Last September, Jeff Smith’s first class as assistant professor of politics and advocacy at Milano was cut abruptly short. After explaining to the class that he had recently been released from federal prison, he received a text message informing him that his pregnant wife had gone into labor. “I told the class that I would have loved to stay, but I had to go to the hospital,” Smith says. “One of the students said, ‘Man, I think we just got Punk’d.’”
The series of events that eventually brought Smith to The New School started back in 2004. It was then that Smith narrowly lost the Democratic primary in his bid to represent his home state of Missouri in the U.S. Congress. It was the first time Smith had run for office and, though he began his campaign as an underdog, the election came down to a tight race between Smith and his opponent, Russ Carnahan. During the campaign, Smith illegally coordinated with an independent political group that ran negative advertisements about Carnahan. Smith initially denied his involvement during a federal investigation of the events and submitted a false affidavit, which turned out to be his biggest mistake. After a recording of him admitting his guilt surfaced in an unrelated investigation in 2009, Smith was sentenced to one year and one day in a federal penitentiary. He was released in 2010.
Although the incident abruptly ended Smith’s political career, he came to The New School on a quest to keep political commentary as a part of his life. He’s currently a contributor for Salon, writing recently about the Todd Akin controversy and former New School president Bob Kerrey’s U.S. Senate campaign, among other political issues. The Free Press sat down with Smith recently, just after he had returned from a sleepless night at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
FP: How did you end up at The New School?
JS: I saw a job opening online, and while speaking to the chairman of the search committee I mentioned how much I appreciated that [the committee] was open-minded enough to consider me, given the fact that I had just got out of prison. The chairman said, “We had a lot of applications, and at least yours stood out.”
FP: Your political and criminal background has been well documented. How do you apply your experiences to your teaching?
JS: What happened to me was that I made a mistake. What I did was relatively common in politics – but the point is that I did it, I got caught, I paid the price, [and] I learned first of all that even the smallest attempt to cut corners can get you in a lot of trouble. Hopefully, in a broader perspective, I can use my experiences to help public officials around the country operate in ways that are always 100 percent ethical.
From a teaching perspective, young people are obviously very impressionable and see teachers, in many cases, as role models. I try not to make a cornerstone out of my experiences, but I’ve had good opportunities within the context of the courses I teach to explain how in any campaign, the smallest mistakes can have outsized consequences.
FP: Did you gain any kind of new perspective from your sentence?
JS: I learned not to take my friends or family for granted. [During the investigation] my best friend at the time was the one wearing a wire, and obviously it’s hard for me to trust people after that.
I ride my bike to [my office] every morning from Penn Station. There are days when people are honking at you, pedestrians are on their iPhones or it’s pouring rain – in my past life, these things would have irritated me. Now, everyday, I’m just glad to ride my bike and to be in the fresh air. I worked at a food warehouse in prison, where some of it was labeled “Not for human consumption.” The fact that I can go next door to the deli and order any one of the dozen salads – I just think how glad I am to have all those choices.
Of course, I also learned a lot about what other guys go through in prison. Some were eighteen years old, caught for selling crack and locked up for eighteen years. It’ll be almost impossible for them to find a job once they’re released.
FP: And you were able to start a new career.
JS: I feel very blessed to have had people who stood by me in a dark time. I had 300 people — colleagues in the state senate, for example — write letters to the judge on my behalf saying that I shouldn’t go to prison. Some of the same people provided support when I was applying for jobs afterwards. I was able to walk out to a beautiful wife and have a beautiful baby boy. I stay in touch with a lot of the guys I served with and try to help them out however I can.
FP: The events which led to your conviction were filled with oddities, where one thing just lead to another. Have you talked to your friend who was wired, or do you plan to?
JS: No. I don’t hold any ill will; I’m happy with where I am in life. I love having a chance to teach and speak about my rise and fall, trying to come back and what I learned from it. I don’t hold any grudges.
I will say this: when I was locked up, another inmate once asked me if I wanted them to “take care of my boy.” My inmate supervisor said, “I spent the first four years of my sentence thinking about how I’m going to get back at the one who betrayed me and got me in here. You can’t do time like that, otherwise this place will eat you up.” Ever since then, I try to apply new perspectives and sometimes humor into what happened, but I don’t dwell on it. If you let someone control you like that, it’s just going to weigh you down like boulders on your back. Until you drop that off, you’re not really ever free.
After they caught me, I was offered a chance to wear a wire on other elected officials to try to fish for any wrongdoing. I just couldn’t stand the thought of making someone feel the way that I felt. Being in prison was hard, but the hardest was finding out about [my friend’s betrayal]. That was like a kick in the gut.
FP: Do you miss politics at all?
JS: Most of the things that I enjoyed about politics, I can still derive pleasure from. Now that I’m liberated from running for office, I can write about politics more freely. What I don’t miss is the kind of soul-sucking experience of fundraising. I probably wouldn’t have been a very good father or husband if I was still in office. From a personal perspective, I can lead a life which is healthier and more balanced. For the things that I miss about the game, there are probably more things that I don’t miss.
FP: You’re an avid political commentator for several media outlets. What do you think about the upcoming presidential election?
JS: I think it’s going to be a very close race. I think the president was dealt a very difficult hand and hasn’t been perfect, but he’s done a lot of good things and I think he deserves another term. Romney and Ryan haven’t explained much of their agenda, only bits and pieces, which are very incoherent. Yet undecided voters tend to break towards the challenger.
FP: Tell me more about your book.
JS: I wrote it on napkins and scraps of paper in prison, often during breaks at the warehouse. I am in the late stages of negotiations with some publishing houses. Essentially, it’s a story about friendship and betrayal. It’s a story about how politics really work behind the scenes, told by someone who has nothing to lose. The last chapter I’m still writing — I’m living it. Hopefully, it’s a story about redemption.