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My shout-out to Sen. Jeff Smith for his role in state politics

Friday, September 4, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:36 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Former state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, who resigned last week in light of an ethics scandal, first showed up on my doorstep nearly a quarter century ago.

He came that sunny afternoon not to talk politics or ask for my vote but rather to babysit while my parents were out. Already he had made history, in my mind anyway, as my first babysitter on record who was shorter than me. 

Any doubt of his capability was quickly dispelled, however, by his athletic prowess as he went on to soundly defeat me at soccer, baseball, football and any other hybrids we invented.

A few years later, I witnessed Smith’s first political campaign as he ran for senior class president at Ladue Horton Watkins High School in St. Louis County. Addressing my freshmen class during a debate, Smith’s opponent, of the bouncy cheerleader ilk, had the nerve to joke that if elected she would implement a minimum height requirement for the basketball team. 

Smith, who went on to play varsity basketball for a team that won the district championship for the first time in our school’s history, retorted that “What we really need to do is to get rid of smart-alecks like her.” 

Perhaps you had to be there to grasp the full gravity of Smith’s comeback, but it lit up our auditorium. Backed by the vote of every adolescent boy ever dissed by a popularity queen, Smith won handily. 

The underdog mentality carried Smith into his political career, when in 2004 he ran in the Democratic primary for the U.S. House of Representatives. The front-runner, Russ Carnahan, was a dreadful public speaker with few qualifications other than being the son of former Gov. Mel Carnahan (Russ’ sister is Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan). Smith lost to Carnahan but managed to place second in a field of 10, a feat chronicled in the prizewinning documentary "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" Two years later he was elected to the Missouri  Senate. 

By the time I reached the state Capitol as a radio reporter last semester and caught up with my long-lost schoolmate, Smith was being touted as the future mayor of St. Louis, and more.

Politics rarely has the power to surprise me anymore, but I didn't see this one coming. I was stunned when I received Smith’s letter of resignation via e-mail, because of a federal investigation that unearthed a financial link between his 2004 campaign and a supposedly independent group that circulated mailers targeting Carnahan.  

Call me a cynic, but my first reaction was disbelief that what Smith did was a crime. Doesn’t every political campaign pay for attack ads nowadays? And if an independent group is running attack ads on its own accord, do we really expect its members to avoid any and all contact with the political camp they support? Much like getting busted for a fake ID at a bar, federal campaign finance laws strike me as the sort of rules that many break but few suffer the full consequences for doing so.

Did Smith show poor judgment? Absolutely. Was he the only sitting congressmen to have pulled this kind of move? I doubt it.

As with every political scandal from Watergate on down, however, it’s the cover-up that smells worse than the crime. America can’t stand a liar, and Smith did cop to lying when federal investigators forced him to sign an affidavit. He now faces up to 20 years in prison on two counts — conspiring and attempting to obstruct an investigation by the Federal Election Commission and conspiring to obstruct a federal grand jury — not to mention a $250,000 fine.

But at least Smith did the honorable thing and resigned. What I find telling is the number of Republicans who have lent their support. Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, and House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, for example, have jointly praised Smith for his hard work and bipartisanship. And Smith’s politics weren’t conservative. He worked to secure funding for urban school districts, promoted green taxes for eco-friendly consumer goods and sponsored an annual basketball tournament/community resource fair. Democrats, meanwhile, have been largely mum on the subject of their former colleague. They can at least give him credit for coming clean.

Political dynasties are hardly rarities nowadays, and Missouri is no exception. In addition to household names like Carnahan and Blunt, U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, holds the same seat as his father, and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is the son of a former legislator.

But Jeff Smith, for whatever else you can say about him, built himself up by the American bootstraps of lore, starting with a grass-roots campaign of collegiate volunteers. He really was the modern-day Mr. Smith portrayed onscreen by James Stewart, bringing a youthful spirit and vigor. And, until last week, Smith symbolized a new breed of politician, one who represented a diverse district in a historically segregated city, and who sported a crossover dribble as wicked as his Ph.D. in political science.  

He will be missed.

Brian Jarvis is a journalism graduate student at MU and a producer for the "Global Journalist" radio show. 


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Comments

Andrew Del-Colle September 4, 2009 | 4:57 p.m.

Great column. Thanks for the interesting read and unique perspective, Brian.

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