Vol. 13, No. 3,24 - The American Reporter - September 4, 2007

Campaign 2006

by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief
Bradenton, Fla.

Printable version of this story

BRADENTON, Fla. -- These are hard words to say, State Sen. Rod Smith thinks, his eyes turning away in pain for a moment as he considers their political impact.

Here he is, the man many believe will be Florida's next governor, a farmer's son, a onetime farmer himself and once the state's most celebrated prosecutor, a consistent Democratic moderate in a state primary long dominated by very liberal Democrats, and he's about to offer reluctant praise of President George W. Bush, the man Florida's liberal Democrats detest more often and more angrily than offshore drilling.

"For a Democrat, these are words that are somewhat difficult to say at all right now, but actually the President's idea regarding a guest worker program is in light of reality and pragmatism the better approach. It is superior in my view to the position of the [Sensenbrenner] bill that is coming out of the House." There, the words are out. He is a prosecutor ready to proceed.

In a wide-ranging interview with The American Reporter Saturday at a Bob Evans restaurant in conservative Manatee County, where Republicans currently hold all but three elected positions, Smith talks at length about immigration, the Farm Workers Protection Act he recently sponsored - he's chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee because farmers asked the Republican majority to let him have the post - the terrible performance of Florida's school kids on SATs, the new Massachussetts health care plan (he's interested), wired-for-wi-fi cities (the state can't pay for it, but he supports city-provider partnerships in creating them), a plan for a new Interstate through bucolic central Florida (he'll probably oppose it, but wants more details), and a new topic: the need for effective bipartisan approaches to state and national problems.

The first of those is immigration.

Rod Smith chairs the committee on agriculture and passed the landmark Farm Workers Protection Act this year.

AR Photos: Joe Shea

"I think you can't live in Florida - you certainly can't be associated with agriculture and construction and all those kinds of things that are going on in this state, and not recognize that we have a substantial market of illegals. Many times, they are being victimized in the workplace. They don't get paid as well, they don't have too much [health]coverage; they can't complain. As for the President's plan, as governor of this state I would be closer to his plan.

"I think you have to find a starting point that has been steeped in reality and not ideology, nor fear. They're picking your tomatoes, their harvesting your oranges, they're building your houses and they're cleaning your pools, so it seems to me that if we don't address that with a sense of what is really going on in the workplace, it 's going to have harsh [consequences for] some who have worked here for many years."

Smith's energy and passion is evident; his startling green eyes are set in a strong, square and handsome farmer's face, and they fix you with unwavering certainty as his hands open over and over to sow the seeds of his political philosophy.

Almost a lifelong Floridian, he was born in Southwest City, Mo., the only place that had a doctor near his grandfather's cattle farm in tiny Grove, Okla., and likes to say he "only spent a few minutes there." He first came to the state when he was two, returned to Oklahoma for a year, and then came back for good when he was four. His father, who died of cancer in the early 1990s, owned a vegetable farm in Green Acres, Fla., in western Palm Beach County when Smith was a child, and he grew up there picking eggplant and green peppers. "It's the hardest work in the world, and it's every day - there are no weekends," he says. The hard work and unflinching sun of those days still lines his face; having sold his own Alachua farm, Smith now lives on the cattle farm his father later purchased in Alachua, although the herd that grazes it is no longer their own; he sold it to a farmer across the way when his father died, and now pastures the cattle for his neighbor.

Distinction did not come easily to him, he said; he was the kind of football player who was always sent in after everyone else had played. But he found his niche in golf, lettering in his junior and senior years (he shoots a -7 handicap today - not that he gets the chance, he notes) and became student body president at Seacrest High School in 1967 and again at Palm Beach Junior College in 1969. His childhood sports hero was the golfer Arnold Palmer, and later, Tom Watson, and now, Tiger Woods. He doesn't pay attention to astrology, but he is a Scorpio, perhaps a choice sign for someone with a political career in mind. He went back to Oklahoma to graduate with a B.A. in political science from the University of Tulsa in 1971. Afterwards, he put off law school for a year because he expected to get called up in the draft and go to Vietnam; Nixon ended the draft in 1971, and his number, 131, never came up. Smith ran his father's farm as he put himself through law school, and never served in the armed forces.

