Get to Know Mayoral Candidate Earl W. Smith – Pt 2
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 2 of our 3 part interview.
Walker Evans: If you are elected Mayor this November, how would you handle working with either a majority or unanimous Democrat City Council?
Earl W. Smith: Well, assuming that that’s still the case after the elections… I don’t really have any sort of magic to use. I have worked in the past with community groups routinely and have developed working relationships with groups that are not remotely pro-police. But when people realize that you actually mean what you are saying, that you are genuinely sincere, even if they dislike your message, they’re able to differentiate. If I’m elected mayor, I’m going to sit down, over coffee, with each and every city council person. I’m going to go to their office and introduce myself personally and acknowledge that we are going to have to work collectively for the benefit of this city. Sometimes their point of view may not win and sometimes my point of view may not win. I’m okay with that. It’s not a scorecard for me. I’m at a very different place in my life than most people. I’m not your typical candidate. Some people may see that as a disadvantage, but I see it as a huge advantage. I don’t have to impress the world, I’m not running for governor, and I’m not running for president. This is my time in my life to potentially have a broader based, positive impact. I will do everything possible to accomplish that. I care about the willingness to sit down at the table and work for the genuine betterment of this community at large. I’m not interested in pet projects, which at some times appear to be not much more than a self monument. We can’t have that. This isn’t New York in the 30s and 40s where they built these incredible government buildings. We just can’t do it. They’re gorgeous, I love seeing them, but you can’t morally defend them today in our economy. There are people in this city that don’t have jobs, and they can’t get insurance. We’ve got to be accountable. Money is precious, and it’s going to be that way for awhile. That is a moral and a professional obligation.
WE: Columbus has a thriving and nationally recognized GLBT community… how would you continue to promote diversity and inclusiveness in the city?
EWS: Well, I have acquaintances that go back many many years. In fact, one person – somebody I highly respect – we sometimes argue passionately, but they were always willing to partner on solutions and I am going to ask if they would be willing, potentially to participate in a council of advisers that I plan to put into place. Everybody’s got their own version of that would love like. But by being in a ground-level observer role, I have seen who the real community participants are. They are the people who disproportionately give their time for the well-being of their neighborhoods and their community. Those are the people I’m going to reach out to. In clergy, in academia, in business… there’s so much collective knowledge in this city. To not bring all of it to the table and help make good decisions for the city, is inexcusable and indefensible. The GLBT community is part of the Columbus landscape. They are citizens here. They are employed, they are contributing tax payers. All of these different organizations; the different people that are represented, they have to be part of the solution. Their interests and their concerns have to be heard. I don’t know how you even do it otherwise.
Unfortunately, and I’ll admit, sometimes when I stop and think of the enormity of what I would like to do, I’m a little intimidated. When you’ve worked nearly as long as I have, you know the average person. I can put names on faces. And my greatest concern is I don’t want to disappoint anyone. I want to do what I believe we can do. And obviously, I suppose some people can decide to be utterly uncooperative. I cannot mandate anything. But again, I think if the public as a whole participates, they can bring an awful lot of pressure to all of the politicians to actively participate.
Somebody recently gave me some great relationship-type advice. They said “It’s hard to argue with my husband if we’re holding hands and sitting across the table… we don’t yell very much at that point.” Now, I don’t know how the City Council folks would react to me taking their hand, but I do believe there are ways to have civil discussions on the most passionate issues. As soon as you start yelling, people put their defenses up.
WE: Would you have proposed and/or supported domestic partner benefits for city employees in same-sex relationships as was done by Coleman?
EWS: Yes. The only question I asked was, ‘how do we define a relationship?’ Because unfortunately, the potential is there for abuse. There has to be some standard for how we define a relationship. Obviously, a married couple has paperwork… a legal document. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got a long term relationship. The numbers these days unfortunately, don’t speak well for it. But I do believe, there is an accountability issue, because the costs can be substantial. I would like to look at best practices. Check with other cities who have dealt with this longer than we have and see what standards they used. Find out what they applied, so that we know this is something we can comfortably call a relationship.
The other question I asked is if this applies to anyone else in a relationship. Is there a bias to a gay partner as opposed to a straight partner? It has to be fair and equitable. That I believe is the only way to do business.
