Campus reacts as speculation over Sen. Jeff Smith’s future continues
Speculation over the political future of state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, is continuing, as former students and staffers of Smith’s struggle to come to terms with recent reports of a federal inquiry into the Washington University instructor.
“In the event that the allegations are true, it seems that he gave a model for an ideal politician and statesman that he violated,” said senior Dayne Seiden, who took Smith’s course on campaigning and elections in the fall 2008 semester.
Reports surfaced about 10 days ago that Smith was considering resigning his seat amid a possible federal inquiry regarding his 2004 congressional campaign.
Smith also canceled a course he was supposed to teach this fall called “Topics in American Culture Studies: Contemporary Issues in St. Louis Politics, Culture, and Society,” school spokeswoman Sue Killenberg McGinn said last Wednesday in a statement. The course would have been in the American Culture Studies program.
The statement said Smith “asked on Thursday, Aug. 13, to be relieved of those duties and the class was cancelled.” McGinn said she did not know the reason.
Multiple news outlets have reported that the FBI was investigating Smith over campaign literature he allegedly distributed illegally during his 2004 congressional bid. The FBI has neither confirmed nor denied the presence of an investigation.
Smith, 35, was elected to the Missouri Senate in 2006 and has since established himself as a rising star in Missouri politics. If he does resign, his political career and quick rise in state politics would come to an abrupt end.
Smith’s Jefferson City office has not returned phone calls from Student Life.
Since the state legislature is out of session, any resignation letter would have to go through Gov. Jay Nixon’s office. As of Thursday afternoon, no letter had been received, according to a Nixon spokesman.
Word of Smith’s possible resignation has caused a stir among Missouri politicians in recent days.
“I hope it’s not true,” said state Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington. “All you can do is wait and see, I guess.”
The fall 2008 semester was the last time Smith taught at the University when he was a part-time lecturer in political science.
Smith burst onto the political scene in the questioned 2004 campaign, when he vied for the Democratic nomination for the 3rd District U.S. House seat against nine opponents, even though he was virtually unknown outside St. Louis. Smith was a doctoral student in political science at the University and an adjunct instructor in University College at the time.
Although Smith lost, University students’ campaign efforts helped him build a grassroots movement, which led him to win solid majorities in St. Louis and St. Louis County. His main opponent, now-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, edged him 23 to 21 percent in the primary.
Many who knew Smith disappointed by news
Those who knew Smith when he taught at the University and ran for Congress gave him high marks on his courses and said he had a unique campaign style. But many of them were let down by the recent allegations, which they said belied his bright political image and message.
“He made it seem like it was possible to get into politics to attempt to do some good and maintain one’s own integrity, which after these recent events seems to be a false ideal,” Seiden said.
Senior Mark Dudley, who took Smith’s legislative politics course in the fall 2007 semester and the 2008 elections course, said Smith “was a person students certainly held in such high light in 2007, and everything after that seemed to be a giant train wreck.”
In his time in the Missouri Senate, Smith quickly rose in influence, and his colleagues have often praised him for reaching across the aisle.
In 2007, Smith was cited for using someone else’s ID card to enter a casino boat in Boonville, Mo. The charges were eventually dropped.
Dudley said the most recent news about Smith is “not really surprising, but it was certainly disappointing.”
Students said they liked when Smith told exciting stories in his class about his Missouri Senate experiences and about dirty tactics often used on the campaign trail. Smith, they said, often emphasized putting the good of the people above personal greed.
Seiden considered Smith’s 2008 elections class to be one of his favorites. Although it had 150 students, Seiden said Smith “thrived off having class participation, and he made it a big focus of the class.”
Dudley said he liked Smith’s energetic and accessible personality. When students worked on mock campaign commercials and mailings for real political candidates during the 2007 legislative politics class, Smith often helped students contact those candidates, Dudley said.
Over time, Dudley said Smith’s energy level and accessibility gradually faded.
Erika Massow, a University of Kansas graduate who was a 23-year-old community organizer in Smith’s 2004 campaign, said Smith won over many young people, including a high proportion of Washington University students.
Due largely to Smith’s lack of name recognition outside the University at the time, Massow said the campaign focused on grassroots efforts. Instead of raking in money from big donors, Massow said Smith had to get his message out by knocking on doors, participating in community events and parades and talking to people at coffee events.
“He could get his audience to listen and relate to him,” Massow said. “He wouldn’t be like he already had the position. He spoke like he was trying to do something better for the community and by doing that he was running for this audience. He spoke to you like he was your neighbor, your teacher, your friend.”
Smith’s long-shot campaign garnered so much attention that it was the focus of a documentary titled “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?”
But Massow said the recent news about Smith makes her “feel confused.”
“As much as I believed in him, the world of politics is far from clean,” she said.
Smith’s Ph.D. adviser, Professor of Political Science Gary Miller, said he was “a great student.”
“He was charismatic and a lot of fun to work with,” Miller said.
FBI reportedly revisiting 2004 investigation of Smith
Outlets have reported that the FBI’s current investigation of Smith revisits one that occurred from 2004 to 2007.
In 2004, Smith’s rival Carnahan filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), alleging Smith used the anonymous literature in question to spread “false and malicious information intended to deceive potential voters and evade proper federal disclosures.”
Investigators concluded in December 2007 that there was not enough evidence of wrongdoing on Smith’s part.
Investigators focused on Milton Ohlsen III of St. Louis County as a possible distributor of the fliers, which were postcards. According to FEC documents detailing the investigation, Ohlsen told investigators he had discussions with members of the Smith campaign over the production of the postcards.
The documents say Ohlsen received “as much as $13,000 in cash for his services” from an unknown person.
Smith’s campaign filed an affidavit in late 2004 saying neither he nor others in his campaign were “responsible for or affiliated with the documents and their distribution.”
The St. Louis Beacon has reported that the FBI may be revisiting the 2004 investigation because of things Smith did or did not tell investigators.
Outlets have reported that the current investigation involves state Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton.