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Smith: Partisanship creates division, block progress

Name: Jeff Smith

Age: 57

Party: Democrat

Hometown: Eau Claire

Family: Wife Sue, two daughters in college

Education: Eau Claire North High School

Professional background: Former, longtime owner of Bob Smith Window Cleaning

Previous elected office: Wisconsin Assembly, 2007-2011; chairman, Town of Brunswick, 2001-2007

Campaign website:

There's too much outside money in politics and the result is elected officials who listen to the wishes of their contributors rather than to the needs of their constituents, says Jeff Smith.

Smith is hoping to regain the 93rd Assembly District seat he held for two terms, but lost to Warren Petryk two years ago.

"Campaigns are certainly partisan periods of time," said Smith, noting partisanship is probably necessary to win votes and establish a base.

But, he said, "Once a person is elected, it's just been appalling that people can't put that behind them."

A representative must forget partisanship, take his ideas to the Capital and do the job he was elected to do--represent the people of his district, said Smith.

"If you listen to what people tell you, (the main issues are) that people don't work together and they're afraid of losing their health care," said Smith.

For his part, he believes the inability of elected officials to cooperate goes back to the fact there's too much outside money in politics.

"We need to get a rein on that," said Smith. He advocates public funding of campaigns and full disclosure of who is paying for political ads.

It's wrong for groups of wealthy interests to put together a group, give it a name, run ads and not disclose who they are and what their interests are, said Smith.

"Democracy is absolutely being trampled right now because voters are confused and angry," he said, adding it's the intent of issue-ad groups to keep them that way.

"Let's start working together," said Smith. "I'd rather talk about solutions. It's easy to point out the problems."

He said the state needs elected representatives who understand democracy

and how it works.

"People gotta get off this 'there's-only-one-way' of doing things--because there isn't," said Smith.

While in the Assembly, he chaired the Committee on Elections and Campaign Reform. In that job, he says, he made sure to include the Republicans in discussions of bills, to ask them for ideas and to offer amendments if they wanted.

"Everything brings us back to campaign reform," he said, noting politicians often feel obligated to their donors.

Smith criticized demands made by special interest groups for candidates to pledge to take a particular stand on a particular issue. He said the only pledge a lawmaker should sign is his oath of office.

Smith said he was especially exasperated by the "secrecy pledges" most Wisconsin Republican lawmakers signed as new election maps were developed.

"That is so unethical and immoral," said Smith.

The district he is campaigning in now is stretched out so far it extends from Central Eau Claire County, through Dunn and Pepin counties, and across Pierce County to the Mississippi River.

Redistricting done recently and in the past, he said, attempted to keep incumbents in office.

"They don't seem to have the same values or sense of urgency that we need to do the right thing for people because they will be there as long as they want to be there," said Smith of the error of partisan redistricting.

When he chaired the committee, it looked at making all districts as close to half Democratic and half Republican as possible. That would make for irregularly shaped districts and isn't very practical, he admitted, but said some better method is needed.

"I'm not a career politician," said Smith, remembering a complaint he heard from a man while campaigning before the last election.

"I said, 'I'm not a career politician. I'm a career window washer,'" recalled Smith, who was first elected to the Assembly at age 51 and until recently ran the business started by his father.

"I have (run for office) for only one purpose--that I feel I have something to give," said Smith, adding his job now is campaigning for Assembly.

Smith said the biggest worry he hears from voters is about health care.

"People are concerned that they are going to lose their Medicare and their Medicaid--and they should be," said Smith, warning of efforts to privatize Medicare.

"There's nothing I (as a state legislator) can do about Medicare," he said, adding though, what the issue does is "expose what people are about, what certain politicians are about."

He criticized national-level politicians who tell people not to worry about benefits if they are over 55 because the changes won't affect them. He said those politicians are banking on people being so selfish they won't care about their children's future.

Smith is also concerned about efforts, such as the voucher system, that divert money from public education.

"Very targeted interests see this big vast pool of money in government," said Smith. "Their greed overcomes them."

"Every voter should be independent," said Smith, explaining they shouldn't label themselves "conservative" or "liberal," tune out candidates from the other party and choose a candidate based solely on party affiliation.

"People do that. They pick a team," said Smith, adding that, once they choose a party, people vote for the party's candidate no matter his qualifications.

"That's OK in football, but it's not OK in life," said Smith. Then he hesitated and added, "It's probably not so OK in football either."

He also deplored candidates who are seen in the district only during campaigns.

During the two terms he served previously, he held 50 listening sessions around the district each term.

"When they had an issue, they didn't have to drive to Madison to tell me about it. They didn't have to call me at home," said Smith. He added, "We just have to find a way to include everybody and help get them informed.

During this campaign, he has started a practice he calls, "Stop and Talk." He parks his pickup alongside a road and puts out a "Stop and Talk" sign, chairs and homemade cookies baked by his wife.

"I never sat there and didn't have a conversation," said Smith, reporting four or five people always end up stopping.

People seemed pleased by the effort, he said.

"A lot of people say, 'I want you to know I'm a Republican, but I really like this idea,'" said Smith. "They don't have to vote for me to talk to me."

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.