By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
The state legislator is almost a millionaire. His wife says he could have been a multimillionaire.
Rod Smith has spent the better part of 15 years making a public name for himself — first as an ambitious state attorney in North Florida, and more recently as a savvy state senator in Tallahassee.
He’s quick to point out the modest salary that came with those jobs. “Public life does not make you wealthy,” the Democratic gubernatorial candidate says.
But records show that by the time his name first appeared on a ballot in 1992, Smith already was worth more than $700,000.
In the years since, he has grown more prosperous through private law work, teaching posts at the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College, consulting gigs and heavy investments in real estate with his wife, Dee Dee.
When it comes to personal wealth, Smith trails only one of his rivals for the governor’s mansion. He’s no millionaire like Republican Tom Gallagher, but he has a thicker wallet than fellow Democrat Jim Davis or Republican Charlie Crist.
According to his most recent financial disclosure report, Smith is just shy of being a millionaire: He reports a net worth of $972,675.
“I’ve been blessed with a nice earning,” Smith says of his career away from politics. “We’ve been able to live a good life.”
After graduating from the University of Florida law school in 1975, Smith went to work for the Public Employees Relations Commission, practicing labor law on behalf of the state.But he soon returned to Alachua County and went into private practice.
For the next 15 years, he crisscrossed Florida, representing an array of labor unions — police officers and firefighters, electrical workers, carpenters, painters and pipe fitters. He argued on behalf of large vegetable farmers and dairies and nurserymen. He won settlements against the likes of DuPont and, occasionally, represented criminal defendants.
He established himself as a skillful litigator.
“Rod was an honorable opponent, very balanced. He had an excellent reputation,” said Peter Hurtgen, a longtime management attorney in Florida, now practicing in California. The two faced each other dozens of times to resolve collective bargaining disagreements, employee grievances, disciplinary cases and courtroom litigation.
“I could always trust Rod. If he said something to me, I could believe it,” Hurtgen said. “He had a gift of persuasive talent. He was very good as an advocate. He saw that in the end it was important for fairness to be the word between the employer and employee.”
Smith’s legal skills earned him a solid living. By the time he decided to run for state attorney of the Eighth Judicial Circuit in 1992, he was making a hefty six-figure salary.
“The year before I became state attorney,” Smith said, “I made seven times more than the state attorney job paid.”
Smith had to leave private practice during his eight years as state attorney. But he supplemented his income by teaching classes at the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College.
After he entered the Legislature in 2000, he continued teaching and worked as a consultant for the Hospice of North Central Florida, financial disclosures show. Smith, who still consults for the organization, said he helped set up a fundraising committee, offered occasional legal advice and gave speeches as part of the job. Last year, he was paid $75,000 for the work.
He also returned to private practice with the Gainesville personal injury law firm of Avera & Avera. And this time, he was a public figure with an established name, an important asset in legal circles.
Smith declined to release a list of his clients, but he and the firm said that in recent years he has represented individuals with personal injury claims, employment and discrimination cases, criminal charges and estate issues.
Smith said he rarely, if ever, represents unions because of potential conflicts it could create as a legislator.
Mark Avera, the president of the firm and Smith’s longtime friend, said Smith has proved valuable to the business, and not only because of his connections as a state senator and former prosecutor.
“He stands up in front of juries and tries cases,” Avera said. “I’m not aware, with very few exceptions, of other legislators who do that on a regular basis. He is one of the most intelligent, articulate guys I’ve been around. He really does care.”
Avera acknowledged that Smith has remained on the firm’s payroll even as he pours all his time into the gubernatorial campaign.
While Smith remains the sole breadwinner in the family, his wife, a lawyer herself, handles the bulk of the household finances.
“I sign the papers my wife hands me,” Smith said.
Dee Dee has had more to handle in recent years, as her husband’s return to law work has been profitable.
According to his 2005 federal tax return, he made $472,405 last year as a private lawyer, on top of $61,624 teaching at UF and $30,432 as a state senator.
“I had a very good year,” Smith said.
