Who is the only current U.S. senator actually born in New Mexico?
Hint: It’s neither Tom Udall (Arizona) nor Martin Heinrich (Nevada).
The correct answer is Tina Flint Smith, the junior senator from Minnesota — a Democrat appointed to fill out the term of former Sen. Al Franken, who stepped down early this year after a sexual harassment scandal.
Smith, who resigned as lieutenant governor of Minnesota to take the Senate seat, may call that state home, but her roots are deep in the high desert, a fact one of her New Mexico colleagues noted when she arrived in Washington, D.C.
“Sen. Heinrich pointed that out to me when I first came here,” Smith said in a phone interview Friday.
Smith, 60, was born in Albuquerque in 1958. And while her official Senate website says she grew up there, she actually spent most of her childhood in Santa Fe. Her father, F. Harlan Flint, a retired lawyer who still lives in town, moved the family to the City Different in 1959.
“I grew up on Cerro Gordo Road in the 1960s,” she said.
Smith is running this year for a full term in the Senate. She’ll be back in her old hometown April 2 for a private campaign fundraising event at the home of former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman.
“Jeff and my father are old friends,” she said.
This won’t be exactly a rare visit for Smith: For the past 10 years or so, she and her husband, Archie Smith, have owed a second home here, “a small casita” on the city’s east side.
“Probably my fondest memories are running around in the foothills above Cerro Gordo,” she added. “This was before there were any houses up there. Also playing down in the Santa Fe River.”
The recollections are plentiful for the kid who attended Manderfield and Acequia Madre elementary schools.
Manderfield was an elementary school on Canyon Road that closed in the 1970s. It’s since been converted into a residential development.
There were the days of going to the Plaza with friends, Smith said, and the days of heading to Doodlet’s store; of eating white chocolate at Señor Murphy’s candy store; of traveling to the Santa Fe ski area.
“My parents put me on skis when I was probably about 5 years old,” she said. “I have a vivid memory of being on the Poma lift. As a child, your first inclination is to sit down. I remember my father yelling, ‘Stand up! Stand up!’ ”
One family friend from Santa Fe said Smith exhibited “fearlessness,” even as a young girl.
Longtime local resident Marie White said in an email: “The first time she came to our house on Canyon Road, when she was about 2 years old, I went to hand her a large toy teddy bear that made a rather fierce, growling noise. … Terrified, she said in her very deep voice, ‘Bear won’t hurt you!’ She convinced herself.”
Marie White’s son, Santa Fe lawyer Pete White, also recalled Smith as a child. “I remember having Tina over at our house as a kid when she went to Manderfield. I thought she was pretty and nice and didn’t beat me up like some of my older sisters’ friends did.”
In those years, Flint recalls his daughter as “cheerful and gregarious” — a kid who seemed more interested in piano than politics, he said.
That his daughter would grow up to be a member of the U.S. Senate, he said, was a big surprise. “It never occurred to us.”
In the ’60s, Flint worked as the chief attorney with the State Engineer’s Office in Santa Fe. In 1970, the family left town, moving to Alaska.
After graduating from high school, Smith worked on the Trans-Alaska pipeline the summer before attending Stanford University. She worked in the kitchen at a construction camp at Prudhoe Bay. “I wasn’t allowed to touch anything hot or sharp,” she recalled.
She earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science at Stanford, then a Master of Business Administration at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
She moved to Minnesota in the 1980s and took a marketing job with General Mills. By the early 1990s, she’d become a partner in a political and media consulting firm, and in 1998, she managed the campaign of Ted Mondale — son of former Vice President Walter Mondale — for governor of Minnesota.
In 2002, after U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash while campaigning for re-election, Flint managed Walter Mondale’s last-minute and ultimately unsuccessful Senate bid.
“Mr. Mondale has been a great mentor to Tina,” Flint said. “They have lunch every week or two.”
Smith in 2003 became vice president for public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and the Dakotas for three years. In that job, she was following in her dad’s footsteps; Flint had been on the board of Planned Parenthood of Ohio decades before that.
Smith, a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which is affiliated with the national Democratic Party, became chief of staff for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak in 2006. Four years later, she managed Rybak’s unsuccessful primary race for governor. She then began working for Mark Dayton, the winner of the Minnesota DFL primary who would go on to win the general election. Dayton hired Smith as his chief of staff.
In 2014, Dayton convinced Smith to run for lieutenant governor.
Last year, when Franken announced his resignation, Smith’s name quickly emerged as Franken’s most likely replacement. Dayton appointed her and she took her oath of office in January.
Besides her father, one of her two brothers, Harlan M. Flint, lives in Santa Fe. Her mother, Christine Flint, who was a retired teacher — and frequent writer of Letters to the Editor published in The New Mexican — died in 2016.
“I haven’t been able to go there much this year, so I’m really looking forward to it,” she said, referring to her upcoming trip to Santa Fe.
“Even after we moved,” she said, “New Mexico remained my family’s home base.”
Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at http://www.santafenewmexican.com/roundhouse_roundup.