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They call Tina Smith the 'velvet hammer.' Here's why.

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith speaks during an interview at a Havana, Cuba, hotel, Thursday, June 22, 2017. Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters1 / 4
Lieutenant Gov. Tina Smith reads to a class during her September 2017 visit to Paul Bunyan Elementary in Bemidji, Minn. Jillian Gandsey / Forum News Service2 / 4
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith holds the pheasant she shot while joining Rep. Collin Peterson during the 2016 Governor's Pheasant Opener in Montevideo, Minn. Peterson applauded the appointment of Smith to the U.S. Senate representing Minnesota, crediting her with being "a good shot." Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service3 / 4
A smiling Gov. Mark Dayton watches new Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith speak Monday, Jan. 5, 2015, after she was sworn into office. Don Davis / Forum News Service4 / 4

ST. PAUL — Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith is known around the Capitol as the "velvet hammer."

She has a sweet smile for everyone and forms personal friendships with political rivals. But she also talks straight to skeptical Iron Rangers and even climbed down into a sewer duct to promote a favored project.

Now Smith is taking those traits to Washington, after Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday, Dec. 13, selected her to replace U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who intends to resign after being accused of sexually improper conduct by several women.

In the governor's office, Dayton is boss but Smith has been a steady voice setting a calm tone even in the midst of political turmoil.

Former state Senate Republican Leader Amy Koch recalled Smith using her "velvet" skills to help them get through some tough state budget negotiations during the final hours of the 2011 legislative session.

"There was a moment when everyone was exhausted ... and I was also trying to deal with (a personal issue) with my daughter." Koch said. "Tina and I went into her office and talked about it. It was a very kind, human moment with her."

But she said Smith also was "professional, polite, well-organized and really strong" in bargaining with Republican lawmakers.

Other Republicans have depicted Smith as a "big-city liberal" who's out of touch with the rest of Minnesota. But she probably has traveled more of the state and made more personal connections than any previous lieutenant governor.

For example, last year when she learned that Jeff Flaten, the mayor of tiny Dennison in Goodhue County, had to climb down into a sewer duct at the edge of town every day to make sure the obsolete lift pumps were working, she invited reporters and photographers to accompany her to the site, calling attention to the mayor's plight by climbing into the sewer with him.

Flaten later credited Smith with helping Dennison get a $726,000 grant from the Legislature to replace the unsafe pumps.

Tony Sertich, former commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, said Smith "really connected with Rangers, whether it be a steelworker, a nurse, a teacher or the folks behind the bar at Valentini's Supper Club in Chisholm."

Throughout her tenure first as Dayton's chief of staff and for the past three years as lieutenant governor, Sertich said, Smith has been a frequent visitor who worked hard at building relationships with northeastern Minnesotans.

"We Rangers like folks who are straight talkers, who tell it like it is and put their cards on the table," he said. "That's the sort of person she is ... but she does it in a nicer way than most folks.

"That's why she got the nickname 'the velvet hammer.'"

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a close friend, characterized Smith as smart, charming, energetic and honest to a fault.

"The part of her that is not well known — but will be — is she's a strong, tough person," Mondale said.

She'll need to be tough because as an appointee, critics will assume she's weak, he said. "That was the rap on me when I was appointed to the Senate (in 1964). They said I had no guts.

"But I got elected to everything but president. ... Now Tina's going to have to prove that it's a false rap on her."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.