Rod and Dee Dee Smith, who have three children, can rely on his state pension fund in retirement, and state financial disclosure records from June 2005 show they had more than $200,000 set aside in individual retirement accounts, CDs and other savings.
But when it comes to investing, they don’t pay much attention to the Nasdaq index. They don’t do day trading and don’t seem interested in playing the market. “I’m not a stock buyer,” Rod Smith said.
Tax expert Ed Slott, who at the request of the St. Petersburg Times reviewed several years worth of federal tax returns for all four gubernatorial candidates, said that can be a risky philosophy.
“Basically, he has no stocks, no bonds, nothing,” Slott said. “There’s not a lot of diversification. He has all his eggs in one basket.”
That basket? Real estate.
“People in my family, we’ve always tried to own land. That’s what we’ve invested in,” Smith said. “What was it Mark Twain said? 'They ain’t making any more of it.’ ”
Smith’s father, a lifelong farmer, bought about 400 acres in Alachua in the early 1970s. He died several years ago, but Smith’s mother still owns 300 acres, which one day will go to her only child.
That land became the subject of controversy in 2003 when Smith helped negotiate the location of a Wal-Mart distribution center, now under construction, on land adjacent to his mother’s property and very near his own.
Some critics said that Smith, a longtime friend to unions, helped nonunionized Wal-Mart because the new distribution center might increase the value of his family’s land.
Nonsense, Smith says. Alachua needed the estimated 600 jobs the center will provide. The president of a local union later agreed.
“I 100 percent thought it was the right thing to do,” Smith said, adding that he doesn’t much care how the center affects nearby property values. “When it becomes my land, I have no plans to sell.”
A leading investor whose Jacksonville company owned the land that Wal-Mart bought for millions of dollars has long been a supporter of Smith’s political career. Records show that William McArthur, either personally or on behalf of companies he heads, has spent thousands of dollars in the past year helping Smith’s campaign for governor.
Dee Dee Smith believes as deeply as her husband in the benefits of owning property. An Alachua native, she worked in the 1970s and 80s as a local real estate broker and part owner of a realty company.
Records show that over the years, the couple formed several real estate trusts with Dee Dee’s brother, Wallace Cain. Together, they bought and sold scores of lots in subdivisions like Turkey Creek, a golf course community southeast of Alachua.
“That’s how we put the kids through college,” Dee Dee Smith said.
They also ended up with three houses of their own, which appreciated by leaps and bounds. Their primary residence, a 3,500-square-foot Alachua home, and the 40 acres of farm land that surround it, most recently was valued at nearly $375,000.
More than a decade ago, the Smiths bought a 1,600-square-foot vacation home on 11 acres in the mountains of North Carolina. County records show they sold some of the acreage at a handsome profit, and the house, most recently appraised at $442,000, has tripled in value.
Until recently, the couple also owned a home in Tallahassee that Smith used during the legislative session. Leon County records show they purchased it in 2003 for $147,500. They sold it in May for $223,000.
“We’re looking at another house, down on Adams Street,” Smith said, referring to the Governor’s Mansion.
The couple owes hundreds of thousands of dollars on outstanding mortgages — in May, for example, they took out a $315,000 mortgage while refinancing the North Carolina house — but their real estate ventures have proved their best investment over the years.
And they might not be finished.
“It’s the way to go,” Dee Dee Smith said. “We may invest in more.”
While the Smiths have done well for themselves financially over the years, Dee Dee Smith said that if her husband had remained a private lawyer and shunned public office, their lives would have turned out differently.
She recalled offers over the years from large South Florida law firms, promising huge paychecks. He turned them down, she said.
“We’d be multimillionaires by now. There’s no doubt in my mind,” she said. “I know this sounds corny, but that was the life we chose. Money has never been our focus.”
Still, they have enough tucked away in the bank not to worry about the bills while they try to capture the Governor’s Mansion.
“We have prepared for this journey,” she said.
Times staff writer Adam Smith contributed to this report. Brady Dennis can be reached at email@example.com or 813-226-3386.