Get to Know Mayoral Candidate Earl W. Smith – Pt 1
Earl W. Smith has big plans for 2011. It was announced in January that he would be the Franklin County Republican Party candidate that would face long-time incumbent, Mayor Michael B. Coleman. Smith may not have a lot of name recognition just yet, but will be spending all year campaigning for the title of Mayor of the 16th largest city in America.
To find out more about Smith’s background, his political platform and his ideas for the future of the city of Columbus, we crowdsourced a few questions from the community here on CU, and sat down with Smith for a lengthy interview. Read onward to find the answers to your questions in Part 1 of our 3 part interview.
Walker Evans: Thanks for taking the time today, Earl. Can you first tell us a bit about your personal and professional background?
Earl W. Smith: Well, I have lived in Columbus all my life. I’m 58 years old. I live in a house that my wife and I built 27 years ago. My wife is deceased. I stayed in the house. I started working, like most guys in my age range, when I was a teenager. I worked for my dad when I was 13. I think his effort was to help me understand accountability, and then I went through a variety of job and career changes, you know, feeling yourself out. Trying to decide where you want to go.
And, actually what happened – what got me involved in the police department – was, I had a friend who had joined the auxiliary. That was unpaid volunteers who work in the community. Typically you work with a uniformed officer. You actually have to use your time to go to the Police Academy and learn the same basic things. The state of Ohio has a minimum standard for law enforcement. The Columbus Police Academy has a much longer course. This, as an auxillary, required nine months part-time, going to school at night to get the basic training. You bought your uniform and all of your supplies. They might have you work at special events, like we did things in the village, traffic, special affairs, things like that. I found that I really liked it. The truth is, I grew up in a comparatively quiet environment. I didn’t have a clue about some of the issues facing the city of Columbus. I started working in some of the areas with an auxillary officer and it was kind of like, woah! Stepping through the looking glass. And I just frankly wouldn’t have comprehended some of this stuff. It was naivete on my part.
But what I found was that I really liked the people that you interact with. Number One, I was fortunate to work with officers that were very committed and dedicated. And to run into community members who were likewise very involved and kind of got me pumped up. So I put in an application for the academy, and was fortunate enough to be accepted. Went through the whole academy plus some and then my career just went in a hundred directions. When you look back as an adult and you realize, wow, the path – coincidentally – was perfect.
As a patrol officer, pretty much where everybody starts, I spent about ten years in the detective bureau. Working in everything from property crimes, burglaries, thefts, homicide, crime scene search unit, robbery and sexual abuse. I was brought in and trained in a variety of backgrounds and areas of expertise and at the time, I believe I was the youngest person ever in the detective bureau. As a rookie, I worked with people that had a remarkable range of experience. If you were young and you were interested, there was always a lot of information they were very good about sharing.
There came a point in time where the frustration… and the reality of law enforcement is – all too often, you arrive on the scene after the crime has already occurred. And you’re left apologizing and being empathetic and sometimes being struck by the tragedy. And it got really frustrating because I wasn’t able to have much impact. I really naively believed that if you did certain steps, crime would magically go away. Well, you quickly learn that that’s the young person’s perspective. You can work hard, and it doesn’t necessarily change the dynamic. I really was debating about leaving law enforcement. And someone said to me, “what about getting involved in the crime prevention unit?” I didn’t even know it existed. The crime prevention unit was all about pro-active. I actually had taken my very first training in 1979. On my own, I paid for it and went. It was conducted over at The Ohio State University and the concept of preventing crime seemed absolutely logical.
I went on to study everything about crime prevention I could study. I spent several years in that Bureau. I rewrote virtually every document related to prevention activities that was there at the time. I began working with community groups across the city of Columbus, virtually every area of interest from the neighborhoods to special needs populations to the GLBT community… you name it. And what I discovered is that while these different groups are arguably the most demanding customers, they were also the most likely to stand shoulder to shoulder to deal with an issue. It really took on a family feel in that we would argue sometimes amongst ourselves, but when it came time for dealing with the bigger issues, we stood together. It was very invigorating. It really got me fired back up.
