by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
May 26, 2006
A DAY IN THE LIFE: HOPING TO BECOME FLORIDA'S NEXT FIRST LADY, DEE DEE SMITH WORKS A 21-HOUR DAY
BRADENTON, Fla., May 25, 2006 -- On the day that Tampa Bay voters woke up and took notice of her husband, Democratic gubernatorial primary candidate Rod Smith, the chairman of the Florida State Senate's powerful Committee on Agriculture woke his wife DeeDee at 3:30 a.m. to talk about his surging campaign.
Neither knew yet that a story on the front page of the powerful St. Petersburg Times by its political editor would shift the momentum in the race from Tampa Bay Congressman Jim Davis to Smith, who represents the Gainesville area two hours north of Tampa. But there was plenty to talk about, she told The American Reporter in an exclusive one-hour interview Tuesday and follow-up telephone call today.
"We knew a story was coming out but we hadn't seen it yet, so we were talking about the campaign and the endorsements we'd gotten," said the 53-year-old Florida native, a lifelong advocate for abused and abandoned children who grew up on her father's cattle and produce farm in Alachua, a small town about 20 miles west of Gainesville, where the couple still live on his late father's 300-acre family cattle farm.
Hampered by a legislative rule that prevents senators from fund-raising for other campaigns during the legislative session, Smith had to turn away financial support for 60 days after Davis started collecting funds. Meanwhile, the third-term congressman was telling parishioners at a small church in Palmetto in late February about his huge lead in campaign donations, but cleverly didn't tell voters Smith was prohibited by Senate rules from raising any money until the legislative session ended two months later. By then, Davis told audiences around the state, he had an insurmountable lead in both money and name recognition. To many, it looked like Davis was a foregone conclusion as the Sept. 5 Democratic primary winner.
Out in the real world, though, the tide was turning for Smith.
Calling on friendships earned in more than a decade of Senate leadership on issues including opposition to government interference in the Terry Schiavo case, crafting a better law to better target sex offenders after the brutal slaying of Jessica Lunsford - a Tampa-area child who was raped and killed by a sex offender living nearby - and reforming so-called "boot camps" after a small 14-year-old boy was suffocated by guards at one county-run camp in rural Florida. Smith also passed laws to protect farm workers against exploitation, and fought for higher salaries for Florida's underpaid teachers, hoping to improve the state's bottom-rung SAT scores and dropout rates.
A charismatic speaker who thrilled Democrats at their Florida Democratic Party convention in December after Davis's keynote speech fell flat, Smith worked from south to north as he successively picked up endorsements from major Democratic figures in Miami, Palm Beach and Broward counties and Florida's 25,000 Teamsters, along with Florida teachers, the influential 5,000-member SEIU local for nurses and orderlies at the state's largest hospital, several regional AFL-CIO councils and locals representing 300,000 of the state's unionized police, auto workers, construction trades, physicians, dentists and firefighters.
Last week he won a pair of coveted endorsement from two of the state's best known congressmen, South Florida Rep. Kendrick Meeks and North Florida Rep. Allen Boyd.
Just two months after his fund-raising had begun in earnest, he'd erased virtually all of Davis's million-dollar lead. The momentum hit a peak Thursday, when he named Coconut Grove attorney Chris Korge his campaign manager. The finance co-chair of the 2004 Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign, Korge's acumen helped the 2004 contenders raise more than any other presidential campaign in history.
At 3:30am in the morning on Tuesday, though, the Smiths' best news was yet to come.
St. Petersburg Times political editor Adam C. Smith is known as one of the most astute and perceptive of the state's political observers, and his front-page headline must have ruined one Tampa Bay congressman's appetite for breakfast.
'JIM DAVIS, DON'T LOOK BEHIND YOU,' the front page of the McClatchy chain's most influential paper declared. "U.S. Rep. Jim Davis has cast himself as the inevitable Democratic nominee for governor, the guy leading in early polls and fundraising ... but the mantle of inevitability is looking increasingly thin. All the momentum in recent months has been with State Sen. Rod Smith, whom Davis has been unable to shake."
