Stephen Smith is not afraid of big tasks or daunting odds. He seems to relish the role of underdog, a David who, as quick as he gets a lick in on Goliath, goes looking for another giant to rock.
In the late '80s he took on the United States Department of Energy over the manufacture of nuclear armaments and the toxic pollution that results. Some, including people on the other side of the issue, credit him with making a lasting difference in the nuclear-environmental debate, not only in East Tennessee but nationally.
His next opponent was the Tennessee Valley Authority, the country's largest utility. He fought them over nuclear power and conservation policies, and his efforts have been met with increased citizen input into advance planning at the federal agency.
For years, he's been fighting that intractable human trait, cruelty to animals, most recently as a veterinarian at the Knox County Humane Society.
But for all the visibility his activism has brought him on the news pages of East Tennessee, Smith's most recent challenge to a giant has garnered him precious little attention.
He is taking on U.S. Rep. John Duncan Jr. for the Second District congressional seat that has been virtually a Duncan family heirloom for over three decades.
That challenge may be the most daunting the Nashville native has taken on in his 34 years of life. He'll not only have to defeat the popular conservative lawmaker as a Democrat in one of the country's most Republican districts--going up against a Duncan-centered power structure that is deeply embedded in Knoxville's civic life--but he's also trying to make the race from within a local Democratic establishment that is (a) not sure he's their man, and (b) despairing that any Democrat can win the seat.
As a man with a public history of involvement on important issues, Smith is the first serious candidate to take on Duncan in several years. And to a large extent, the story of Stephen Smith's candidacy is also the story of his causes.
Mr. Smith wants to go to Washington
Stephen Smith made his first appearance on the East Tennessee stage in 1988, when he entered the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. He had grown up in Green Hills, a well-to-do community in Nashville where his father was a cardiologist at Vanderbilt University Hospital.
"I grew up," he says, "in a family that was well off, but I was always aware of people struggling and not getting by."
He quickly established himself as one of the area's most passionate and articulate environmental advocates, and he has made his reputation as a leader with a string of activist groups: OREPA (the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance), TVERC (the Tennessee Valley Energy Reform Coalition, in which he serves as executive director), and FGS (the Foundation for Global Sustainability).
Now Smith wants to turn from his outsider role as critic because, he says, of his concerns about where the country is headed under its current leadership, especially after the victories of conservative Republicans in the 1994 election.
"I asked myself the question: What would be the most important thing that I could be doing?" Smith says. "There's nothing else I could think of that's more important than turning back the radical right and gaining some sense of sanity in Washington."
The growth of an activist
Smith's move toward activism started while he was an undergraduate at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro in the late '80s. He worked with the local humane society there, and also joined the Bridge Alliance, a group opposing a PCB processing plant near Henderson, Ky.
No sooner did he arrive in East Tennessee than he co-founded, with Ralph Hutchison, a group that opposed the manufacture of nuclear weapons in Oak Ridge and the attendant pollution the plants brought. OREPA soon became one of DOE's most persistent critics, and Smith and Hutchison led various protests, including annual Hiroshima Day gatherings.
"It was not pleasant going to work and having all those organizations criticizing us," remembers James T. Alexander, who retired a couple of years ago as the head of DOE's public information office in Oak Ridge. "They were tough. It was not very comfortable. We were put on the hot seat."
But Alexander developed a high degree of respect for Smith and Hutchison, and now feels that the attention they forced on Oak Ridge environmental issues put the local office way ahead of other DOE facilities across the country.
"Steve was a very sharp individual who always did his homework, a very quick study, a bright individual," Alexander says. "I credit the kind of scrutiny that Steve and OREPA placed on us with preparing us for the future. Only through that scrutiny did dollars come to Oak Ridge for cleanup."
The group would pore over governmental documents and question conflicting statements in phone calls or at press conferences. Smith and Hutchison became so well-versed in the environmental issues that they would take visiting journalists on their own tours, visiting the accessible parts of the DOE reservation.
"Sometimes the events would be heavy in emotion, reflecting the intensity of their cause," Alexander reflects. "But if everyone had done their homework and study like that. . . ."
From Oak Ridge, it was but a hop, skip, and an activist jump to TVA. Smith became a board member of TVERC in 1992, and in 1993 became its executive director. His attention to nuclear matters did not waver, and under his leadership TVERC became one of the agency's most outspoken critics, especially on the Watts Bar nuclear plant, which had been under construction for two decades.
When Craven Crowell became TVA board chairman and began to seek public involvement in planning for TVA's future, Smith became TVERC's representative on the review group that critiqued that process. Some of the TVA people who worked with Smith on the agency's Integrated Resource Plan remember him as diligent and sharp.
