How state Sen. Jeff Smith went to prison and devoted himself to reform (transcript)

How state Sen. Jeff Smith went to prison and devoted himself to reform (transcript)

July 23, 2022 0 By Ellen Novack

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

David Beard:

Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.

David Nir:

And I’m David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. The Downballot is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to city council. You can find us wherever you listen to podcasts, and we’d be grateful if you would leave us a five star rating and review on Apple Podcasts.

David Beard:

Let’s go ahead and dive in today’s episode. What are we going to be covering today?

David Nir:

We are going to be recapping the Maryland primaries that took place on Tuesday night, though we don’t yet know all of the results. We’re also going to be talking about the huge gap in fundraising between Democratic and Republican Senate candidates that favors Democrats quite heavily. There was also an important vote on recognizing the right to same sex marriage in the House on Tuesday that saw quite a bit of Republican support and some interesting Republican votes, both in favor and against. And we also have our first polling of a critical ballot measure regarding abortion rights in Kansas that will be voted on on August 2nd. And we’re also talking with former Missouri state Senator, Jeff Smith, who is a keen observer of Missouri politics and also the author of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, a fascinating memoir of the year he spent in a federal prison for lying about a campaign finance matter during his run for Congress in 2004. Fantastic episode ahead of us, so please stay with us.

David Nir:

Tuesday night, we had some big primaries in Maryland. And we have results in many of the races, but as we mentioned on the previous show, mail ballots won’t even start to be counted until Thursday. So even in races where we do know the winner, the final margins are likely to change. And there are some races that we are still waiting on the final results for. Beard, what went down?

David Beard:

So on the Republican side, we have a lot more of the votes counted, of course, because Republicans today are much more resistant to mail voting than they used to be, and Democrats are a lot more likely to use it. So on the Republican side in the governor’s race, state Delegate Dan Cox, defeated former Maryland Secretary of Labor and Secretary of Commerce Kelly Schultz. He’s currently leading 56% to 40%. I wouldn’t expect that to change a lot when the mail ballots are counted.

David Beard:

So turned out governor Larry Hogan, who had endorsed Schultz, was not happy with the result. He tweeted that Trump had selfishly colluded with national Democrats to cost us a governor’s seat in Maryland. Of course, because Trump had endorsed Cox and Democrats had spent some money on behalf of Cox to boost him in the Republican primary because they thought that they were more likely to beat Cox than Schultz. And really, this is a very fatalistic take from Hogan, without even knowing the Democratic nominee, that there’s no way Cox could win, though it’s probably pretty true. I think Cox obviously is a very, very poor fit for Maryland, even under the best of Republican circumstances. And Hogan’s spokesman even confirmed that he was not going to vote for Cox in the general election, labeling him a “conspiracy-theory-believing QAnon whack job.” So clearly not a fan.

David Beard:

On the Democratic side, author and CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, Wes Moore, is leading the Democratic primary. There’s still a lot of votes to be counted. I think he’s probably the most likely winner at this point. He has a comfortable lead, but that race has not been called, so we’ll have to wait for all the votes to be counted there. In the attorney general’s race, on the Republican side, Michael Peroutka, a former board member of the neo confederate League of the South prevailed 58-42 over Jim Shalleck. Peroutka, among many things, called the separation of church and state “the great lie.” He dismissed public education as the 10th plank in the Communist Manifesto. He said that abortion and same sex marriage defy God’s law. So as much as Dan Cox is not a good fit for Maryland, Peroutka is just another however many steps out there on the right.

David Beard:

So I don’t think that the Democratic nominee is going to have any trouble here, and that’s going to be Congressman Anthony Brown, who defeated former Maryland First Lady, Katie O’Malley. Right now, it’s about 60% to 40%. That could fluctuate some with mail ballots being counted, but that race has been called by the Associated Press. And then finally, in Maryland’s fourth district, former Congresswoman Donna Edwards lost to former Maryland State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey. The count is currently 51% to 35% for Ivey. Again, lots of votes to be counted, but that race has been called.

David Nir:

The end of last week was also the filing deadline for federal candidates to submit their reports detailing all of their fundraising for the second quarter of the year, the period from April 1 to June 30. And despite the fact that Democrats are undoubtedly heading into a difficult November midterm, the fundraising numbers strongly favor Democrats, particularly for the Senate. I’m just going to rattle off a few pairs of numbers here for Senate candidates on the Democratic and Republican side, because the differences are just really, really stark.

David Nir:

In Georgia, Raphael Warnock topped the list with an astonishing $17.1 million. Herschel Walker, Trump’s pick, the Republican, raised $5.7 million. And that was actually a rather good haul among Republicans in general. Many others fared much more poorly. In North Carolina, Democrat Cheri Beasley raised $7.4 million. Congressman Ted Budd, her Republican opponent for this open seat, raised just $2.1 million. In Pennsylvania, obviously a top pickup target for Democrats, John Fetterman absolutely crushed it. He raised $10.9 million despite experiencing a stroke during the quarter that he’s still recovering from. His opponent, Dr. Oz, raised just $1.9 million. That is just a pathetic sum for a candidate running in a large state. And this pattern repeats over and over and over again in almost every key race. Now, if money were the only thing that determined the outcome of elections, we wouldn’t bother having to hold elections. Of course, that’s not the case. But the fact is that in terms of enthusiasm, it’s clear that progressive donors remain fired up, and that the email lists of all these candidates are still bringing in huge sums.

