Tina Smith: Roots of Activism

In 1990 I got involved in Minnesota politics when I volunteered for a state senate campaign in St. Louis Park. My husband Archie and I had moved to Minnesota six years before, newly married, to start our lives together. We had two young sons. Archie was working around the clock and I was running my small business while taking care of the boys. My hands were full.

My parents believed strongly in activism and community service. My father served on the school board in the town where I grew up, and my mother was active in the League of Women Voters. It was in my DNA to get involved.

In that 1990 campaign, we challenged an incumbent legislator who was anti-choice and much more conservative than the increasingly progressive district. I didn’t know a soul, and didn’t know the district, but I was a hard worker, so the campaign gave me responsibility for organizing apartment buildings, of which there were many. The conventional wisdom was that people living in apartment buildings wouldn’t vote – they were young, transient, and not connected to the community. We proved that conventional wisdom wrong.

I drove from building to building, often with my little boys napping in their car seats, found every apartment building, counted how many people lived there, and figured out how we could get inside to knock on doors. Then we organized volunteers to talk to residents and register them to vote. The vast majority of them felt strongly about protecting women’s health and the pocketbook issues that impacted their families.

We won the election with half a percentage point to spare, and my life was changed forever.

The question of how we work together for change, for me, comes back to the basics I learned in this first campaign. And though I have chosen to pursue elected politics and government as my path for helping improve people’s lives, I believe these basic values hold true regardless of how you choose to work for change.

First, everyone needs to be included. Everyone. When the conventional wisdom tells us that this group or that group won’t participate, we shouldn’t listen to it. Our strength grows when we open doors.

Second, “organize, organize, organize.” I quote Paul Wellstone, who waged his first winning campaign in 1990, the same year I first dipped my toe into Minnesota politics. Paul showed us that good organizing wins elections and puts people before money.

Third, remember that we don’t know what we don’t know. My friend, mentor and political partner Mark Dayton keeps a sign in his office that says, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” His political mentor, Rudy Perpich, passed this down to him. It is a reminder to stay curious, to seek out different points of view, and to welcome diversity in people, experiences and ideas.

Finally, I would say the most important value is optimism and our conviction, as Barbara Jordan said, that “we have a positive vision of the future founded on the belief that the gap between the promise and the reality of America can one day finally be closed.” We must never lose our sense of optimism that we can change the world for the better, and it is our responsibility to do so.

Tina Smith is Minnesota’s Lieutenant Governor.