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Jeff Smith takes on higher profile in Missouri policy even as he remains in New York

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2012 - More than three years after a federal campaign-finance probe destroyed then-state Sen. Jeff Smith’s political career, he has worked to create a new life for himself that still includes politics.

And it appears that he may have succeeded.

In fact, Smith’s role in Missouri governmental affairs appears to have grown, even though he continues to reside in suburban New York City.

Smith confirms that, as of a few months ago, he became executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, which is made up of 135 groups – up from 35 members just 18 months ago. The association’s chief mission is advocating for affordable housing.

Smith said the member groups include “community organizations, public agencies, contractors, private and nonprofit developers, construction material suppliers, and other professionals.”

“I'd consulted for them for over a year and we agreed that, given the organization's growth and increased capacity, it made sense to formalize the arrangement,” Smith said in an interview. 

“My role has been to a) grow the membership; b) work with our diverse membership to shape our policy objectives; c) manage our grassroots advocacy efforts; and d) oversee our day-to-day efforts within the Capitol, which are handled by Jorgen Schlemeier of Gamble & Schlemeier.”

Although he travels to Missouri about once a month, Smith expects to remain in New York for the foreseeable future.  Now 39, he is married and has a 15-month-old son, along with two dogs.

“Life is great,” Smith said. “We just bought a home in the ‘burbs -- sort of. We're in the Montclair, N.J., area, which is like University City….Lots of restaurants, culture, diversity, vibrancy. Home to a lot of academics, writers, and other creative types, most of whom commute to the city.”

Smith is among them. He has a full-time position as a professor in the urban policy graduate program at the New School. “The students are bright and passionately committed to making a difference in the world; I love teaching them,” he said. “And my colleagues are both impressively credentialed as scholars and keenly interested in real-world issues -- a relatively rare combination in academia. It's a special place.”

Praises Missouri's GOP and Democratic leaders

Even with his love of his new life, Smith has remained connected to many of the players in his old one – and has plenty of opinions.

Although he was in the state Senate less than three years, Smith, a Democrat, had forged working relationships with some up-and-coming Republican colleagues. They include the incoming leaders: Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, and House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka.

Asked his assessment of both, Smith observed, “Well, I think Tom Dempsey will be an excellent pro tem. He's fair, diligent and wise. He takes his job very seriously, but doesn't take himself too seriously -- a rare combination in politics. He respects the traditions of the Senate and with him at the helm, I bet the body runs much more smoothly than it did the last couple years.”

As for Jones, Smith observed, “He's a deeply conservative guy, but I gotta say, I found him super to work with. Of the language in bills I filed that eventually became law, Tim carried just about all of it in the House. I went to him not just because he seemed destined for House leadership but because, after getting to know him a bit, I found him to be somebody who didn't care whose idea something was, as long as it was a good idea.”

Smith added, “Both Dempsey and Jones share MOWHA's interest in helping ensure that taxpayers get the most bang for the buck when it comes to tax credits. They also understand that a child growing up in safe, decent housing is much more likely to succeed in life than one who grows up couch-surfing with relatives or friends. I took Sen. Dempsey to see a project last month -- a senior development in St. Charles -- and he quickly grasped how much it meant for residents when an elderly woman told us she'd be homeless if she weren't there.”

Although an urban Democrat who campaigned as a progressive, Smith said that Gov. Jay Nixon by necessity “has governed as a moderate, and that's right where Missouri is. He's found the formula for success, and (Attorney General) Chris Koster appears to be replicating it.”

Smith also had strong praise for state Treasurer Clint Zweifel. “Like most Missouri Democrats, I suspect, I wish there were two governorships so that Chris and Clint Zweifel could each have one in four years,” he said. “They are very different people, but are both exceptionally talented guys with bright futures.”

Prison changed outlook on life

Aside from his teaching and consulting, Smith also has found time to do freelance writing for a number of major publications and news outlets, including CNN, The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, Politico, New York Magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times, and a regular column for a New York politically focused publication called “City and State.”

Smith’s life now seems light years away from his low point, after pleading guilty in 2009 of lying to federal investigators about his 2004 congressional campaign's involvement in an anonymous flier attacking a Democrat rival, now soon-to-be ex-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

Smith’s misstep forced him to resign his state Senate seat and to spend 10 months in federal prison. He ended his probation about a year ago.

Smith acknowledges that the whole episode, besides forcing career changes, has altered his outlook on life.

Puts it all in perspective,” he said. “Every day I can ride my bike in to work -- even in a torrential downpour with cabbies honking and pedestrians on Iphones cutting me off -- is a day I'm free. Free to feel the rain in my face, hear the buzz of people, teach in the world's most vibrant city. So I don't really have bad days anymore. Every day I get to be with my wife and baby boy is a great day.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.