David Nir:

And just to back out and look at this a little more broadly, switching to the House side now. In 2018 in the second quarter of the year, and the second quarter is a good quarter to look at, at this point; most, though not all primaries have been resolved. Campaigns are really close to hitting their highest gear, and you have a good sense of the lay of the land. So in the second quarter of 2018, which of course was the year that Democrats took back the House, among notable Democratic candidates, and that’s in our estimation of the candidates worth watching, Democrats raised 57% of all money from outside donors in that quarter. And so that’s excluding self-funding. And Republicans raised just 43%.

David Nir:

In the second quarter of 2022, notable Democratic candidates have raised 56% of all donations from outside donors, and Republicans, 44%. So despite the huge change in fortunes based on the political environment, and despite the fact that Republicans now seem to have something of an operational competitor to Act Blue in the form of Win Red (though, I guess that’s questionable), they aren’t making up the gap. And this means that no matter what happens in November, Democrats will have the money to get their message out. And if the party loses and faces setbacks, it won’t be for a lack of resources.

David Beard:

And one important factor on candidate fundraising and spending in particular is that candidates are guaranteed a lower ad rate from TV stations. And so dollars raised by candidates go further than outside spending because, particularly the later you get, the ad prices, because there’s so much demand for it, just skyrocket to sometimes crazy levels in these most competitive TV markets. And so a candidate that has a ton of money versus their opponent, that money is going to go so much further than the outside spending on behalf of the candidate with less money. So that’s an important factor as well.

David Nir:

And it’s worth mentioning in a race like Ohio for this Senate, where Republicans are really very strongly favored to hold that seat. Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee, raised $9 million in the quarter. And J.D. Vance, again, another Trump favorite, managed to raise just $1 million, a really, really feeble number. And the speculation is, well, is he just presuming that Peter Thiel and his third-party Super PAC buddies are going to come bail him out? Well, maybe so, but like Beard just said, they will have to spend so much more to make up that gap because of the much-less-favorable rates that super PACs get when it comes to campaign advertising. And like it or not, TV, radio, digital advertising, that all still makes up the lion’s share of campaign budgets.

David Beard:

Turning to the U.S. House: On Tuesday, they held a vote to pass the Respect For Marriage Act, which would codify the right to same-sex marriage into federal law. This, of course, is in the wake of the Dobbs decision from the Supreme Court and Justice Thomas’ call to look at and potentially overturn over Obergefell, which guaranteed the right for same-sex marriage.

David Beard:

There were some really notable results here. 47 Republicans voted for it, along with every single Democrat. Some of the notable yeses included House Freedom Caucus chair Scott Perry, who’s in a Republican-leaning but potentially competitive district in Pennsylvania. Also voting yes was Representative Liz Cheney from Wyoming, who famously opposed same-sex marriage when she was running for Senate from Wyoming, even though her sister was an out lesbian at the time. Also, the entire Utah delegation voted for it, which is notable for the way that the Mormon Church has evolved on the issue over the years. And Ken Calvert, a California Republican who’s not really known as a moderate, but was redistricted into a more competitive district with Palm Springs, which has a significant gay population, also voted for it. There were some notable no votes from people who are having potentially competitive races this cycle.

David Beard:

Ted Budd is of course the Republican nominee for Senate in North Carolina. He voted against it. Ohio Representative Steve Chabot voted against it. He has a potentially competitive race in the Cincinnati area. And Jaime Herrera Beutler in Washington state voted against it, which is notable because she’s facing a challenge from the right as well as a Democratic challenge, so there are sort of crosswinds there for her. She’s, of course, running in a top-two primary, the way that Washington state does it. So probably her immediate goal right now is to make sure she makes it into the top two. And they’re either against a Republican more extreme candidate, or against the Democrat she would probably be favored. So her main fear is probably to avoid somehow getting locked out of that. And of course, also worth noting that both Beutler and Cheney were a couple of the very few number of Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump back in 2021.

David Beard:

The bill is likely to come up in the Senate, which is going to cause some divisions in the Republican side of things, the way that it did in the House. Most notably, Senator Marco Rubio has already announced his opposition to the bill, which Representative Val Demings, who’s running against him in that Senate race and who voted for the bill, immediately jumped on and criticized him for their upcoming Florida Senate race. And we’ll see how this works out in other Senate races as it does move to the Senate.

David Nir:

Rubio even called to vote a stupid waste of time, and I really don’t think that is going to play well. Clearly, Demings does not think so either. What is not a waste of time is Kansas’ upcoming Aug. 2 election. That’s their primary. But also, as we have mentioned before, a very important ballot measure is going to be on the ballot on that day.

David Nir:

It’s going to be the first real test of abortion rights at the ballot box since the Dobbs ruling. What’s on the ballot is a constitutional amendment that would change the state constitution to say that that document does not guarantee a right to an abortion. Republicans have put this measure on the ballot because, in 2019, the state Supreme Court found that the state constitution did in fact guarantee a right to an abortion. And that has prevented Republican lawmakers from placing limits on abortion or banning it all together. We’re mentioning it now because, for the first time, there is a poll of this race. The Republican pollster co/efficient, which says that it polled simply for public consumption, shared a poll with 538 that has the yes side leading by a small 47 to 43 margin.

David Nir:

To be clear, yes is the bad guys here. A yes vote would mean that the Kansas constitution would be amended to say that it does not protect the right to an abortion. So, progressives are working for the no side. We want to vote that down. And the fact that things are so close in such a red state, and also numbers coming from a Republican pollster, suggests that there is a real chance of victory for the good guys here. And another thing worth mentioning is that fundraising reports recently came out. The no side, that is the progressive side, has recently outraised the yes side. So that is another positive sign, but this is undoubtedly going to be a very difficult race. As we mentioned before, Republicans almost certainly put it on the ballot in the summertime instead of at the normal November general election, because they were hoping that lower turnout would benefit them.

