Smith: Independent Consensus-Builder

Despite his start in relative obscurity, Rod Smith believes he can win the Democratic nomination.Independent Consensus-Builder


He’s the candidate with the most common surname in the United States who nobody seems to know.
Democratic contender Rod Smith, 56, has perhaps the longest row to hoe in his quest to become Florida’s next governor. He never has run in a statewide race, is at a distinct fund-raising disadvantage compared to his Republican opponents and, when he announced he was running a year and a half ago, the two-term state senator was largely unknown outside the sprawling district that includes his home county, Alachua, and all or part of seven other North Florida counties.

But despite his start in relative obscurity, Smith is convinced he can win the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, Florida’s governorship.

“I could not be more confident that we have a great opportunity to win,” he said. “I think in Florida there’s a sense that our public schools are not what we want them to be, that our health-care delivery system has failed … (and that) by and large, we’ve done much to assist the privileged at the expense of the underprivileged.”

While those words may sound partisan, Smith has a reputation in the state Senate as a consensus-builder who plays well with Republicans. He has worked with colleagues from across the aisle to rewrite Article 5 of the state Constitution and to pass key legislation, including the Jessica Lunsford Act.

Although a former state attorney and death penalty advocate (perhaps his most high-profile accomplishment is the conviction of Danny Rolling, who was sentenced to death for the Gainesville student murders that occurred in 1990), Smith is credited with bringing prosecutors and law enforcement interests to pass a bill outlawing the execution of mentally retarded people.

Smith claims he’s “fiercely independent,” willing to buck his party’s line or take a position that’s not always popular with the majority of his constituents. Voters, he said, understand a difference of opinion “as long as you’re not owned or rented and you make the best call you can. The issues are difficult, and the green light and the red light are your only choices when you ultimately vote.

And you don’t always get it right,” he continued. “It’s red or green – and the problems are not red or green problems. If they were, this would be such an easy job.”

When he was 2 years old, Smith’s family moved from Oklahoma to Palm Beach County. Although it’s now part of the sprawling South Florida megalopolis, Smith lived a young life more like that of a country farm boy. The family home was in Boynton Beach, so Smith could attend public school, but most days his father would travel west to farm in Loxahatchee.

“Of course, so did I every afternoon when I … could not find some plausible excuse,” Smith said. “I really grew up farming with my dad.”

“I think in Florida there’s a sense that our public schools are not what we want them to be (and) that our health-care delivery system has failed.”

After college in the Midwest, Smith attended law school at the University of Florida and managed the cattle farm his father had bought in nearby Alachua. Smith would spend the next several years working as an attorney with a labor law practice, often representing law enforcement unions. With no experience as a prosecutor, he defeated the incumbent to become state attorney in 1992, was re-elected and then ran for and won his Senate seat, which previously had been held by a Republican. Smith currently serves as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Smith is personally engaging, with a sense of humor most often aimed squarely at himself, whether he’s lamenting his inadequate math skills (“I was diagnosed with dismathmia, which was only cured by sitting behind a relatively smart algebra student.”) or lampooning his intellect (“I spend my life with people saying, ‘He must be deeper than he appears.’ They’re wrong.”)

Smith’s supporters say his background and abilities make him an electable Democrat who can appeal to traditional supporters as well as the more conservative North Florida rural voters who have abandoned the party in recent elections in favor of Republican candidates.

He’s been married for 23 years to the former Dee Dee Cain, who he describes as a “recovering lawyer,” not practicing law but active in child-related advocacy at home and around the state.

While the couple’s children are “the classic yours, mine and ours” family, Smith said the three are “very, very close,” and all are planning to be involved in his campaign throughout the summer. Dee Dee’s daughter, Alison, is married to a Lutheran minister and is the mother of the Smiths’ 1-year-old grandchild. Smith’s son, Jesse, just graduated from law school at the University of Maryland and plans to take the Florida bar exam and ultimately work in the state attorney’s office. The Smiths’ honors-student son, Dylan, just finished his first year at the University of Florida.

Smith has a “passion” for John Wayne movies and history and a “voracious” reading habit that – combined with a little Baptist guilt – won’t allow him to stop reading a book once he’s begun.

“I believe its some sort of sin, stopping even a bad book,” he said. “I feel like you’ll get to heaven and they’ll ask: ‘What was the last chapter like?’” – Rosanne Dunkelberger

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