After getting elected State Attorney, a job like that of district attorney in other states, Smith made his reputation for prosecuting a famous serial killer who murdered five college students in Gainesville. In the Florida Senate, he's been a champion of the death penalty, but sponsored a law to bar death sentences for retarded persons; he is known as a favorite of the state's growers, but his bill to require that the large growers house and insure farm workers decently, and provide an ombudsman for their complaints, was praised by social justice campaigners who bussed hundreds of farmworkers to Tallahassee to support it. His unwritten profile suggests a man who endured extremely hard work throughout his childhood and who, as he has risen high in the world, has not forgotten those who work so hard now.

Smith represents nine smaller counties in north-central Florida and lives on his family farm in Alachua County, home of the University of Florida and medium-sized Gainesville. He's an avid Gator who got his law degree from Florida in March 1975 and his wife, DeeDee, has two degrees from there. Now he boasts a son, 25, and daughter, 31, with UF degrees and a son-in-law with two, and a 19-year-old son who's a freshman there. "We're pretty much a University of Florida family," he says.

It's a longtime football powerhouse in a state that takes its football at least as seriously as Texas, Alabama and Oklahoma do, and after its recent upset NCAA Final Four victory, Gainesville's become the hottest place on earth in the college basketball universe. The candidate is aglow with the news of star Joakim Noah's decision to forgo the NBA draft and return to school, just announced last night.

"Oh, gosh!" Smith gushes. "I'm taking personal credit Noah announced he's going to return, so I think that will be a great plus for our campaign. Although this Fall I'm probably going to claim I had something to do with it, though I truly didn't - just my fervent hopes that he would come back. My two sons are thrilled. He's coming back," Smith says, savoring the thought as only a loyal Gator fan can.

The man born of the back-breaking rows of a country pepper farm faces a tough opponent in Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, a lean, articulate and much more liberal fourth-term Congressman whose media-rich, big-city base has given him a decided name-recognition and fund-raising advantage across the state. Early in his campaign, Davis built a lead among Democratic primary voters by wisely stressing his name advantage and his big lead in fund-raising, but few knew that Florida's state senators are not allowed to raise money when their house is in session.

But at the Florida Democratic Party state convention last December, that lead began to look less like a winner's. Davis gave a speech many who attended says was lackluster, while Smith roused convention-goers to their feet. In virtually every conversation in the corridors of the Disney hotel where the convention occurred, the buzz was about Smith. With the senate is in recess, he trailed Davis by just $30,000 in fund-raising over the last reporting period, and now he's crossing the state relentlessly to meet key Democrats in the moderate counties that may hand him a victory on Sept.r 5.

Today, after fruitlessly searching the menu for a piece of pie, he settles for a Coke and a large bowl of vanilla ice cream; later, the waitress - who like all her colleagues in Florida earns just $2.39 an hour - told me he left a $4 tip. Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg Times reported last Thursday, April 6, that Davis, who had agreed to debate Smith at a meeting of the Duval County Democratic Executive Committee in May, backed out after a local television station announced plans to televise it. It was the first concrete sign that Davis may suddenly be on the defensive.

Democrats who who know both men say that even though he is not as well-known, Smith has key advantages over Davis. One is that he represents a Gulf Coast -central Florida region where he is well-known, and that at the same time his roots are in populous Palm Beach County, giving him an edge in a key Atlantic Coast-south Florida area. Beyond that, many complain that Davis's low-key, deadpan delivery and earnest but muted speaking voice have limited appeal, while Smith is a speaker capable of storming the mountaintops and calming the seas - much like the man he calls "the greatest statesman of the last century," Winston Churchill.

Like Churchill, and perhaps unlike Davis, Smith is a pragmatist whom the Miami Herald called "the most effective Democrat in the State Senate," and he is problem-oriented, not ideologically driven. He notes with a laugh that Churchill, another pragmatist, "at various points in his career he was in every party."