David Nir:

It’s possible that that actually might bite them. That co/efficient poll suggested that voters who support abortion rights actually may be more fired up now as a result, obviously, of the Dobbs ruling. So we’ll see, but that is just two weeks away. And it is a race that is very important to keep your eye on in terms of the future of abortion rights and other ballot measures on this exact same issue that will be coming up in the fall.

That does it for our weekly hits, but stick with us. We have a fantastic guest coming up. We are talking with Jeff Smith, who is a former Missouri state Senator and also now executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association. And he is also the author of the book Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, which details the year he spent in federal prison as a result of campaign finance charges stemming from his run for Congress in 2004. He has a fascinating story to tell; he is also an extremely insightful observer of Missouri politics. So, please stay with us after the break, for that conversation.

David Nir:

Joining us today on The Downballot is Jeff Smith, who is the Executive Director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, and a former Missouri State Senator, as well as the author of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison.

David Nir:

Jeff, thank you so much for joining us.

Jeff Smith:

Thanks so much for having me, David and David.

David Nir:

Our pleasure. So, Jeff, you have a unique story in politics, not just in terms of your rise and your fall, but also what you took from the experience and what you did with it afterwards. So, why don’t you give our listeners the Cliff Notes of the story that you tell in Mr. Smith Goes to Prison.

Jeff Smith:

Okay. So, we got three hours here for this podcast, right?

Jeff Smith:

Okay. So, let me give you the Cliff Notes. I was 29 years old, I was finishing my PhD in political science and teaching as an adjunct. I decided to do something insane and I ran for the open seat that Dick Gephardt vacated in 2004 to run for president.

Jeff Smith:

It was an uphill battle. It was a 10-way primary. I was a total nobody, my parents would not even support me. They would not give me money initially, because I was such a long shot and because in all the polling Carnahan was ahead by 40-50 points. His father had been Governor, died tragically in a plane crash. His mother was a U.S. Senator, grandfather was a Congressman, sister was Secretary of State.

Jeff Smith:

My dad was a college coach. My mom taught kids with special needs. So, I didn’t come from a political background.

Jeff Smith:

We had ran a pretty cool grassroots campaign, had over 700 volunteers, didn’t raise that much money, but came within one point, of beating Russ Carnahan in that congressional primary.

Jeff Smith:

I did something really stupid, with a couple weeks left to go in that campaign. A third party had approached two of my aides and said they wanted to put out a postcard, about Carnahan’s dismal attendance record in the state House. Instead of saying, “Don’t do it,” I told my aides, “I don’t want to know anything about it, just don’t tell me any details.”

Jeff Smith:

They gave the kind of hanger-on, consultant guy the voting information, about how many votes Carnahan had missed. He put it into a postcard. The postcard came out, about a week before the election. Like I said, I was ahead most of the night, but lost very narrowly, but Carnahan filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging a legal coordination between my campaign and the third-party group that didn’t appropriately put a disclaimer on that postcard.

Jeff Smith:

Five years later, when I was in the Missouri State Senate, where I got elected two years after that, I was just announced for my re-election and through a crazy series of coincidences, mainly due to the fact that the guy who put that postcard, about five years earlier, ended up car bombing his ex-wife’s divorce lawyer, which led to a freak chain of events, that came back on me due to my former best friend, wearing a wire and recording me, acknowledging, that I had had that conversation with my aides, about them giving the voting information to the third-party group.

Jeff Smith:

That led to a year and a day in federal prison, which I spent in 2010. I came back out, I got a job teaching public policy. I was very blessed in New York City, which is where I met Nir, and then began working on re-entry issues, and wrote a book called Mr. Smith Goes to Prison.

Jeff Smith:

That is both a memoir and a story of my time in prison, but wrapped in a larger argument, about the way that our criminal justice system in this country, the way that it encourages recidivism, instead of working to actually rehabilitate people.

Jeff Smith:

And then came back, after five years in New York city, to my hometown in St. Louis and helped lead a new re-entry organization, that has reduced recidivism by about 50% versus the benchmark, and continue to work in re-entry and affordable housing, here in Missouri.

Jeff Smith:

Sorry for the long winded explanation.

David Nir:

That was an incredible Cliff’s Notes version. I have to say, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Jeff for quite a while. Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, is a fantastic read. You will learn so much, not only about what day to day life is like in prison, especially for a white-collar convict, like Jeff, which is actually quite a rare thing in our system, but also really what the system does overall, to punish and really undermine people’s chances of success, in the future. So, that is my plug for the book.

David Nir:

But Jeff, just to circle back for a second, that postcard that you mentioned, ultimately, it was like a really crappy postcard, right? And it didn’t even get much attention?

Jeff Smith:

I mean, it was totally lost in the final week, clutter, of the race. But one thing that I did, which turned out to be pretty stupid, we had spent a whole year trying to get the press to write a story about Carnahan, all of his missed votes and not showing up for work, and they would never do it. And so, a week from election day, I just decided with one of my opponents, we called a joint press conference, saying, “Hey, you know, Joan Barry, my vet opponent, she’s pro-life and I’m pro-choice, she’s pro-gun and I’m not, but we agree on one thing:  Our opponent Carnahan doesn’t show up for working.”

