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He's happy to talk about his causes

Rod Smith is that he’s a talker. It’s not just a campaign tool; although the theme of his 1,100-mile, 18-stop RV tour was “Straight Talk.”

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published July 29, 2006


Tallahassee — On the last Friday in April, a Democratic senator from a town of 6,000 steered the Republican-controlled Florida Senate toward a meltdown.

On the day the Senate killed a Gov. Jeb Bush education priority, Sen. Rod Smith of Alachua didn’t sit much. He walked the Senate’s blue carpet, grabbing arms to whisper. The few times he sank into his navy leather chair, he rocked back and forth, staring blankly between bursts of furious scribbling on a legal pad.

Smith had assembled a fragile coalition of Republicans to help his party block a GOP effort to weaken the state’s limits on class size. But to make it all work, Smith needed to convince his colleagues to keep quiet and not harp on the controversial class-size issue.
Hard to do for Senate Democrats. Nearly impossible for Smith.

“I was afraid that we would make it so partisan that we’d drive away much-needed Republican allies,” said Smith in a recent interview reflecting on that day. The senator himself has almost never in six years skipped a chance to debate a controversial issue.

The thing to know about Rod Smith, who is now running for governor, is that he’s a talker. It’s not just a campaign tool; although the theme of his 1,100-mile, 18-stop RV tour was “Straight Talk.” Smith is not a behind-the-scenes guy like his opponent, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis or a policy wonk like Republican candidate Tom Gallagher.

Over the course of 14 years of public service, and 17 years in mostly private law practice before that, Smith has earned a reputation as a passionate public speaker who can sway nonbelievers to his side.

His causes have been less about ideology than about shaping issues or policies that already have momentum.

He speaks with the musical cadence of a Baptist preacher, because that’s the kind of public speaking he heard growing up. He can turn a tense moment on its head with an offbeat, farmer’s turn of phrase.

This is partly how Smith, 56, “returned two Republican seats to the Democratic side” in conservative North Florida, as he says in speeches across the state. (That said, both seats had been held by politicians who hadn’t been elected as Republicans.)

The other way he did it is with a record of careful compromise and advocating relatively conservative views on things such as crime, private property rights and agriculture.

Experts say Smith’s gift for public speaking and his moderate record would serve him well in a general election, but may not help him much in the primary, which draws more stalwart left-leaners from big cities who tend to be suspicious of someone who sounds like a preacher.

“When these boys and girls north of I-4 see Rod Smith, they believe he’s one of them, because he is,” said Democratic consultant Jeff Garcia, who is campaign manager for Smith’s friend, attorney general candidate Skip Campbell . “But those aren’t necessarily the big Democratic turnout areas in a primary.”

Smith was the first person elected to the Gainesville-based state attorney position in 55 years. The previous office-holders had been appointees.

Once elected, Smith inherited one of Florida’s most high-profile murder cases, one that gave Smith his first taste of celebrity. Smith sent University of Florida serial killer Danny Rolling to death row.

On the first day of the trial, Rolling confessed to torturing and killing five students, which promptly ended the trial. But Smith got his chance before the jury during the two-week penalty phase, which was sometimes broadcast on television. Smith asked jurors to approve the death penalty, because “Danny Rolling wrote his epitaph in the blood of those five students in Gainesville.” The jury of 12 recommended death, unanimously.

Smith became a hero. When he would walk into a restaurant or malls, he was met by applause and cheers. He realized, especially after his dad sat him down and gave him a talking to, that he would probably never again be quite so well-known or held in such high regard.
“You’re not near about as smart as people are telling you right now,” Smith recalls his dad saying. “But you won’t be near around as bad as they say you are the next time you do something they don’t like.”

Smith often repeats that story and says he has found it to be true.

Other murder cases followed, but nothing like the Rolling case. Smith won conviction in an 8-year-old botched case against a schoolteacher and community leader who murdered his wife in the tiny town of Baker. He also won another conviction in another homicide that had been unsolved for 18 years.

“He’s an extraordinarily talented trial lawyer, gifted I’d say, and his cross-examination skills are terrific,” said Rick Parker, who was Rolling’s public defender and remains that circuit’s public defender. “He kicked our (behinds), of course.”
Smith also had some controversial cases.

In 1999, he drew criticism for choosing not to prosecute fraternity members who attended a house party, where a stripper said she had been raped. Inconsistent stories and hours of lewd video, which showed the students and the stripper engaging in some consensual sexual activity that night, made the case look questionable. Smith defends his decision not to pursue rape charges and speaks openly about the case. But the local chapter of the National Organization for Women says he should have pursued charges.