WE: In your reaction to the State of the City address, you focus pretty heavily on crime and safety. Despite last year’s spike in homicides, the overall crime trends have moved steadily downward over the past decade, which reflects national trends. Do you think professionals should be more upset by last year’s instance, or feel better about the larger long-term trends?
EWS: The numbers change every year. You’re exactly correct. But what you need to look at is what is going on in our neighborhoods. Columbus has neighborhoods that are… have you ever heard of the term “urban prairie”? A term applied, unfortunately, all too often in Detroit. Detroit has entire old neighborhoods that have returned to grasslands. And Columbus is having that issue. There are neighborhoods where there’s about an 80% non-owner occupied population. These are things that will ultimately erode the city. Crime and the fear of crime are key issues.
The truth is, one of the things that happens unfortunately, is that we begin to get acclimated. A couple of homicides don’t impress us. Well, if you are the victim or the family, that’s a pretty significant number. The only acceptable number to shoot for is none. That may not ever happen. But too often it’s the honest law-abiding community members who are scared to death and unfortunately the predators in their neighborhoods are scared of nothing. That can’t stay like that. Criminals should be really nervous. And it’s not happening. That’s a quality of life issue, not just a crime issue. I travel around the country and I speak on neighborhood redevelopment issues and crime. And you can drive around in neighborhoods where every window-blind is drawn shut. Their world stops at the physical dimension of the structure they live in. That is not a neighborhood. That is tiny little forts where people are allowed to feel somewhat safe inside. We can’t have that. When you can’t take your kids to a park, can’t walk your dog for fear of getting attacked or even just verbally abused, that’s a quality of life issue. And that’s why all too often, people have the option of coming in to Columbus to work and then going home to a suburb to get away from Columbus.
WE: Bill Todd ran for mayor four years ago, focused heavily upon a fear-based campaign, and lost. Do you think focusing too heavily on shorter term spikes in crime can damage the national image of the city, or do you think there’s more value in making a positive case that we can do better without the destructive need to portray the current as awful?
EWS: I think your statement of “we can do better” is absolutely correct. When I first started doing crime prevention training, I quoted statistics. There’s a burglary every so many minutes, one rape every so many minutes, one homicide every so many minutes… and you can literally watch people’s faces drop. The neighborhoods that are having those problems… they already know it. I’m not telling them anything they don’t already know. They’re emailing me, they’re calling me, they’re facebooking me, and they’re expressing their fears, their concerns and their sense of abandonment. I absolutely believe that this city has the ability to change that dynamic. I think the resources in this city are unparalleled, but I don’t think they have been put adequately into play.
But you’re right, the message can’t be just the negatives. But the fact is, there are national publications showcasing some of the horrible things that are going on in Columbus. The heroin epidemic and these other things. You can talk about it any way you want to talk about it, but it is a real issue. People that live in the Northland area, they’ve contacted me, and they’re scared to death. They’re concerned about maintaining the viability of their community. Putting some new flowers and sidewalks in are a very nice thing, but that only affects the appearance of a neighborhood. It’s like giving the Titanic a fresh coat of paint as it’s sinking. We have to deal with the real serious issues. In fairness to anyone in leadership, that’s really difficult psychologically and practically, because there aren’t easy solutions. The only way is to start at the beginning. Having worked in every neighborhood in this city, there are plenty of committed people – who by the way, put themselves physically at risk in their neighborhood to help the police deal with serious issues. You can’t get better partners than that. I mean, I live in a pretty good neighborhood. I don’t worry about those things. When some of these people have allowed us to do surveillance on drug houses from their own home; they’re at risk of being killed. That’s a commitment. These problems are bad, and it can’t be taken for granted.
Again, to be completely honest about this, I have nothing to lose in this election. I have my health, I have my house, I have my friends. The truth of the matter is, I’m sure my campaign may frustrate the Mayor, but if he called me up and said he really needed something, I would still try to do it. I’ve spent over thirty years in service to the community, and I’m proud of my service. I love my city. I have a vested interest. I own my home in this city. So whatever happens directly impacts my ability to survive as I get older and can’t work anymore. No one will solve these problems in a four year cycle. Because the truth of the matter is, there hasn’t been a marked change in the last twelve years. I am no more a magician than Mike Coleman. But what I can do is set the process in motion. I can put it on a path. One of my wisest mentors once told me that if you’re taking responsibility as a supervisor, your job is to make sure that if you step out, there’s not a ripple in the water. I don’t care if there’s signs of Earl Smith being Mayor. That’s irrelevant. Because at the end of the day, the only thing that’s going to matter is doing a good job. I’m willing to come in and not brand every single program… every time you have a change in leadership, everybody wants to revamp every program so they can personally brand it. I don’t care about that. I don’t need that.
