Illustration by Brian Taylor
A few years ago, Missouri state Sen. Jeff Smith was caught lying to the feds about the funding for a certain political-attack mailer and wound up sentenced to a year behind bars. The charismatic young progressive, who has since left prison and politics behind, contributed a chapter to the new book The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis. He tells confessional, instructive stories about what he learned from his mistakes. His chapter begins with a grabber—being strip-searched as he enters the lock-up.
Is the book literally a practical guide for politicians who've stumbled, or does it have a broader purpose? To some extent, it’s designed to be a guide, but in a broader way, it’s designed to give anyone who’s going through tough times a lot of ways to handle situations more appropriately, more effectively, in a way that’s healthier. For instance, let’s say you’re a salesman and you’re trying to sell widgets and the company you’re selling to says, “You knock 10 percent off that $1.7 million you just quoted me, and we’ll make it worth your while.” These things are often not so blunt, though. People in everyday life encounter ethical dilemmas in everything they do. The book provides a lot of insight into the mistakes that those of us in the public eye have made that mushroom out of control. Hopefully that can help a lot of people prevent their situations from ever getting to that stage. Most people are not going to be Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner, plastered all over the tabloids, but we all live in a constant state of trying to do the right thing.
The book offers tales of woe from a bunch of former politicians being painfully honest, more so than you usually expect from politicians. We are all pretty vulnerable in that book. We’re getting deep, talking about the lowest moments in our lives, and we’re hoping it transcends people’s typical views of politicians as full of crap and constantly dissembling. There’s not a lot of that in this book.
How did you get involved with the Recovering Politician blog? There are two guys—the former secretary of state of Kentucky and the former treasurer of Kentucky—they started it. My ex-girlfriend had worked in Kentucky, and I met one of these guys. The two of them got together and brainstormed at the time I had just come out of prison, and it came together by happenstance. They asked me to write an essay about my experience, and it went from there.
In a candid column for the Recovering Politician website, you wrote about how the revelation that you’d spent a year in prison got the attention of a group of jaded young people at a party in Brooklyn. Is that a weird feeling, to have a certain street cred by virtue of having served time? Yeah, it’s weird. But you have to try to always let people remember a couple of things—that a lot of people in prison aren’t very much different from them, and that even the ones they think are very different aren’t as different as they think. I try not to let people “go slumming” off my experience. What I’m concerned about is the complete lack of rehabilitation in most prisons and the effect that has.
You’ve had some time, since November 2010, that you’ve been out of prison and the halfway house you went to after prison. Have you gotten some emotional distance from everything? Yes and no. I’ve gotten involved in a lot of activities related to prison issues. Compared to 2011, well, then I wasn’t ready to engage in a lot of stuff like that. But in the last six months, I’ve been spending a lot more time on those issues. I gave a speech at the Cleveland State Prison in Texas to several hundred graduates of one of their programs. The experience of being back inside was emotional. I’m working on a book about my experience in prison and how it’s informed my views on prison policy, and about how we can do a better job leveraging of the untapped talent in our prisons and cut our spending and reduce our recidivist rate.
In 2010, you told SLM’s Jeannette Cooperman that academe “does not even resemble the real world… One of my objectives is to try to explore ways to better connect poli sci with real-world politics.” Now you’re the assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School in New York. Is that what you’re doing there? Yes. In fact, in the next week or two, I have to turn in my dossier, which is my giant file of everything I’ve done in the past few years, for my job renewal, and the opening of that is a statement of purpose, what you’re trying to do in academia. My goals are to help infuse academia with more of an understanding of real-world politics and to give students a better understanding of how things really work, what people who haven’t been in the game might not know. Conversely, I try to bring some of the social-science discipline and analytical training into the public world.
And does your scandal ever come up in class? I mention it in my intros on my first day, on the counsel of my colleagues. Then in class, if there’s a reason it should be discussed, I’ll discuss it. For instance, I’ll discuss it during the week devoted to ethics in my campaign-management class. If it further illuminates the material of that class, I’ll discuss it.
I would think the students would have a kind of respect for you after learning about that, that it lends a certain I-had-to-learn-it-the-hard-way aspect to your character. There are definitely some things I can discuss about both politics and prison that the typical political science professor can’t. [Laughs.] The bearded guy holed up in his office doing research for 30 years, pumping out highly academic journal articles, has a different perspective from me. I’ve got a lobbyist coming in to help in my class on advocacy and lobbying next week. He’s the most successful lobbyist around. I try to use the connections I’ve made in politics to enhance the real-world learning.
You seem content. I really feel like I couldn’t be happier. I feel blessed every day with my beautiful family and my super job. I get to teach at one of the coolest universities with bright students and exceptional colleagues. I still come to St. Louis every month to do consulting work on affordable-housing advocacy, a cause I always cared about. I still have a chance to engage in a lot of issues and hope to have a bit of impact on public life, but a lot of the unpleasant things like begging people for money, I’m no longer burdened with. I get to think more deeply about things than I could during public life. If you’ve got 30 appointments in a day, it can be hard to be thoughtful. You’re just rushing from thing to thing to figure out what you’re gonna say in your five minutes, frantically looking over briefing papers in the car on the way over or madly searching your Blackberry for articles about the topic you’re gonna speak about. It’s no way to govern, but it’s a really hard thing to do between all the constituents and the fundraising demands and building the relationships you need to be successful and building a life outside of politics, which I never really had. I enjoy having the space to think, write, and research that frankly I didn’t really have as a politician.
Do you miss politics? In my adopted home of New York, a lot of people have said, “Weiner for mayor, Spitzer for comptroller—you can get on that ticket!” [Laughs.] I can guarantee, the same day I file for office, my wife would be filing for something called divorce. [Laughs.] Do I miss it? Sure, I miss the chance to help constituents. I still get requests for help from them. I miss the camaraderie of the legislative process. I do miss that give and take. I really miss trying to help people, like with the basketball tournament surrounded by free healthcare booths, which was kind of my signature event back in my district. Thousands of people came each year to Fairground Park for that.
Speaking of which, you’re known for your basketball skills. How is your crossover these days? I have a pretty sick crossover. In the documentary, I think I crossed somebody over. I play in a men’s over-30 league with a lot of good players here.