The headline took its phraseology from the immortal "master maxims" of famed 1930s baseball star Satchel Paige, who famously advised, "Don't look back. Something may be gaining on you."
The Times had already reported back on April 19 that the respected Quinnipiac University poll of 951 registered Florida voters during the week of April 11-17 showed Davis leading Smith among Democratic voters 27 to 17, but that match-ups against the top two Republican primary contenders showed both Davis and Smith in statistical ties against either Republican.
"He's plenty credible," the Times' Smith, who is unrelated to the candidate, told The American Reporter in a phone interview today. "Jim Davis is the front-runner, but I think it's pretty much wide open. Smith is a strong candidate. He's got a lot of charisma, and a lot of Republicans think he's a real threat."
That Republicans are threatened is no surprise. When Smith first ran for the Senate, his wife said, "he took back a Republican seat in 2000 where President Bush won eight of the nine counties Rod ran in."
Polls, the Times writer said in the May 23 article, usually show Davis ahead. "But they also show at least half of the Democrats undecided, and by some estimates at least three quarters have yet to make up their minds," Adam Smith wrote. "...[R]ecent weeks suggest the Democratic race for governor is far from settled."
Tuesday's article, blasted far and wide by email and fax across the bustling Florida political landscape, has recast the race as one of near-equals, with Smith in the role of charging underdog.
That's making for some long days for the candidate's wife, who stands in for him as a surrogate speaker all over the state. The couple was wide awake by 6 a.m., and DeeDee recalled the delight of holding her new granddaughter in her arms in the couple's Fort Lauderdale apartment. She doesn't usually cook for Smith, who is not fond of breakfast, but she does bring him his beloved grapefruit juice and milk - "he drinks a lot of milk," she laughs - along with vitamins and his favorite snack: chunks of crunchy peanut butter smeared on crackers. "He just loves peanut butter," she says.
By 7 a.m. Thursday, both Smiths were on the phone to supporters, and then met with campaign staff at 9. After answering mail and making her own calls, DeeDee Smith was off to the airport to fly to a luncheon in Gainesville with women who are planning a June 4 fundraiser there to be hosted by 30 female supporters - the second of its kind in the state so far.
After that, she drove back to the Gainesville airport for a short flight to Tampa, where she was met by regional "Rod Squad" organizer Lauren Hallahan and driven 50 miles south to Bradenton, a city of 50,000 on South Florida's beautiful Gulf Coast.
At the Bradenton Public Library, overlooking the yachts and fishing boats moored on Sarasota Bay, we met in the Florida History Reading Room and talked for an hour about her life on the campaign trail.
Dressed in a smart brown suit with her short brown hair in a modified pageboy, she bore a very strong resemblance to Sen. Hillary Clinton. People often note the resemblance, she said. Short and pretty, she's carrying a huge silvery purse that weighs about 15 pounds; she cracked it open for a moment to show a stack of thank-you notes an inch thick. "I write them on the plane trips," she confided.
Born on her family's cattle, hog and vegetable farm in Alachua not far from where her husband grew up, she laughs and grins as she recalls a 12-year-old girl happily driving a motorized ranch cart out across the fields so fast her father got jolted off. Her brothers sometime remember those early years as hard ones for her family, she says, but her memories are of family and cousins and friends who played together, helped out during the summer and hung out at the feed and farm gas store her father owned in Alachua. Undocumented workers that are helped by Rod Smith's Farmworker Protection Act were not a factor back then, and have not been hired since, she says, but the couple does support the new immigration reforms that passed the U.S, Senate by a wide margin this afternoon.
She was DeeDee Cain when she met Rod Smith, who liked to play golf with her dad and her brothers. Rod Smith was six years older, and like his DeeDee had a child from a first marriage. Together they had a third child, 19-year-old Dylan, who studies mechanical engineering and is headed to law school, and raised Rod's son Jesse, 25, and her daughter Alison, 32, perhaps the strongest new campaigner in the family. "But they all love politics," she says. "They just jumped right into it," she said, when the latest campaign started.