That same year, Florida death row inmate Frank Valdes was beaten to death by corrections officers. Smith was among the first to call the death a murder and was the first prosecutor on the case. But after Smith was elected to the state Senate, he turned over his records to his successor. Only four of the original group of eight went to trial in their home town of Starke, where most residents work for the Corrections Department. They were all acquitted.

The case has re-emerged in public discourse because of Smith’s longtime friendship with James Crosby, who was in charge of the Florida State Prison in 1999. But Crosby was on vacation when Valdes was killed.

Crosby, a former head of the Department of Corrections, recently pleaded guilty to his part in a kickback scheme involving a company that provided concession services to the prison system.

Smith returned $2,500 in campaign contributions given to him directly by another contractor and longtime friend who was not charged but was described as a co-conspirator in the kickback scheme. A political committee that supported Smith, but that he didn’t control, also took $30,000 from the contractor. That committee has since dissolved.

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In 2000, Smith won his Senate seat in precincts that voted for George W. Bush for president, despite large numbers of registered Democrats.  

In the first few weeks of the presidential recount, Smith was named to a committee charged with investigating voting irregularities in Florida. Once, a colleague turned to him during a press conference and asked if he had ever seen so many cameras. “Yeah,’’ Smith said. “I’ve seen a lot more.”

In speeches today, Smith says that as governor he would be sure voting machines spit out receipts for votes, “just like at 7-11.”

Smith’s Achilles’ heel in the Democratic Party is his strong record on gun rights, private property rights and agriculture. Last year he cosponsored legislation allowing Floridians to use deadly force, even in situations where they could have fled. He also supported legislation that gave gun ranges protection from lawsuits if they agreed to clean up lead on their property according to state guidelines, which many state environmental groups opposed.

While Smith was involved in a lot of different legislation, he quickly became the go-to senator on legislation that touched the courts. He protected pretrial intervention programs and drug courts, while crafting the legislation that moved funding for the courts from the counties to the state.

He led efforts to block business-backed caps limit­ing lawsuits. Once, when asked his position on legislation to halt obesity lawsuits against fast-food companies, he signaled his support by sending the Senate president a sausage McMuffin.

“In the legislative process, your currency is how much people respect you, and I don’t know if there’s another member with as much currency,” said incoming House Minority leader Dan Gelber, a Miami Democrat who supports Smith. “Democrats believe in him and Republicans believe he doesn’t take a cheap shot, and I think that will serve him well as a governor.”

Republican and former Senate President Jim King, a friend of Smith, blamed Smith “absolutely” for interfering with the Republican’s education agenda during the last session. But he also said he respected him.

“During the time I was president, he was very helpful to me, like when he helped me negotiate the medical malpractice issue,” said King, who was among the nine Republicans who sided with Smith and Democrats against a last-ditch effort to reinsert feeding tubes into Terri Schiavo last March. “He always brought an intelligence to the table and a loyalty to the Senate.”

Many of Smith’s coalitions revolve around Smith’s beliefs in making it more difficult to amend the Constitution, for voters and lawmakers, alike. That’s why Smith says he originally opposed the class-size amendment proposed by then-state Sen. Kendrick Meek, now a U.S. congressman.

“He believes the Constitution should not be treated as a rough draft,” said Meek.

Meek succeeded with the amendment without Smith’s support, but said he was persuaded to endorse Smith’s bid for governor after watching him work in the Legislature this year to save class-size restrictions and to keep vouchers out of the constitution.

Now, as he campaigns, Smith loves to recall that day in April when the class-size proposal went down in defeat. And even Republicans acknowledge that in drawing Republicans to his side on that issue, Smith ruined the chances for two other GOP proposals: putting caps on future state budgets and lengthening term limits.

“It’s his ability to talk to any issue straight forward.  He doesn’t mince his words and he’s very, very good at what I call 'political persuasion compromise,’ ” said Dewyne Douglass  of Defuniak Springs who drove to a Crestview Hardee’s to listen to a Smith speech. “He knows that just because they’re Republican, they’re not your enemy.”

Yet, a few more South Floridians seemed suspicious of Smith after hearing his speech. They said he sounded too good to be true.

“I think he said everything that’s good to Democrats, like apple pie and mother’s milk,” said Irma Leiser, an undecided Democrat who saw Rod Smith in Delray Beach. “He comes on like a medicine man. But he doesn’t explain how all this is going to get done. He’s so high key and so hype, you don’t get a feeling of reality.”