Quick! Name the last three lieutenant governors of the great state of Minnesota. OK, how about one?

It’s no secret that the position flies under nearly everybody’s radar, mainly because it’s a job with no actual duties other than waiting.

But while State Rep. Phyllis Kahn is pushing to abolish the office, I say, not so fast.

If Tina Smith — named Tuesday as Gov. Mark Dayton’s running mate — lands the job of lieutenant governor, we could be in for one of the most interesting political upgrades in a long time.

Let’s hope so. Because the governor’s announcement reminds us that we have other major upgrades to make when it comes to women in political leadership.

While the competent and well-liked Smith could join a three-decades-long list of female Minnesota lieutenant governors, (or maybe a still unnamed Republican female running mate will hold the post,) we need to ask ourselves why none of these women has yet used it as a springboard to run for governor.

(The late Rudy Perpich was the last No. 2 to make that leap, in 1976).

Progressive Minnesota has never, in fact, had a female governor and things aren’t rosier across the country in 2014.

Currently, there are just five female governors (four Republicans and one Democrat) and 10 lieutenant governors (six Republicans and four Democrats).

“For years, I was active in a group looking at women in politics,” said Debra Petersen, an associate professor in the Communication and Journalism Department at the University of St. Thomas.

“And, every year or two, people would ask me, ‘Debra, what the heck? We expect more from Minnesota,’?” said Petersen, who researches women and politics.

Amy Klobuchar certainly helped our progressive image, Petersen said. While Muriel Humphrey Brown was appointed to husband Hubert Humphrey’s U.S. Senate seat following his death, Klobuchar was the first woman elected to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate, in 2006.

While Klobuchar campaigned on her professional skills, and not her gender, she understands that gender is still the elephant in the room.

“I really ran on my record as a prosecutor,” Klobuchar said Wednesday. “It’s very important to see people for their experiences. On the other hand, there is a yearning for more women in office. Our numbers are low.”

So maybe we need to also ask if it’s time to rehab the role of second-in-command, creating expectations around it, making it legitimately more of a partnership with the governor, and a training ground for the state’s top office.

Since 1974, the governor and lieutenant governor have been elected on the same ballot. Many lieutenants have been chosen over the years for political or geographic balancing, although that is not the case with Dayton and Smith, who both live in Minneapolis.

The state Constitution mandates the lieutenant governor, whose annual salary is about $80,000, take over if there is “a vacancy from any cause whatever.” And not much else. 

Until that happens, expect to attend funerals, be creative in playing to your strengths and have a strong ego.

In announcing her decision to not remain on the ticket for Dayton’s second-term bid, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon spoke proudly of her work on health care and seniors.

But she admitted that she had “expected to be more involved in some policy initiatives and I found ways to do that.” It would be a shame if this experience turned Prettner Solon, a former DFL state senator and Duluth City Council president, away from leadership.

It also would be a shame if Smith can’t continue to lead boisterously in the lieutenant governor role, if elected.

Formerly Dayton’s chief of staff, she graduated from Stanford University and has an MBA from Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. She worked for General Mills and is a former vice president for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. She got the Vikings stadium deal back on track, and was tapped by Dayton to land a multibillion-dollar, state-backed expansion of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Most intriguing, her insider status means she’s had lots of practice at working well with her boss. In a 2013 profile of Smith, written by Star Tribune political reporter Baird Helgeson, Dayton described Smith “as a natural leader, very charismatic, very smart.”

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak was quoted as saying Smith jumps into, instead of away from, problems and was known as “the velvet hammer” around City Hall.


This will be her first foray into personal campaigning. Klobuchar, a friend and fan of Smith’s, believes she could be the necessary turning point for this little-known office, turning up the heat.


“Vice President Walter Mondale was the first person to create much more of a partnership with the president,” Klobuchar said. “Similarly, she could create a different model than we’ve seen in the past.”