Jesse, 25, just graduated from the University of Maryland in Baltimore and is cramming for the Florida bar exam as he works on the campaign. Alison has a half brother from her father's second marriage and Jesse, who was raised by the Smiths from the age of two, has a half-sister from his mother's second marriage. The couple never thinks of the kids as anything but their own. "It's a big, extended family," DeeDee says, and by all accounts it's a happy one.
Politics was high on the agenda as their 23-year marriage began. Ironically, she remembers, she had a job waiting in Rod's law firm as soon as she got out of law school, but Rod, who was already practicing, decided to run for State's Attorney in Alachua County and left the firm, suddenly turning her into a jobless but hard-working political wife. "I had a job lined up right out of law school, and suddenly he had one and I didn't," she recalls. "That wasn't what I'd been expecting!" She was 39 when she graduated from law school, so the sacrifice of a job and the risky prospects of a political campaign took a lot of courage to handle.
Smith soon made a reputation as a tough prosecutor and won broad acclaim as he prosecuted the death penalty phase of the case against "Gainesville Ripper" Daniel Rolling, a serial killer of five college kids whose reign of terror brought the city unwanted international headlines. An account of how carefully Smith built his case for the ultimate penalty against Rolling (at http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/predators/rolling/17.html) still brings chills to readers today.
Meanwhile, the fiery prosecutor revealed an academic side that still emerges in interviews when the talk turns to the institutions of democracy. He taught political science to undergraduates at the university, and he still teaches law part-time at Florida's highly-regarded law school. Most of the Smiths' kids and many of their relatives are Florida graduates and diehard Gator fans. Rod Smith was overjoyed when its little-known basketball team won the National Collegiate Championship this year.
"We are a Gator family," DeeDee laughs.
"And maybe a mitigator family," we replied. "Or a litigator family."
"Well, we may be a litigator family," she joked right back.
Her own career as a family and child advocate, along with years of labor practice, are on hold now as she travels with and for her husband in a determined quest to win the Governor's Mansion in one of the nation's richest and most important states. Children's issues and education are likely to be her strongest focus if Rod is elected, she says.
She doesn't try to match her charismatic husband's thunder, she says, and he hasn't given her lessons, but her speaking style is a little like her husband's, who she said "always tells you straight out what he's thinking." After an hour-long interview, Lauren Hallahan leads her into an airy meeting room on the library's ground floor. Quickly, she begins to work a room full of Democrats who form the 80-member Manatee County Democratic Executive Committee.
"It's really a pleasure to meet you," said county DEC chairman C.J. Czaia, who reels off a long list of the lawyers she and her husband have in common; he's a trial attorney who used to have a defense practice. "But you know how it is; this is Jim Davis country, and I don't know how well you're going to do here." DeeDee is unfazed, telling Czaia she only asks that people get a chance to hear from her side. DEC members are carefully stealing glances and chatting softly about the woman who would be Florida's next First Lady in the Smith Administration.
When the meeting starts she sits down beside me and puts her purse under her chair, and when she rises to speak a few minutes later, she walks swiftly across the room to a lectern that's a little too high. The room slowly warms up as she jokes about something a DEC member said during the evening's roll call. The man's name had not been read, and he'd called out from the back, "What about me?" At her husband's swearing-in as State's Attorney 17 years before, two-year-old Dylan was on the dais as his father and mother were introduced by name. "What about me?" he asked aloud, bringing down the house.
She goes on to describes her husband's record, his come-from-behind campaign and Rod Smith's goals for the state, concentrating on the need for higher pay for the state's low-wage teachers and reforms of the statewide FCAT testing that is punishing the worst schools, she says, instead of improving them. Her delivery is unforced and authentic, low-key yet effective, and some of the DEC members who favor Davis notably perk up as they listen. Warm applause comes readily when she finishes and hands shoot up right away for an ensuing Q&A.
After deftly responding to questions about the campaign's current status and other issues, she apologizes for leaving so quickly and she's off and running again, Hallahan at her side, to catch a 9 p.m. plane back home, hoping to be asleep by midnight. And inside the DEC meeting she left behind, an excited buzz is rising.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter and a former freelancer for the Village Voice, L.A. Weekly and New York Post.