Some point along the way, I got convinced to take the Sergeant’s test, and I did and I got promoted. I helped set up, what became for Columbus, the Community Liaison Unit. As a subset of the Strategic Response Bureau, I did the training for all of the officers that came through there. I did that for a number of years. Then I became the spokesperson for the division… the public face. Which represented a whole other set of challenges. I think the toughest lesson for me was, that every horrible tragedy involving the public or our own personnel, was there. Only years later did I realize it really was an emotional price to pay. When an adult parent at a scene of a homicide or some tragic accident grabs your hand and falls to the ground, and cries out why and you have no answer, that for me was a horrific experience. Really, I think it was the beginning of a transformation – it became very very personal.
After doing that for four years, I set up the first Public Information Unit. I believe that the only response was to be very accessible and I was told that wasn’t typically the way it was done. I don’t know how you can create a relationship if you are not available. I don’t know how you can proactively deal with issues if you’re not accessible. And I made myself very accessible finally to the point where my wife was obviously tired of the 24 hour phone calls and the people that would approach us that were total strangers – all nice people – but I think for her, a little unnerving after awhile. It finally got to the point where it was so physically and emotionally demanding that I had to stop.
I transferred and worked in Internal Affairs. I kind of look at it as a one-on-one media relations situation. More often than not, our single biggest problems are failure to communicate, in regard to why we do things they way we do. I think we sometimes assume the public understands it, but between the screwy television shows that confuse people and give them false expectations and our own failures, oftentimes the public doesn’t know why we do things.
And in between, there was a hundred other things that I was able to do. So, that’s a very long winded answer to your question, but that’s a five minute version of a 33 year career.
WE: Do you have any education background outside of the Police Academy and your time in the Police Force, and if so, does any of that background focus on public policy?
EWS: No, most of my public policy perspective were forged in the fires of community issues. You are a worker bee when you are in my position. You really don’t have any policy influencing capability. And what I saw at a first hand level where times when the police department sometimes dropped the ball and oftentimes, unfortunately, where I believe the city dropped the ball. It’s such an enormous operation with so many people. We are all public employees, and by the way, that includes the Mayor. You may have a nicer office as mayor, but you’re still a public employee. Sometimes in the enormity of the operations, there’s a disconnect. The public gets frustrated by that, understandably. Communication suffers. And it starts to make the city itself dysfunctional. We don’t have that luxury. Not today. We will probably never in our lifetime returns to the glory days, if you will, where the country grew and grew and grew exponentially. We’re going to have to work harder and harder. When you look at the world market, you read the Wall Street Journal, when you look at what’s going on in China and India… they are labor power-houses, they are innovation power-houses, and the US is now just another player. We are not respected in the same respect as a country. We are not necessarily the go-to destination. And we’re going to have to re-earn that.
The same thing happens when you are talking about the city of Columbus. A reporter recently asked me if I would mandate that people doing business with the city, live in the city. Absolutely not. I believe that it is our obligation to create that magnet. We have to create a city where the CEO of a company in Downtown Columbus, at the end of the day says, “I’m going home” and he walks two blocks and he is at his house. Where they say they want to live in Columbus. The same way I have friends who live in New York City who desire to live in New York City even though clearly, it has a lot of problems. We need to create that kind of a vibrant destination. We don’t have that.
WE: What Columbus neighborhood do you currently live in, and how long have you lived there?
EWS: I live in the northwest area. It’s not branded like Franklinton or the Mt. Vernon neighborhood. It was a farm field. I wanted gardens and I wanted the landscape. It appealed to me at the time. Traffic was fairly light… that’s no longer the case, as it happens. When we picked our house we had deer in the backyard, now we have neighbors. That is how it is. But I have my garden, I have my landscaping, I have a backyard that I can sit in, relax and enjoy the landscaping that we created over the years.
WE: What local organizations, boards, or committees have you been involved in, and have you held leadership positions in any of those capacities?
EWS: I was twice elected President of the Ohio Crime Prevention Association. Which is, I believe the nation’s oldest, if not the largest, crime prevention organization. I served on the advisory board of Canine Companions for Independence. They train assistance dogs. I worked with Women Against Rape, called WAR at the time. I’ll have to go back and look through all of this stuff. I’ve been in an advisory role with a lot of organizations over the years. I used to do volunteer work at the zoo. When Jack Hanna first came to Columbus I did a lot of his photography. You need something like that to round out your life. And unfortunately, the outlook of police work is often pretty negative. So these things were great opportunities for me.