Jeff Smith:

And then the next day, that postcard hit. So, it made it pretty clear, given the argument that we were making, that one of us had had something to do with that postcard, probably, and that one was me. So thankfully, Joan didn’t get in any trouble, because she didn’t do anything wrong related to that, but it is a little frustrating when you’re seeing the scope of malfeasance in political campaigns these days.

Jeff Smith:

To know that I went to prison over a postcard, but you know what, I’m blessed to be where I am today and thankful. Even though it was an incredibly difficult year, I did learn a lot, about a part of American life, that otherwise, I’d have never had that kind of exposure to. And it’s probably helped me become a much better advocate in that policy space. And I work on criminal justice reform issues here in Missouri and was able to be a leader, in passing various criminal justice reforms, over the last few years, through the Missouri legislature. An area, that again, I probably wouldn’t be equipped, to be an effective advocate in, had I not had the experience, not just being a lawmaker, but a law breaker and seeing what life is like, behind bars.

David Beard:

So, there’s a lot of depictions in media, of prison. And I think there’s a broad understanding among your progressives, that the prison system in America is broken and there are a lot of problems. But they may not have a good understanding of the most specific problems and the things that come up most often. So, why don’t you give us a few examples of what the biggest problems are, that you found, during your experience?

Jeff Smith:

Well, so I separate prison issues, or criminal justice issues in this country, into three big buckets. First, what happens before prison and that’s sentencing issues. Second, what happens inside of prison, and third re-entry, what happens after you get out. We got huge problems in all three of those buckets, in my opinion.

Jeff Smith:

First of all, on the sentencing side, we’ve got a huge issue, in sentencing a lot of people to prison who probably don’t need to be there.

Jeff Smith:

First and foremost, those are drug offenders. In my opinion—and I think in the view of most people on the left side of the spectrum, and increasingly a lot of people on the right—people who are using drugs are sick and that should be treated as a public health problem, not as a crime. By putting them into prison, in most cases away from actual treatment and getting at the root issues that are leading to their substance use disorder, we’re doing them a disservice. And we’re doing society a disservice, because when they come out of prison, they’re typically not healed at all.

Jeff Smith:

And the majority of people who are locked up in this country have a substance use disorder that results from deeper trauma, which is usually a function of adverse childhood experiences.

Jeff Smith:

We also have huge problems, inside of prison. We do almost nothing in this country, to rehabilitate people, particularly in the context of what other industrialized democracies do. If you go to prison, in Denmark or Sweden or Norway, or a lot of European democracies, the odds of going back are very low. In most of those countries, about 15% of people who go to prison, come back to society and then commit new crimes and go back to prison. In the United States, that number is closer to 75%, so about five times as high. If there were any other industry, where 75% of say the widgets that were being made ended up being defective, that company would never survive. That industry would have a huge problem surviving. But we tolerate that with humans and we do almost nothing, in the way of serious, vocational training.

Jeff Smith:

Whereas in Denmark, for instance, when you go to prison, they don’t immediately dehumanize you, by stripping you of your name and giving you a number, stripping you of your clothes and giving you these prison oranges or green clothes. Instead, they ask you, what were your strengths in your past life? What job did you have? And what do you want to do, when you get out of here? What are your life goals? And they spend those three, or four, or five years, helping retrain you or upgrade your skills and then connecting you with jobs in the community, to which you’ll return. We do almost nothing of that sort, in this country.

Jeff Smith:

And that connects to the third bucket, which is re-entry. In this country, about 90% of people, who apply for jobs, have a background check, run on them. About 85% of people, who apply to live in an apartment, have a background check run on them. And most companies will never rent to, or employ someone, who comes up positive.

Jeff Smith:

So, we take people, about 650,000 a year, who have already failed once and we send them back to that same community, with the added stigma of a prison record, which is crippling in the basic functions of trying to get back on your feet, because of all the collateral consequences, of felony convictions. So, we have a ton of work to do in all three of those buckets and I’m thrilled to be a small part of that, here in Missouri.

David Nir:

Jeff, I remember, in Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, you talked about wanting to teach your fellow inmates. You had an advanced degree, there were many things you could have taught them. The warden shot that down. And the only vocational opportunity, was that they taught a class, on growing hydroponic tomatoes and that after the class was over, the CO who ran it, would take all the tomatoes and have a wonderful garden bounty for his family at home. And your fellow inmates didn’t even get to enjoy the literal fruits of their labors. Why do you think they were just so resistant?

Jeff Smith:

It’s a good question. Part of it, may have to do with the context of where I was locked up. I was in a federal prison in southeast Kentucky, in one of the poorest counties in all of Appalachia, Clay County. This is a county, which based on a former New York Times compilation, of something they called a misery index, ranked as one of the most miserable counties in the country, because of the high poverty rates, high addiction rates, high rates of people on food stamps, and high infant mortality and low life expectancy. So, there weren’t many jobs to go around and a lot of the people in that deeply impoverished county, some of the only people who were gainfully employed, were working in that prison. They were very resentful of even the fact that people in prison got to eat for free.

Jeff Smith:

Now, of course, the food, when I was locked up, which was 2010, most of it had expiration dates in 2005, 2006, 2007. I know this, because my job was working on the loading dock, bringing in about 35, 40,000 pounds of food a day, to feed the 2,500 prisoners on the compound. And so, I got a close look at what came in.

