He's Been Running for 26 Years, Without Changing Gears
by Brad Parks of the Star-Ledger
He kept it for 150,000 miles or so, then got another. And another. And so on.
"It's a great car," he said. "It's got five on the floor. It's very comfortable. It's safe. I don't mean to sound like a commercial, but I love them."
So while some might calculate Smith's congressional longevity by saying he was recently elected to his 14th term or is about to serve his 27th year in the House of Representatives, it is perhaps more appropriate to say he's in the middle of his eighth Chevy.
After all, Christopher H. Smith is viewed by a lot of folks as the Chevy Cavalier of congressmen: sensible, practical -- a little boring, perhaps -- but utterly dependable.
Oh, and they've stopped mak ing them. The Cavalier went out of production in 2005. As for the Republican congressman? Even his opponents grant they don't make 'em quite like him anymore.
"If you looked up 'clean politician' in the dictionary, you'd see his picture," said Kevin Meara, who ran against Smith as a Democrat in 1996, then switched parties and be came a supporter. "He doesn't do things because they're politically expedient. Even people who disagree with him realize he has very deep convictions."
So it came as little surprise earlier this month that even in an election where Republicans elsewhere were in peril, Smith captured 66 percent of the 4th District vote, about what he usually gets. No New Jersey Republican did better.
When he was first elected all those years ago, as an untested 27-year-old, it was seen as something of a fluke -- his opponent, Rep. Frank Thompson, had been implicated in the Abscam scandal, an FBI sting operation targeting public corruption.
Now 53, the fluke is New Jersey's longest-tenured current U.S. representative. Sometime during the middle of this term, he will have spent exactly half his life in Congress.
But a lot of times he still sounds like the Eagle Scout he is.
"I love this job," Smith said. "I just hope the voters keep sending me back."
He celebrated his victory on Nov. 7 in the usual way, with a cross-district romp that ended around 2 a.m. with a Taylor Ham and cheese sandwich at Mastoris Diner in Bordentown.
The next morning, he went to his office in Hamilton -- where the carpet has been worn threadbare by thousands of constituents over the years -- to meet with a man who wanted the congressman's help in retaining his spot selling cashews at the refurbished Trenton train station.
Then it was back into the Chevy Cavalier for a trip down to Washington: On Thursday, he had a meeting to discuss a micro-credit initiative with the former prime minister of Peru.
Which is pretty typical for one of Congress' true plow horses, a guy who delights equally in serving constituents and in the legislative process; who holds notoriously long hearings, because he finds the tes timony so fascinating; and who doesn't get much argument when he describes himself as "a due diligence guy."
"There's really no one on Capitol Hill like him," said Lee Grossman, president of the Autism Society of America, one of numerous organizations to honor Smith's work. "Once he takes something on and commits to it, he is fully engaged. Any issue he takes up becomes a cause."
He has no shortage of them. He has written countless bills to help veterans, even angered his own party last year by refusing to skimp on veterans' health benefits -- a position he held so stubbornly his own party leader, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, booted him off the House Veterans Committee.
Smith also has established bipartisan caucuses on autism, Alzheimer's disease and spina bifida. He has written or sponsored several laws against human trafficking. And he is a darling of the human rights community (his current legislation includes measures to encourage the release of political prisoners in Ethiopia, to establish a commission to study slavery in Sudan, and to help foment democracy in Belarus).
They're not all things normally associated with the Republican Party, and Smith admits that at human rights rallies, he's "one of the few" with short hair and wing tips. But he also sees it as his calling.
"You look for the disenfranchised and the disadvantaged and you try to help," Smith said. "The law is all about protecting the weakest and most vulnerable."
They're issues that make him hard to attack on the campaign trail. After all, is anyone really for human trafficking?
"You can't say anything about a lot of his legislation," said Carol Gay, his opponent on Nov. 7. "He has a lot of very safe issues."
HIS SIGNATURE ISSUE
The exception to that, of course, is his view on abortion. Smith, who was executive director of New Jersey Right to Life before he ran for Congress, has long been recognized as one of Capitol Hill's leading abortion opponents.
It's a view that would seem unpopular in a state where polls routinely show roughly two-thirds of voters support abortion rights. Planned Parenthood -- which Smith describes as "Child Abuse Incorporated" -- gives him a zero on its legislative score card.
"He's very out of step with New Jersey," said Amy Vasquez, a Burlington County lawyer who op posed Smith in 2004. "Some of his views when it comes to women's rights or abortion or the right of same-sex couples to adopt are very extreme."
Yet in a solidly Republican district, that rhetoric doesn't get very far. He campaigns the old-fashioned way, speaking at Rotary Clubs, glad-handing at supermar kets, pounding the pavement of the 4th District, a jagged band that stretches around the narrowest part of New Jersey's midsection, from the shores of the Atlantic in Monmouth County to the shores of the Delaware in Mercer.
"I love people," Smith said. "And when I campaign, I get to meet so many remarkable, kind, amazing people. It really charges me up."
He seldom runs television ads. His campaign Web site, www.smith4nj.com, could be called charmingly low-tech. CNet News.com called it something else: The worst political Web site of 2006. It was just a letter from Smith and then a series of endorsements. The site did not include a single hyperlink.
Then again, the lack of glitz seems to appeal to his constituents. According Bill Walsh, a voter who could be found at ShopRite on a recent day in Hamilton, Smith "might be the only politician out there who isn't completely full of B.S."
And so Mr. Smith goes to Washington. Again. He dismissed concerns about his party's fall from power -- he spent the years 1980-94 in the minority -- and said he's eager to get back to work. Even after all these years, and all those Chevy Cavaliers, the place doesn't seem to have lost that new-car smell for him.
"There's something about re- election and starting a new Congress that's like starting a new school year," Smith said. "It feels brand new every time."
© 2006 The Star Ledger