"He was a guy who crossed the aisle with some frequency. Why? Because solutions are not just drawn along those narrow partisan lines," he said. "I like the tension that we create in our system. I like a two-party system and I want those tensions because they're healthy. They make each side test their ideas against the advocacy of the other side. Fronm that, you hope emerges better ideas, cleaner ideas. But just to play the role of obstructionism? People are sick of that, on both sides." But a bipartisan agenda in a party primary is hard row to hoe.

Rod Smith laments the loss of the GOP's "great liberal tradition" and Democrats' "strong conservative wing."

In many ways, Smith offers Democrats in Florida a way to move back to the center, and probably a greater certainty that Republicans will find him electable. The simplicity of that positioning, he says, is that his focus remains on promoting effective legislation. That's one of the reasons he's done the unthinkable in a Democratic primary: endorsing a much-disliked Republican President's immigration legislation during a Democratic primary. He does it with compelling logic. Smith simply finds the harsher House legislation unrealistic.

"Beyond that, I don't think [Sensenbrenner's bill] is doable. I think your talking about moving millions of people in this nation, and hundreds of thousands out of this state. And so if we're going to endorse a plan of stricter enforcement of the borders, there still has to be a starting point of, 'Who's here now?'

"Now, there are some out there who will not embrace this. Some ideologically, some from an economic point of view are saying, 'Wait a minute, you're leaving people here who are taking my job or the jobs of my community.' So, I'm hoping that we don't do something rash. I hope that what we will do is take up a thoughtful policy that says, we've got people here that are doing important work; their children are already in school.

"Is it a form of amnesty? Yes, it's an earned amnesty over time, a guest worker program. I think we'll see something like that develop, and it's probably the only one that is workable. It is a way in which you earn and pay your way back into a legitimacy in the application status."

And a guest worker program, Smith says, would solve one of the most difficult of immigration issues: licensing and insuring drivers who are now here illegally. "If we don't do something in our policy that is realistic, then you know what is going to happen. Illegals are going to be here, they're going to be driving, and they're not going to be insured. So you're going to have unlawful drivers in uninsured automobiles. And if you arrest them, they're either going to be deported or or you're going to hold them in local jails at local expense.

"It seems to me once again if we get people into a guest worker status, then all these things take care of themselves because they can get the license and they would have the requirement for insurance. So I think by and large that's part of what has to be done... . It won't be what we have now: if we say it, it doesn't matter - they'll just drive without it and uninsured. And that's not to anyone's advantage."

But what about those in the Bush plan who have to return to their countries if they have been here two years or less? Is it better to have those people here unlicensed and uninsured, or licensed and insured and illegal?

"That's a very difficult issue. I think in the Florida Senate, if we're talking about pure illegals, I don't think they're going to get a license. That's my read." Even if it would pass in the Senate, Smith says, it would not pass in the Florida's lower house, a body that Smith says is unmanageable because of the vast number of localities it has to represent.

Unmanageable government was very much on Smith's mind when the talk turned to the growing polarization of American politics and the call by some for the creation of a third party. He ticks off the names - Ross Perot, George Wallace, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry A. Wallace, Strom Thurmond, William LaFollette and others - but he calls third parties a "romantic" idea. Yet a talent for bipartisanship is part of what made him want to run for Governor, instead of other state jobs such as Agricultural Commissioner and Attorney General, as others thought he would. He laments the days when both parties had strong liberal and conservative wings. "I'm looking for solutions," he says.

"What's happened in recent years is that the parties have narrowed themselves into ideological camps more than I think is healthy. The Right has become more and more conservative and more and more Republican," he says. "The Left has become more liberal and has tended to be more Democratic. Sad part of that is, that there was a time in which the Democrats had a very strong conservative wing, and the Republicans had a great liberal tradition - one of the richer liberal traditions going back to the Progressive Era all the way through what was called the Rockefeller Republicans. But I mean it really goes back to LaFollette and all those people, but where there was this great traditional - even to Theodore Roosevelt, of course - a great tradition. They've lost that. And to a degree, we've lost the great conservative tradition that we had in the Democratic Party, where we had great leaders like Sam Nunn, Scoop Jackson, people who provided national direction to the party that kind of made sure each party was, well, was more balanced.