Jeff Smith:

But the broader fact is, almost nothing is done to rehabilitate people. You talked about the paucity of vocational training. Another image that stands out in my mind from prison was about three weeks before release. They put us all in a computer room. We finally got a chance to sit down at the computers, at the terminals, in a room that had been locked the entire year that I was there. And the [commanding officer] CO in charge, he said, “All right, y’all, you see that little button on the bottom right, push that button. That’s going to turn your computer on.” We all pushed the button.

Jeff Smith:

Remember, I was probably the only one in the room who’d ever actually been on a computer before. I had the shortest sentence of anybody in that prison. Most people had 15 years, as part of a 10-year mandatory minimum for a drug sentence, a five year enhancement for having a weapon. So most of them had been locked up since the mid-90s and had never been on a computer. We sat there for a couple minutes in silence, and then one of the guys, one of the inmates, he started moving his hand in a circle on the mouse, watching the little arrow on the screen go in a circle. He was fascinated by the correlation between what he did with the mouse and what was happening on the screen. And he asked the CO about it and the CO replied, “Shut the fuck up.”

Jeff Smith:

We sat in silence for 45 more minutes, and at the end of 45 minutes, the CO said, “All right, y’all remember that little button on the bottom right? Push it again and get the fuck out of here.” And we all went back to our cells.

Jeff Smith:

45 minutes that prison had to actually teach people who had never been online before how to point and click and how to potentially look for a job, back when they came home, and they didn’t even take advantage of that limited time to show people. Instead, [they] had people sit and look at a blank computer screen and prohibited them from even opening up a browser. So there is a lot of gratuitous cruelty.

Jeff Smith:

There’s a lot of reform-minded people, over the last decade, that have finally gotten into some positions of power in various states. Missouri happens to have a reform- minded head of the Department of Corrections, here. And so, they’re working to try to add more classes. There’s a great nonprofit called LaunchCode, that’s teaching coding inside of our state prisons. So, there’s some bright spots around the country and I’m working part of a national effort to try to encourage that and try to help people get jobs. I work with a nonprofit here in St. Louis, focused on second-chance employment. I’ve recruited over a hundred companies to hire people out of prison. So again, I do feel grateful, even though it was a rough experience, to be part of a large group of advocates, in Missouri and nationally, to try to help give people a second chance in this country to get back on their feet.

David Beard:

So, what are some actual steps or actions that could be taken by regular voters, activists, things like that, through the political system to try to affect these things, in states, in their localities?

Jeff Smith:

That’s a great question. The first thing you can do is try to change laws that prohibit felons from voting. And we’ve seen that in Florida, and then DeSantis go back on it, and basically do this sort of like debtor system, where if you ever owe a dime at any level of government, then your right to vote is still taken away from you. So that covers a lot of the people that, with Charlie Crist reform, would’ve given the right to vote. We saw Terry McAuliffe do it in Virginia, and we’ve seen some movement throughout the states to give people their right to vote back after they’ve done their time. Why should you keep paying the crime for another five, or 10, or even years, or even longer after you’ve gotten out of prison? It doesn’t make any sense. So one thing people could do is work with their state chapters of the ACLU, or other voting rights organizations, to help give formerly incarcerated people their franchise back after they’ve paid their debt to society.

Jeff Smith:

That’s one way. A second thing you could do, and this is pretty small, go visit a prison, go see what it’s like, volunteer at a prison, volunteer to teach, volunteer in the chapel in a prison, volunteer to help with vocational training at a prison or in jail. Even something as small, if you’re intimidated by that, going into prison is not for everybody, trust me, but I still—I actually have been appointed the chair of the Oversight Board for the St. Louis County Jail. So, I am in jails all the time now in that role, trying to make our county jail the most humane and rehabilitative county facility in the country, working towards that. But if you don’t want to be in a jail, you don’t have to go into a jail to be part of the solution, you could be a pen pal to people who are locked up, who need companionship. You can encourage your company to be a second-chance employer and help teach them how to do that.

Jeff Smith:

You can volunteer with returning citizens who are coming home and need a mentor or a job coach for a reentry agency in your community. There’s a myriad of ways you can help. And of course, you could give money to organizations that are doing this work. So if you’re interested in one of the organizations that I work with here in St. Louis, you can visit SLU, St. Louis University, slu.edu/secondchance to learn more about how second-chance employment works. And we’ve got a whole comprehensive playbook, called the Just Talent Playbook, if you want to help your employer become a second-chance company.

David Beard:

So criminal justice reform is really an issue that’s risen a lot in salience in the past two years. And there’s been some real progress made, particularly in larger cities that have elected reform district attorneys. And then there’s, of course, been inevitable pushback from the establishment. So as this has taken place in the past few years, what’s really surprised you as this has gone on and how do you see this going?

Jeff Smith:

Well, one thing I’ll say is there’s almost no political margin for error for progressive prosecutors. If you decide, “You know what? I’m not going to prosecute certain types of crimes, and I’m going to focus on diversion, and rehabilitation and job training.” And then crime goes up in your community, you will be blamed for it. If your clearance rate goes down on murders and you’re a progressive prosecutor… and when I say clearance rate, I mean, the percentage of murders that are solved, where someone ultimately is charged and convicted or the taking of that life. If your clearance rate goes from 60% down to 40%, and you are a progressive prosecutor, you will be blamed and the entire worldview of progressive, kind of reform-minded prosecution will probably suffer.

