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A conversation with Jeff Smith

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Posted: Wednesday, December 8, 2010 12:00 am

Former state Sen. Jeff Smith was one of the biggest newsmakers in St. Louis politics in recent years. After a brash but unsuccessful run for U.S. Congress as an unknown, chronicled in a documentary film, he won an election for the Missouri Senate, where he was an active and controversial legislator until August 2009, when he pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct justice and was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison.

He lied to federal investigators who looked into a previous investigation of breaking election laws in his 2004 primary contest against Russ Carnahan for the U.S. Congress.

As Smith’s political stature in the Legislature grew, his political alliances and enemies often put him in the sights of the EYE – until the federal investigation, aided by a wiretap worn by Smith’s friend state Rep. Steve Brown, led to his resignation and prosecution.

A free man now after an early release for good behavior, Smith spoke to The American about where he goes from here – and helped set the record straight about an old sell-out allegation.

The St. Louis American: Clarify for the public what your felony record means for your rights as a citizen in the political process.

Jeff Smith: I can't vote until I'm off paper (probation). Then I can vote again. I should be OK by the 2012 elections, assuming everything goes well. I can’t run for state office, but if I wanted I could run for federal office. I don’t see that happening.

The American: You crime was federal, but you are limited only from running for state office? Is that because you were a state officeholder when you violated the law?

Jeff Smith: My crime was federal, yes. But federal felons can run for federal office. Congressman Alcee Hastings, for instance, was convicted of bribery from when he was a federal judge, then ran for Congress successfully. Felons are barred from running for state office, I believe. It doesn't have anything to do with the fact that I was a state officeholder.

The American: Speaking of federal office, your problems date back to a congressional bid, when Russ Carnahan won the Democratic primary against you, narrowly. Then you got out of prison just as he was defending his seat in a general election. Was that a race you watched closely?

Jeff Smith: Although I strongly disagree with many of his views, I thought Ed Martin ran an energetic campaign. Conversely, I agree with most of Rep. Carnahan's views and votes, though he appeared to run a relatively lackluster campaign, from my perspective. (Of course, I was gone for much of the cycle.) In my neighborhood, Shaw, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, yard signs were running about even. I know that people say “signs don't vote,” but in my experience, they tend to be a pretty good indicator of how hard a candidate is working to energize and mobilize supporters.

The American: We did want to set the record straight on a really old incident, which is enshrined in film. In your congressional campaign, The American wavered on endorsing you and then endorsed Russ. In the excellent documentary about your race, there are references, as I recall, to “downtown” having a role in our endorsement. There is the suggestion of a sell out. What was your understanding at the time of why we went with Russ? What do you understand to be true today?

Jeff Smith: It is funny that you ask, since there is a kid shooting me right now who is doing another documentary. I imagine it will be quite different from the first one.

If you recall, I’m pretty sure I never made much of an editorial comment in the film about your endorsement. Others definitely did. You’d have to ask them if they still feel as they did when the film was made.

Neither then nor now did I perceive The American to have “sold” its endorsement. My perception then – and now – is that the Carnahan family had deep and long-standing ties with the black political and media establishment. Governor Carnahan, to his credit, appointed a lot of African Americans to prominent state government positions, judgeships, etc. Politics is about loyalty, and the black political establishment was loyal to Russ Carnahan. Makes perfect sense.

I appealed to The American for support based on my record of tutoring / mentoring / coaching / service in the black community, and that helped with me with people who knew me from those activities and with a lot of rank-and-file blacks. It wasn't enough for The American, and I understood that.

The American: That is good to hear. Then as now, our editorial decisions are made in consultation with a number of people, but all the pressure on Russ’ behalf was from African Americans.

Jeff Smith: I hear you. I don't doubt there was significant pressure brought to bear on Russ’ behalf from black political leaders. They all endorsed him in that race, so I figured they'd contact The American on his behalf. If you look at the precinct-level returns, though, we did exceptionally well in the majority-black precincts back in ‘04. I only wished there were more of them! I ran stronger there than anywhere in the 3rd Congressional District.

The American: I can’t remember any politician who enjoyed the process more than you seemed to – or someone who worked harder to get your message out, even with a newspaper like ours that often took sides with your detractors. How do you fill that hole in your life?

Jeff Smith: As far as my efforts to try to represent my district and to get my message out and respond to both supporters and critics alike, thank you. I appreciate it.

As far as filling that hole in my life, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of elected officials, community leaders and interest group advocates who have sought me out since I got home and asked for my advice on education issues, urban redevelopment, and (not surprisingly, given my first-hand experience) issues involving the criminal justice system and how it can operate more efficiently and effectively in rehabilitating offenders. And inevitably, people still call to ask for political advice.

I just got home from meetings today with the heads of three different non-profits who have reached out to see how I might be able to continue having an impact. So that’s how I fill that hole, I guess.

The American: Has this materialized as a job?

Jeff Smith: I’m doing some writing and consulting for a couple local firms. I have five job offers, two in the public sector and three in the private sector. Right now the freelance work fits my schedule, since I’m trying to complete a book about my experiences in politics and prison. I’m applying for a couple professorships which would begin next fall, and I don't want to accept anything permanent until I hear back on those.

The American: Give us a glimpse of the book, and then I will let you go.

Jeff Smith: Working title: “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: Things I Never Learned in PoliSci 101.” Here's the overview:

Mr. Smith is a funny yet tragic memoir about a promising young political star brought down by his own ambition. Unlike most political memoirs, Mr. Smith is filled with eye-opening anecdotes intended neither to settle scores nor aggrandize the author but to illuminate larger truths about politics – and more broadly, human nature.

Mr. Smith weaves together a narrative about prominent politicians, donors, operatives, wannabe thugs, and eventually, some real thugs, as we trace the protagonist’s sometimes-rocky road through federal prison. Though the book exposes the harsh world of politics – the backroom negotiating secrets, the bare-knuckled combat of Election Day in the inner city, and the shocking betrayal of his closest confidante – it also inspires with tales of Jeff as a happy warrior against the odds in sports, politics, and prison.

Mr. Smith breaks from the formulaic, ghost-written norm – naming names, describing legislative brawls and urban political street fighting in all of their depraved glory, sharing the secrets of the narrator’s success and collapse.

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