"I hope that we will see that this ideological drive - [that] American parties were never meant to be ideological bastions. They were meant to be two camps about a set of general principles and shapes for their political candidates. To the degree that they are ideologically driven, they don't do as well in terms of then being able to govern."

Smith played a key role in opposing Governor Jeb Bush in the global controversy in 2005 over a comatose Tampa woman, Terry Schiavo, whose parents wanted to keep her alive but whose ex-husband and guardian wanted to let her die after 15 years in a vegetative state. For Smith, the battle over Schiavo's future illustrates the constructive nature of centrist politics, and it prompts a bit of a lecture from the candidate and part-time lawyer who is an adjunct professor at the University of Florida college of law, teaching prosecutorial tips, constitutional law and trial practice.

"When I put together the coalition on that with nine Republicans and 12 Democrats to oppose the Governor - well, the success of that coalition was that it was mostly centrist people driving it. There were a few left-wing liberals on one side and a few right-wingers, but the people who was going to make a difference were about three Democrats and about three Republicans who were the centrist players. Much of what happened in medical malpractice reform was [due to] the centrists," he adds. Yet now, in the fight over education here, where high schoolers rank 49th nationally on their SAT scores, he says, "all of a sudden the Governor and an ideological bent are beginning to become dominant in the process, and we're not making as good decisions right now as we made over the last few years in the Senate and the House. The House has never made good decisions, in my view, because it's always been so difficult to manage."

Speaking with great energy, assurance and conviction, he says, "People are looking for a candidate who says, "I'm going to run as a Republican, or I'm going to run as a Democrat, but when I get there I'm going to govern as a Floridian. And by the way, not every good idea is a Democratic idea, and not every bad idea comes from the Republican party. We've both had our share of both. And so, I think people want to know you recognize that, and what you're looking for is. I'm looking for solutions." That search has occupied, but perhaps not fulfilled him, through two terms as State's Attorney and two terms in the Senate, most of them spent on the minority side of the aisle.

Again challenging the traditional rhetoric of Democratic primaries, Smith's wit emerges. "It's a great Reaganism that I've always enjoyed. that "You'd be surprised how much we could all get done if we quit worrying about who's going to get credit for it. I sometimes worry that the Democratic Party would be opposed to the invention of a clean-air machine if the Republicans came up with it, and I think the Republicans would oppose the cure to cancer if it thought it was a Democratic idea. That's silliness. We need to work together. The people will judge us in the long run by our effectiveness, not our partisanship, by our being able to build consensus, not our being able to make statements out of rancor. And so I hope we lessen that; the next governor has to."

Asked why he wants to be governor of the nation's fourth most populous state, he talks about the experience he brings, and finally comes down to one reason: "I want to make a difference." The Florida Senate, he says, and some of the other jobs he might have sought, offer less chance to shape the state's destiny, to help its people and heal its many hurting places. "I really wanted to do something that will effect change in this state, make a difference." In the Senate, or in other posts, he said, "I've had some success, but I wouldn't be able to reshape the direction of Florida, and I wouldn't re-direct our education system, and I wouldn't be able to re-direct the health care delivery system." He admires the new Massachussetts plan, which he notes was partly modeled on Tennessee's TennCare,and flopped, he says. Still, Smith thinks the Massachusetts law may have a future in Florida.

The decision to seek the state's highest office comes at a time when he's also in his prime as an attorney, capable of earning far more than he does as a $30,000-a-year legislator and attorney with the Gainesville firm of Avera and Avera. He does so in the end, he says, because "I believe I can make a difference, and a better Florida."

Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter, and founded the paper 11 years ago today.

Copyright 2007 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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