Jeff Smith:

We’ve seen that happening in San Francisco. I think near in the Bay Area right now, and we saw Chesa Boudin be recalled. I think most Americans and in particular, certainly most people in metro, in major metro areas, and I think a lot of people in rural areas too, do not want to just lock people up for using heroin or fentanyl. They want people to get better, they want people to get treatment. They understand that people aren’t getting better if they’re just locking them up. And, they also intuitively understand that another drug dealer will pop up to supply drugs for people. If drug dealer A gets locked up, drug dealer B will appear. So, America understands that truth. But if people see that in communities, where reform-minded prosecutors gain power, that people aren’t getting better, or that rehabilitation programs, or drug treatment programs are not working effectively, or there aren’t enough beds, we have to make sure that with the money that’s being saved from diverting people from prison beds, we actually allocate those resources to treatment beds.

Jeff Smith:

We allocate those resources to therapy. We actually help people understand the root causes of their issues and their struggles, which will have… it may not reduce crime in the next month. It may not even reduce crime in the next year, but it will have a substantial long-term positive effect on public safety over the next three, four or five years. So if progressive prosecutors aren’t explaining the dynamics of that, they’re not helping people see how the money is being spent, and they’re not implementing some of these diversion programs, and treatment programs and job programs, and not building community support for it, then I’m afraid we’ll just fall back into some of the same tough on crime style approaches that we went through in the 80s, 90s and that led to mass incarceration in the first place.

Jeff Smith:

So, that would be my diagnosis of where things are. And again, it may not be fair, but it does put an onus on reformers to be totally effective in the work they do, because it’s so easy for this so-called, tough on crime, old school, law and order folks to say, “Oh, it’s not working, it’s not working,” as soon as the crime numbers rise even a little bit. So it’s incumbent on those who feel the way that I do about these issues, to really get our programs up, running and effective in short order.

David Nir:

So Jeff, I want to switch gears and talk about the midterm elections coming up in Missouri. Whenever I need to know something about Missouri politics, especially when I have questions that simply aren’t being answered in the traditional press, I text you. And there is always some sort of extremely helpful answer, sometimes it’s stuff that I can’t write about, but it’s…

Jeff Smith:

I think about 90% of the time, it’s stuff you can’t write about.

David Nir:

That’s probably right. But it informs what I can write about. Part of the reason is you are just very close to the world of Missouri politics, and you know a lot of politicians, and have background and familiarity with many of them. And one person in particular that you know well and I’m sorry that you do, is a former Governor, Eric Greitens, who of course is running for Senate. And, you have written about the kind of guy he is and the kind of campaign he’s running. Tell us about what you’ve gotten to know about him from knowing him so well and what you think his chances are in the primary that’s coming up very soon?

Jeff Smith:

How old are you, David? Are you 40?

David Nir:

I’m 45, Jeff.

Jeff Smith:

45. Okay. So, I’ve known Eric almost as long as you’ve been alive.

David Nir:

Unreal.

Jeff Smith:

We played soccer against each other as kids. And then in high school, we both went to Boys State together. We were both, I guess, student body presidents at our high school. And then, continuum, we were the same position on the soccer field. And so, I marked him or guarded him, we guarded each other throughout high school and he’s an intense competitor. He was a hell of an athlete. He could be nasty on the field. He was the kind of guy in high school, who his peers didn’t like him very much, but the principals and teachers loved him. He was kind of a kiss ass, very smart guy. And so, given that kind of personality, very smart, but also sycophantic, and kind of phony and opportunistic. None of us should be surprised at his selection of universities, he went to Duke.

David Nir:

So, Beard is a North Carolina man.

David Beard:

Yes. I love all of that. Keep going, keep going.

Jeff Smith:

Okay. Are you a fellow Tar Heel, Beard?

David Beard:

Yeah, oh yeah.

Jeff Smith:

Oh, cool, cool. But anyway, the point is, we have had kind of an eerily similar career track. We both to college, eight miles down the road from one another, North Carolina. Then we both went on and got PhDs and mine’s in political science, I think his is political philosophy. We both started nonprofits back in St. Louis. He went to Iraq, I went to prison. But in all seriousness, he was a Democrat. He was a liberal Democrat and he was a big Obama fan. He went to the Democratic National Convention 2008. He watched Obama be nominated, drove out there with former liberal Democratic Governor Bob Holden. In 2009, he was interested in running, at first for the U.S. Senate, but Robin Carnahan obviously had the name, as I am intimately familiar. And so, he decided that maybe he’d run for U.S. House. He looked at two different House seats, the one that Ann Wagner currently occupies and the one that Blaine Luetkemeyer currently occupies.

Jeff Smith:

And ultimately, after a couple visits to Washington D.C., meeting with Pelosi’s folks at the DCCC, he decided that 2010 was going to be a difficult year. So he definitely felt the political wins coming, and decided not to run for Congress as a Democrat then. He resurfaced four years later and started telling people that he might consider running for governor, this time as a Republican. He watched in Missouri, over the course of that decade, Missouri go from being one of the leading bellwether states in the country that picked the winning presidential candidate every time, except one, from 1900 to 2000.

Jeff Smith:

And he watched this metamorphosis from a bellwether state to, I would say, sadly, a ruby red state now, and decided that he was going to run for governor as a Republican. He gave us his rationale that Democrats gave too much money to the VA to help wounded veterans, and they needed to get better on their own and the VA was doing too much for people. So he said he was now a Republican, but he kind of ran as sort of a mainstream Republican. We all know what happened after that. All the political junkies listening here know that he was embroiled in an array of scandals. The first of which was, he had an affair with his hair stylist, and then sexually assaulted her in his basement, tied her up, and then blackmailed her and threatened to spread the picture that he took of her in a state of undress everywhere, if she ever told anyone about what happened. She testified under oath to this. He would never testify under oath.

