Jeff Smith, 2 others to be sentenced on federal charges
Mr. Smith’s long journey is about to end.
A former Democratic state senator from St. Louis and Washington University political science instructor, Jeff Smith will be sentenced in federal court in St. Louis on Tuesday, after he pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges and resigned from the Missouri Senate on Aug. 25.
In five years, Smith went on a roller coaster ride that took him from the classrooms and offices of Eliot Hall, to streets and coffee shops on the campaign trail, to the Missouri Senate floor, to the federal court where he pleaded guilty. It was a journey in which Smith, with the help of students, quickly went from a political long shot to a rising star, only to fall back down even quicker.
“I still support Jeff, I still like Jeff, and I think he made a silly mistake and will have to face severe consequences,” said 2004 graduate Michael Delman, a campaign volunteer. “But he had a lot of potential, and it’s sad to see his political career end this way.”
The matter that led to his resignation and guilty plea occurred in the very campaign that started his political career, his 2004 run for Congress. Smith built that campaign from scratch into a grassroots movement that became the subject of a documentary, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?”
His main Democratic primary opponent, now-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission in late July 2004 alleging that Smith was involved in the production and distribution of thousands of anti-Carnahan postcards that failed to identify the parties responsible for their content—a violation of federal election law.
Smith initially denied involvement, and in 2007 the FEC cleared Smith and his campaign of wrongdoing. But when new evidence emerged, the FBI revisited the FEC investigation in the summer of 2009. The FBI found that Smith lied to the FEC in 2004 about his involvement and persuaded his campaign manager, Nick Adams, and then-state Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton, to do the same. Those two—both University graduates—also pleaded guilty to similar charges and will be sentenced on Tuesday.
When he pleaded guilty, Smith acknowledged the violations. He apologized to his supporters on his Web site later, writing, “This event has humbled me. I have done some significant introspection and that has been the hardest part: coming to terms with my own poor judgments and mistakes.”
More than five years after filing the complaint, Carnahan said in an interview on Tuesday that Smith’s guilty plea was “a sad day for our democratic system.”
“I think he and others were straightforward in terms of admitting what they had done and apologizing for what they had done,” Carnahan said. “We see that even though it’s years later, I think the system has worked, and we’ll expect to see the judge make a decision.”
It was a sad ending, Smith’s supporters said, to a highly promising political career for the 35-year-old.
“He definitely could have been U.S. congressman, run for senator, joined the White House in some capacity, there’s no telling what,” said Alexander Lurie, a field organizer for Smith’s 2004 campaign and a 2006 Northwestern University graduate. “But this guy is so capable, it’s a loss.”
A quick rise starting at WU
On the surface, Smith seemed like the unlikeliest candidate for national office in 2004. Although he had been involved in public service, founding charter schools in St. Louis in 2002, he had never held elected office.
Smith’s only political experience came from chairing Brown’s state legislative campaign and serving as the Iowa director of Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign in 2000.
But Smith’s supporters said he had two other crucial assets: his intelligence and his education in political science at the University.
“His political science background gave him the ability to speak really well on lots of different issues that affected him and the country,” Delman said.
Still, Smith had no name recognition and no resources. And he was up against nine opponents, including Carnahan, then a state representative, who came from a Missouri political family that had already produced two Missouri governors and a U.S. senator.
So Smith sought the help of students and alumni. He enlisted Adams as his treasurer and University graduate Clay Haynes as his campaign manager. Other students were inspired to volunteer and work for the campaign after taking Smith’s classes on campaigns and elections.
“What is so great about Jeff is that he was both a good teacher and a friend, and someone who spoke honestly about the political process, about what needed to get done,” said campaign volunteer Nicole Soussan, a 2006 graduate who took two classes with Smith and who was once president of the College Democrats. “He valued [students’] input on the campaign. He looked to us for advice or support.”
Instead of relying on TV advertisements, the campaign focused on going door to door, holding coffee events, and distributing flyers. The goal was to knock on “as many [doors] as possible,” Lurie said. Smith combined this approach with progressive stances on issues like health care, Iraq and education.
It was this combination that put Smith on the map and garnered him extensive media coverage. He earned the endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who had become known for grassroots organizing.
In the end, Smith fell just short, losing to Carnahan by 2 percent despite winning pluralities in St. Louis city and St. Louis County. But Smith and his supporters still considered the close defeat a victory for a campaign that many commentators had ruled out from the start.
A brief but accomplished Senate career
In 2006, Smith ran for Missouri Senate in the 4th District. Facing a crowded Democratic field and again using the same grassroots techniques, he won the primary and took the general election unopposed.
Smith brought his characteristic energy and pleasant demeanor to the Senate, and lawmakers praised his willingness to cross party lines. In a statement shortly after Smith’s plea, the Senate majority floor leader, Kevin Engler, said that Smith “was someone quite frankly that encouraged more bipartisan behavior between our parties.”
In his letter to his supporters, Smith pointed to his successful push to preserve a historic tax credit program for urban development as one of his biggest accomplishments. Smith was also responsible for the creation of a teaching fellows program and a green sales tax holiday.
State Sen. Jim Lembke, R-South St. Louis County, said Smith was “a uniter” and “very approachable” and said he often worked with Smith on important St. Louis issues.
“Although we didn’t always see eye to eye, we always tried to do what was best for city and region,” Lembke said.
Behind the façade
With all of Smith’s accomplishments and the bright future many people saw in him, the FBI investigation’s revelations painted an image of a man who, his supporters say, failed to practice what he preached.
Smith was among the panelists at a forum on campus in 2008 about journalism and government accountability. And his former students have said that in class, he emphasized the good of the people above politics, and frequently told stories about common dirty campaign tactics.
But during both investigations, Smith, Brown and Adams met and talked on the phone regularly to coordinate their efforts to lie to investigators and cover up their violations, according to court documents. They repeatedly acknowledged to one another that they had broken the law. They even discussed the idea of pinning the blame for the postcards on the 2004 campaign’s deceased spokesman, Artie Harris.
“I at least hope he did it for some reason, like he wouldn’t be able to continue to help his district,” said Erika Massow, a community organizer in Smith’s 2004 campaign. “You’re never going to know what’s going on within somebody’s mind.”
Smith appeared to expect that kind of reaction, as in his apology he told his supporters that “the real tragedy of my lapses would be if they discouraged people like you from civic engagement.”