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‘It’s my job to get at it’: U.S. Sen. Tina Smith meets with voters in Winona

During a stop at Winona’s Blooming Grounds Coffee House Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith accepted a package of the shop’s Velvet Hammer coffee beans and told the audience she’d been given that nickname in a previous job.

“I think it’s because I could persuade people who maybe didn’t want to do exactly the right thing, that they were going to do the right thing and it was really all their idea,” she said.

Smith, a DFL candidate, previously served as the state’s lieutenant governor and replaced former U.S. Sen. Al Franken after he was accused of sexual misconduct. Now running against Republican state Sen. Karin Housley to keep her seat, polls show Smith has a slight lead but remains somewhat unfamiliar to voters — a problem she said President Donald Trump actually helped her with when he stumped in Rochester earlier in October.

She and Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota’s other representative in the U.S. Senate, were together in Washington, D.C., to watch his speech, she said, and it was “shocking” to hear him repeat her name.

“ ‘Tina Smith, Tina Smith, who’s Tina Smith?’ ” she recalled. “And I started to smile, because I was like, ‘Say my name a few more times.’ And then I thought, ‘Mr. President, you better get to know me, because I’m going to be around for awhile.’”

Smith said her biggest priority if elected would be to lower health care costs, including the cost of prescription drugs, as well as broadening access to higher education and closing the gap between the jobs that are being created and the skills people have. In an earlier campaign stop near Cannon Falls, she said she spoke with a family of farmers who spend $34,000 per year on health care.

“In this great country, we ought to be able to do better than that,” she said.

Kathy and Greg Peterson and Billy Curmano said they attended because they’d never heard Smith in person. Kathy said she and her husband always vote, but they “want to be more engaged this time.” She’s also planning to drive people to the polls on Election Day.

Curmano, an independent, said he regularly signs petitions but added that he often doesn’t feel he has to petition Smith or Klobuchar on the issue at hand because he knows they’re already thinking about it.

Kathy agreed, citing the senators’ willingness to be voices of moderation.

“I think they both feel, down to their DNA, that people need to work together,” she said, “and that people who think differently are not the enemy. (It’s) extremely admirable.”

Smith herself echoed that notion, saying that if one listens hard enough it’s always possible to find a place where there’s common ground on an issue. She said the most enjoyable part of making campaign stops throughout the state is listening to those stories and thinking about how they can impact her work in Washington.

“What people say to me over and over again is that they are so tired of this politics of blame and division, the hatefulness that they hear and they see,” she said. “I feel like it’s my job to get at it and show people that this government can work for them.”

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