WE: Much of the younger population in Columbus is a very transient demographic. Many of the people I speak to on a regular basis have lived in Columbus for 10 years or less, making Coleman the only Mayor they’ve known. This is primarily anecdotal, but generally speaking, most of those young people tell me that they feel Columbus is better off today than it was 10 years ago in terms of quality of life. How do you address those types of sentiments?
EWS: Well, I’m glad. I’m certainly pleased that they feel that way. The problem is, that a lot of these folks are probably better educated, better employed, and probably isolated in better neighborhoods. Columbus is 220 square miles of city. There are notable pockets that look pretty impressive, but there’s an awful lot of people where that success has not trickled to them at all. And I would tell you that they would argue very differently.
But our city, like every city, needs to be reinvigorated. I think that’s a good thing. Let’s figure out what are our successes, and what are the good things that are real positives… and see if we can parallel these things in older neighborhoods where there’s so much deterioration. The policy for a long time was to annex, annex, annex. I have city councilmen telling me that we have to do that to keep up with the tax flow coming in. Which is an acknowledgement that the core of the city is deteriorating. I have argued many years ago at city council meetings that you cannot annex your way into hell. We have to address both issues. Annexation has allowed a lot of wonderful growth for the city, but if you don’t take care of the core city, if we don’t take care of the deterioration, if we don’t make people able to feel safe in their homes – we’re going to pay a horrible price. The median price of a home in Detroit is $7,500. I thought that was a typo, but it’s not. There are neighborhoods now in Columbus where that is also true.
Let me sidetrack a bit here… many many years ago, when I was in crime prevention, a city council person addressed me and said, literally, “What can you do by November for me?” That’s was probably 20 to 25 years ago and it has stuck with me. That is the worst representation of representation that you could imagine. This is not going to happen overnight. First of all, the cost is astronomical to address these issues. We’re going to have to look at the juvenile crime issue. We’re going to have to look at it really honestly. We’re going to have to invest heavily in this young demographic where the criminals are being created, or we’ll continue to have them as adults and pay staggering amounts of money to keep people incarcerated. We’re creating sociopaths. There’s some places where we’re going to have to invest money, and it’s not going to look pretty. It’s not going to even be obvious to the average person. But at some point, we have to change this pattern of behavior. I’ve got three decades of looking at it and I’ve literally arrested kids who became adults that I sent to prison, who then had kids of their own who I arrested. There’s no real surprise. If you talk to any old police officer, they can tell you the same story. We’ve got to have the guts to acknowledge that this isn’t working. It’s not because I’m super liberal, I’m just being pragmatic. I can see what hasn’t worked. And I think at some point we’ve got to try a different approach.
WE: Shifting gears a bit… the Columbus2020 effort was recently launched as a new platform for regional, collaborative Economic Development. What thoughts do you have on that effort, and what Economic Development strategies do you feel we’re not fully capitalizing upon?
EWS: Certainly there’s the parallel to my concern about marketing the city from a more metropolitan perspective. At some point we’re going to have to stop beating down the suburbs with water and sewer access. If you’re really going to have a collaborative effort, you have to legitimately be partners. We have bullied other cities in many cases into giving part of their developments and part of their tax money to us. I’m just not convinced that’s right. Now, I can be convinced otherwise… I’m open-minded. You can tell me that I’m wrong and demonstrate why… only a fool continues navigating towards the iceberg. The Columbus 2020 plan is a good example of something that I think — and I say this with great respect because I think it is very important conceptually — just a 2020 plan? We need a Columbus 2090 plan! We talk about five years being long-term, or ten years being long-term. We need to be talking 100 years. This needs to exist long after I’m buried so that the next person can take the torch and run with it… not start another torch.
To be continued… Part three of our interview with Earl W. Smith will be posted on Wednesday, March 23rd.