Jeff Smith:

And ultimately, after a cascading series of scandals involving everything from that affair to campaign finance issues, to a potential federal bribery investigation relating to his dark money, political action committee, he resigned at the start of June, less than a year and a half into his gubernatorial term. He then resurfaced in late 2020, claiming that he had been vindicated, exonerated with all wrongdoing, just because a worker, a contractor for the prosecutor who had charged him in St. Louis, had said that, “Notes were not taken during a deposition of the victim in his initial case, when it appears that notes were taken.” Due to that discrepancy, Greitens claim that he was exonerated from all of it. As I wrote in a column, that would be a little bit like Ted Bundy claiming total exoneration, after he was let out of a parking ticket at the beach where he trolled for young women.

Jeff Smith:

Greitens built on that supposed vindication and announced that he would run for the U.S., that he was exploring a U.S. Senate [run]. Roy Blunt decided not to run for reelection and Greitens almost instantly became the front runner just by virtue of mere universal name identification. Subsequently, he remained the front runner for about a year and a half, it’s only in the last few weeks, now that he’s absorbing constant body blows with a super PAC, called the Show Me Values PAC, that is hammering him, just reading quotes from the multiple sworn affidavits, from the multiple women who have accused him of sexually predatory behavior, sexual assault, violent assault. Even his ex-wife has alleged that he has beaten his own children, smacking his three year old across the face.

Jeff Smith:

She has sworn in an affidavit in their child custody case. He has actually, have avoided going under oath for the last five years in all of these cases. As we tape this episode today, he is in a private sworn closed door deposition for the first time ever, in response, presumably to his wife’s lawyer’s, I think, private threat, that they will release the photographs of the three year old with a swollen face, bleeding gums. He lost a tooth actually, as a result of being struck by his father, as a three year old. And so far, she has not released photographs, but I’m assuming that the threat of that release is what has gotten him into this sworn deposition. He was able to ensure that this isn’t happening in open court. And so, we will see if any information from today’s deposition reaches the public before the August 2nd primary.

David Nir:

Yeah. You talked about the State of Missouri becoming dark red in recent years. Obviously, Missouri was home to maybe the most famous race in decades, where Republicans managed to put forth a total disaster candidate, of course, with a huge boost from Democrats and fumbled away a Senate seat. Obviously, I’m talking about the Claire McCaskill-Todd Akin race in 2012. I think that there are probably a fair number of Democrats out there who hope slash think that maybe history could repeat itself. And if a total disaster like Greitens becomes the nominee, that would create an opportunity for Democrats to flip this seat. I personally feel very, very wary of that. I think that Missouri has changed a lot since 2012. I mean, this is a decade ago now, and I’m really curious for your take on that. Does Greitens’ nomination actually create an opportunity here or no?

Jeff Smith:

Look, I’m glad you said what you said. I agree with you. Look, I like Lucas Kunce a lot. Lucas Kunce is a possible Democratic nominee for this U.S. Senate seat. He’s run a hell of a campaign. He’s come from nothing, had never been elected to anything. And he’s raised almost $5 million. A lot of it, mostly just grassroots in Missouri and around the country. So he’s done a good job and he definitely has a better chance to win if Greitens is the nominee. If Vicky Hartzler or Eric Schmidt is the nominee, I think there’s a 95% chance Republicans keep the seat. If Greitens is the nominee, I would say there’s maybe a 75% chance. So there’s a lower … there’s a better chance that Democrats could win, but certainly not a good enough chance to risk the catastrophic outcome of having Josh Hawley and Eric Greitens be our U.S. Senate delegation. If that happens …

Jeff Smith:

People talk about that, should we add a state? Should we add Puerto Rico in the edge of the country and make it a 51st state? If Josh Hawley and Eric Greitens are our two U.S. senators, I wouldn’t be surprised Republicans agree to some type of trade whereby Missouri gets expelled from the union in exchange for Puerto Rico or Washington DC. It would be the worst Senate delegation in the country. And I don’t think anywhere else would be even close to have an insurrectionist and a serial sexual predator as our two U.S. senators. One good thing, and you won’t catch me applauding Josh Hawley very often, but Josh Hawley did take a stand. Now, this was primarily out of self-interest, but he understood that an Eric Greitens as his colleague would be disastrous for his own presidential aspirations.

Jeff Smith:

And so, although I certainly am not in favor of his own presidential aspirations, I did appreciate that he came out and endorsed Vicky Hartzler about six months ago, the congresswoman running against Greitens. She’s certainly not someone I agree with on a lot of issues, but at least she hasn’t spent the last year and a half as a full-fledged election denier, which both front running Erics, Eric Schmidt, our attorney general, and Eric Greitens have both done. So to me, that’s an existential issue and an existential crisis and a threat to our democracy. So I really want to make sure, both due to Eric Greitens’ personal horrendous behavior as a human and his Trump sycophancy and his embrace of all the worst conspiracy theories plaguing the alt-right right now, I certainly hope that Democrats don’t think, “Oh, we’ll have a marginally better chance of winning the seat. Let’s go and prop him up and try to get him through this primary.”

Jeff Smith:

The stakes are too high. He’s too dangerous. If he does win, he’ll start running for president immediately. And I don’t have enough faith left in this country and the primary electorates in Missouri and nationally to do anything to aid and abet someone of his character right now.

David Beard:

Greitens running for president is truly horrifying. So, God willing, we won’t have to deal with that. Now, as Missouri’s turned to the right, there aren’t as many Democratic seats as there used to be, but there are still a couple of congressional seats with Democrats in them. And there’s a primary in of them where Democratic representative Cori Bush is facing a primary challenge from state Senator Steve Roberts in St. Louis. What do you think the odds of that happening? Do you think Roberts has any chance?