WE: Do you think that your time spent as a police officer has given you an adversarial or pragmatic perspective when facing a problems?
EWS: Adversarial, no. Well, pragmatic, hrmm… I’m not going to say it’s the wrong word, but I think there are different solutions to a problem. I think that when you are looking at the city as a whole, and crime specifically, I don’t believe there is a mayor anywhere that would be able to solve those issues on his or her own. I believe that the solutions lie in bringing the respective parties and it has to be task specific. This city is so large and the neighborhoods have so many different concerns. There is some overlap, but usually completely different concerns. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all response. I have learned that. And I have learned that the best way, in my opinion, is to have those various participants, those players, sitting at the table with you. And you’ve got to have absolutely open conversation. There is nothing that’s off the table, other than courtesy. And frankly, I believe, it’s how we have to return the operations of the city government to the community. If you want the mayor, the administrator, city council, all of the folks in leadership positions to be accountable, you have to sit at the table. You have to take an active role. And again, because of the diversity of the city of Columbus, you’re going to find within the citizens, huge ranges of concern and disagreement too. But what you can do is mandate transparent government. The greatest way to avoid questions about what’s being done and whether it’s being done for the right reason is to be sitting at the table. You can share information with the community so they know exactly what’s going on. Why it’s being done. And the same thing goes for the budget. All the years I’ve been here, there’s just magic things that happen when it comes budget time. Typically when it comes to contract negotiations. The day before contract negotiations, there’s a set of numbers. The day after, miraculously, money appears. Any CFO in a company that had magic numbers would be indicted. The public needs to know. The employees of the city need to know. You’re going to have to sit down and participate in making a budget that this community can live with. We have to grow this community, or no one is going to have a budget for long. There’s no magic to it. We have to make this a place where businesses want to locate. Not from Dublin to Columbus. Or from Columbus to Grandview. Which is baloney growth. I mean, I hear that all the time… “We brought this new business!” That’s crap if you stole it from another suburb! We’re going to have to market Columbus as Columbus Proper, if you will. With Grandview, and Hilliard, and New Albany and Dublin, and all the rest of us sitting at the table together. Instead of beating each other up over things. Indianapolis has, to the best of my understanding, done a pretty good job. They’re all independent, but when it comes to market that area of the country, they are sitting down collectively. When they are talking to a business, they are saying, this is what we can bring to the table collectively. We may have to have the guts to say, this particular business will do better in New Albany. This one clearly belongs in Columbus. And I think long run, we’ll see a much much greater success rate, and when we talk about growth, it’s going to be honest growth.
WE: Shifting gears a bit… an always important topic on Columbus Underground is that of public and alternative transportation. What are your views on those types of initiatives as they relate to bikeways, complete streets, improvements to COTA, and the future possibility of light rail, streetcar or intercity rail?
EWS: I’m probably not as serious of a bicyclist as you, but I do bike. It definitely is a dicey experience sometimes on Columbus roads. Some drivers are all too often disrespectful of motorcycles or bicycles, we all know that. So I think certainly, as we develop we should be including those kinds of things like bicycle lanes. At the time of development or improvement, it’s not a huge additional cost in most cases. So, I have considerations for those needs, absolutely.
When it comes to light rail, I’ve traveled enough in places like Tampa, where they have streetcars, trolleys, and all kinds of things. So far, it hasn’t been productive in proportion to the cost. Now, I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a bad idea. But I think as our dollars are going to grow increasingly tighter, we just have to plan these things with less emotion and more budgetary accountability. We can’t just spend because it feels good. You know, I love riding on those things. Especially when it’s somebody else’s city, because they paid for it. The fact that it looks nice, and I enjoy it, doesn’t necessarily mean that I would endorse it for Columbus. I’m a facts-oriented guy though, so give me some ideas on how we can make this successful and productive. There are some things that you have to pay for that are never going to be a direct cost benefit, but in the greater picture, they do pay off. That’s why I would like to look at these things fresh. Let’s look at some best practices and examples. Where have they seen success? What did they do differently? What can we duplicate? I like not to reinvent the wheel… if somebody’s got a good plan, I don’t have to re-brand it with my name. The only brand that I want is success. If we can do that, I’ll be a very happy man.