives. And that part of being a good citizen is to go out and listen to those different experiences and perspectives and do your part to help. And that it can even be fun.
Maybe that’s why Minnesota was the right place for me to go into public service. Minnesotans really like doing the hard work of democracy.
We vote in higher numbers than anyone.
We like talking about the issues of the day in the checkout line at the supermarket — along with the weather, which we really love talking about.
And we almost always elect people who enjoy working to improve the lives of others.
And there’s no better example of that than my friend and senior senator, Amy Klobuchar. She’s effective because she doesn’t buy into the cynicism. She really believes that, by listening to people and working hard to make a difference for them, progress is possible. And she proves it every day.
The same was true for my predecessor, Senator Franken, who brought not just wit, but heart and passion, to his work. And it’s been true for a long line of Minnesotans, from Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale to Paul Wellstone, and David Durenberger.
The other thing you learn when you spend a lot of time listening to Minnesotans is just how hard they’re willing to work to create opportunity for their families. They deserve a Senator who will work just as hard on their behalf. And I’m not just ready to do that, I’m excited to do it.
I know there will be some rough days here in the Senate. As the other 22 women in this chamber will tell you, the indignities and injustices don’t stop just because you get elected to the world’s greatest deliberative body.
But what an honor, to have the chance to do this work alongside all of you! And with my mother and grandmother behind me, I’m so thrilled to be here. And I’m full of hope about the progress we can make together.
Thank you. I yield the floor.