Jeff Smith:

I mean, I think he has a chance. He’s certainly the underdog. It’s a seat that Cori Bush knocked off a 20-year incumbent in Lacey Clay, who also came from a powerful political dynasty. Missouri’s a state that likes our dynasties and Clay was someone who had a pretty powerful perch in Washington DC. And I think it will be difficult for a young first-term state Senator that’s only had a year-and-a-half in the state Senate probably to knock off Cori Bush. That said, I would say that she is leaving herself more vulnerable than any incumbent should. She voted against the infrastructure bill, which help provides for taking lead out of our water. I think most people can agree that we don’t want lead in our water. And having a trillion dollar bill to do that, most Democrats agreed was a good thing. I think she was one of five or six in the House to oppose that. And she’s also talked about abolishing and defunding the military.

Jeff Smith:

Boeing has a former …McDonnell Douglas, which Boeing purchased, was headquartered in this district. So there are 15,000 jobs coming out of that industry, people that sell parts, materials to Boeing to build planes. And so you can agree or disagree with military spending. You can say, “Hey, we should lower military spending, or we should reduce our footprint abroad.” But telling 15,000 families that you want to zero out Pentagon spending, that’s going to have an impact on their livelihood.

Jeff Smith:

So for a first-term Congressman to make statements that are, I think pretty quixotic and pretty far out there, has given an opening. And then on issues related to Israel, she’s been someone who has refused to meet with supporters of Israel here in the district over the last couple years.

Jeff Smith:

And so I think on two or three different issues, she’s left herself vulnerable. I still think it’s going to be very difficult to beat her. She’s got a strong following. State Senator Roberts does have some personal baggage. And the combination of her passionate following, and also the fact that it’s a district that because of some of the issues we talked about a half hour ago, disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions. Over a third of people living in St. Louis city have a felony conviction.

Jeff Smith:

And so a substantial portion of them, disproportionately Black males, cannot vote, which leaves the primary electorate in that district being overwhelmingly female, which helps a female candidate against a male candidate, particularly one who’s been accused of sexual improprieties himself. So that’s where I see that race.

Jeff Smith:

Roberts has been, I think, a pretty good state Senator, but probably needs to do some more base building before taking on a challenge like this. I guess he figured that in a redistricting cycle, this was probably the best time to go after an incumbent, particularly a freshman.

David Nir:

So Jeff, that district you were just talking about, Missouri’s first district, it’s partially an inheritor of the seat you once ran for, the third district. You ever think about running for office again one day?

Jeff Smith:

Honestly, Dave, you may have seen my wife in the background. We’re on video as well as audio. And the day that I go down to the courthouse to file for office again, I will bump into my wife filing for divorce. So I think it’s pretty unlikely.

Jeff Smith:

Just to be a political strategist, a Machiavellian type for a moment here. If I were to ever do it and wanted to run for Congress again, this would’ve been the cycle. It’s a 50% white, 50% black district, approximately. There’s two very credible black candidates in the race. This would’ve been a cycle for any white candidate with a following, given the racial math and the typical racial polarization of St. Louis politics. That did not appeal to me. I represented a majority black district in the state Senate and that was a fun and fascinating challenge every day of doing that.

Jeff Smith:

And so I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to run a campaign solely aimed at the white voters in this district. But I will say this, I get to be involved in almost all the stuff that animated my political career in the first place. As an advocate, I get to work on affordable housing. I get to work on education reform. I get to work on criminal justice reform. I get to work on three or four of the biggest issues that I worked on in the state Senate. Only now I don’t have to beg people for money half my day, every day.

Jeff Smith:

And even though it’s a challenging state to do progressive advocacy in, given super majorities in both chambers of the legislature, it is very rewarding to be able to continue to work on the stuff that I believe in and have some success on all three of those issues that I’ve worked on and to work with the ACLU here, which is one of my clients, to try to protect some civil liberties in a state that has been pretty retrograde on some of those issues. So, no, you’re not going to see my name on the ballot again, but you are going to see me probably for the next couple decades, continuing to work on the stuff that I talked about during my campaigns.

David Nir:

Well, Jeff, it has been absolutely fantastic having you on the show and talking with you. Before we let you go, can you let our listeners know how they can support the sort of work that you are doing and also where they can find you on Twitter?

Jeff Smith:

Yeah. Thanks so much, David, for the opportunity, Nir, and Beard, to be on the show, I’ve been a huge DKE fan for many, many, many years, an occasional contributor, sometimes openly, sometimes a little more quietly. But if you want to, if you’re interested in any of the criminal justice stuff that I’ve been talking about, particularly if you’re interested in the work on second chance employment and helping people get back on their feet and be contributing members of society, you can visit slu.edu/secondchance. And you can learn more about what it takes to be a good second chance employer through our Just Talent playbook. Hopefully, your company will do it, or you can donate to our work. That would be incredible. So my email, if you want to get in touch, [email protected], and my Twitter handle is @JeffSmithMO, Jeff Smith, M-O for Missouri. Thanks so much. And look forward to reading more of your insights.

David Beard:

That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Jeff Smith for joining us. The Downballot comes out every Thursday, everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach us by email at [email protected] dailykos.com. And if you haven’t already, please like and subscribe to The Downballot and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our producer, Cara Zelaya and editor Tim Einenkel. We’ll be back next week with a new episode.



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