Undercurrents

Saving Private Smith

When the Florida Supreme Court ruled last week (though it now seems like a political eon ago) that thousands of uncounted ballots from across the state should be hand-counted, state Rep. Chris Smith did something completely unexpected. The 30-year-old Fort Lauderdale Democrat leaped up and embraced minority leader Lois Frankel in a third-floor office of the state capitol.

Impromptu displays of emotion aren't part of Smith's political persona, which includes a bow tie that he wears in homage to black civil rights leaders of yore. "I think that tells you how happy I am," Smith told Undercurrents after the unexpected embrace.

Before the ruling one would have been hard-pressed to catch Smith so much as smile during the frenzied, politically charged week in Tallahassee. His sullenness was rooted in what he calls the "worst political mistake of my life." Back in 1998 Smith broke party ranks to endorse Jeb Bush for governor. It was a strange move, because Smith is a black liberal, the seeming antithesis of Dubya's conservative little brother. (Remember the Jebster's 1994 quote that he'd do "probably nothing" for blacks if elected governor?)

Why'd Smith support Jeb? The governor, he says, reached out and met with him during the campaign. And Democrats had alienated the black community by stripping Opa-locka state Rep. Willie Logan of his title as the House's first black leader designate. "The Democrats seemed to take me for granted," Smith recalls. "I didn't have an allegiance anywhere at the time."

After Smith went to Tallahassee, he realized the magnitude of his mistake. Jebbie pushed through the One Florida initiative, which ended affirmative action in many parts of state government. That enraged both Smith and the vast majority of black voters.

The weekend before the November 7 election, Smith led hundreds of voters, most of them black, in a march down Sistrunk Boulevard to Broward's government center, where they voted absentee against George W. Bush. It was a great moment for Smith. It was also a chance to pay penance for his ill-conceived endorsement of Little Brother.

On Tuesday, December 12, Smith did a slow burn in Tallahassee, watching the Republican majority steamroll the Democrats in a move to name its own slate of electors for Dubya. Then, in perhaps the most important eight minutes of his political career, he provided the African-American perspective on the floor of the House during the special session. He chose a weighty topic: the history of state legislatures circumventing court rulings that gave blacks the right to vote. He spoke of poll taxes and literacy tests being used at polls throughout the South in an attempt to keep blacks from voting. "We gave very passionate arguments, but the Republicans still did just what they wanted to do," he commented.

It was one of the day's best speeches. And it was one more step in Smith's odyssey to redeem himself for supporting a Bush.


The departure of Sun-Sentinel managing editor Ellen Soeteber for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, announced last week in an e-mail from editor Earl Maucker, dealt a significant blow to the area's most widely circulated newspaper. After arriving from The Chicago Tribune in 1994, she scared away some employees and terrorized others. But she also whipped a fatty newspaper into one that garnered some significant national awards. In perhaps her most significant move, she played a key role in setting up a Cuba bureau, slated to open soon. "Ellen came on like a freight train," says one Sun-Sentinel writer, "but that's what the place needed."

Soeteber, however, leaves at an inopportune time. A string of departures for the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and The Chicago Tribune has weakened the reporting staff. Employees question several recent hires of top management. And the newspaper, by some measures at least, has taken a drubbing from The Herald in covering a voter scandal that started in its own back yard.

A national search will be conducted for Soeteber's replacement, though the job likely won't be filled before her departure, according to Maucker's e-mail.

 
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