"He was very thoughtful and worked real hard," says one TVA staffer. "He read everything we sent, and we sent tons of paper. Toward the end of the process we were quite frankly struggling to come up with a good solution. Stephen and a few others pulled into a subgroup working with TVA staff and came up with excellent solutions to what we were trying to do."
Smith's activism almost damaged his cause as he worked on the TVA document. As the review process neared its completion, Earth First, a radical environmental group, staged a protest at the Watts Bar nuclear plant, trespassing and vandalizing government property. Though Smith was not arrested during the protests, he was nabbed when he went to see protesters who were being held at the Rhea County jail. TVA investigators later linked him through phone records to the people staging the protests.
"He erred in judgment in participating in the Watts Bar protests," says a TVA staffer. "It hurt his credibility inside TVA and with some of the people in the group. There were real strong opinions about whether he should continue in the review process, but management ultimately decided to allow it."
Not everyone remembers Smith's interactions with TVA so positively. John Waters Jr., former TVA board member and chairman, recalls not being so impressed with Smith and other activists.
"My general impression was that they are very anti-nuclear people," he says. "They were very careless with the facts. That organization said people were dying as a result of nuclear power, but there's no record to prove that."
TVA staffers still talk about one especially intense meeting when both Waters' and Smith's tempers flared into a yelling match. "It was ugly," one says.
Waters, one of the region's leading Republicans, admits to a bias in assessing Smith's campaign. "It's difficult to be objective. John Duncan has done a fantastic job. He's more than proven himself outstanding, beyond what his father did."
Taking it to the voters
A group of mostly African American seniors has finished their supper at the Martin Luther King Center in Alcoa. They settle back to hear a selection of candidates, including Smith.
The challenger's points are simple and most sound like the issues common in races across the country:
* Protecting senior citizens from cuts in Medicare and Medicaid that would also provide tax cuts for the wealthy. "I'm not rich enough to vote Republican, and you're probably not either."
* "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work." Smith says he deplores trends indicating that while productivity has gone up for American businesses, the majority of working people have not shared in the resulting profits.
* Promoting education and research in the Tennessee Valley, linking federal agencies, universities and schools in cooperative ventures.
* Environmental protection, especially for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here the challenger feels that his environmental activism clearly distinguishes him from the pro-business congressman. "You can't push environmental protection back on the states. You can't tell each state to do its own thing. There must be a coordinated effort, and the best group to do that is the federal government."
For a man who has spent much of his adult life protesting government policies, he comes across as very supportive of federalism.
"You'll never hear this from Jimmy Duncan, but the federal government has been good to East Tennessee," Smith elaborates later. "We have Oak Ridge, the national park, TVA, the national forests. . . . As taxpayers we get more from the federal government than we pay in."
"It's high time we spoke the truth. We're fortunate that people had the foresight to make investments in East Tennessee. We're still reaping the benefits. It's supremely ironic to have an incumbent trying to cut back on federal programs when our region is so dependent on them."
"Congress is sick as a dog..."
Smith often uses a slogan as an ice-breaker when he's introduced to potential voters. "Congress is sick as a dog. We need to send a vet to Washington."
As involved in causes as Smith has been, it's easy to forget that he actually completed his veterinary degree at UT and is now practicing. After two years with an animal hospital in Newport, he now is the consulting veterinarian for the Knox County Humane Society, a part-time job he's held since 1994. He supervises the medical care of some 15,000 animals the society takes in every year.
One recent Thursday morning finds him at work at the society's headquarters deep in the back reaches of Vestal. With the society's director, Vicki Crosetti, Smith is inspecting some of the animals belonging to a well-known "collector" whose animals have been seized by the city because they are neglected.
A red dog, more Pekingese than not, has what Smith calls "cherry eye." The dog is stiff as the doctor begins his inspection, but as Smith gently cleans infection from its eyes, it relaxes a little. He drops a fluorescent yellow dye into its right eye, which has an ulcer on the cornea itself.
"This will let us see how deep the ulcer goes," he explains. He talks to the dog softly as he flushes the shining drops out of the eye, and its tail begins to wag.
Another dog of similar parentage is brought out limping on a right forepaw.
"This leg has been broken some time ago and has healed without medical care," he says after palpating the floppy paw. "In fact, the broken bone didn't knit back together, and now the bone in the foot is no longer attached to the leg."
"Will we need to amputate it?" Crosetti wants to know.
"No, the dog's adjusted and is making some use of the leg," Smith says.
The morning continues with inspections of other animals seized from the collector as Smith pursues the concern for animals that first sparked his activism.
"I've never been a vet full-time. Helping animals in a clinic is one part, but I soon found that working to protect their habitat is another large piece of it," he says.
The "send a vet to Washington" joke is a humorous hint at Smith's fifth plank--campaign reform. He supports term limits and wants campaign financing reformed. He proposes a plan that would make television stations offer free or low-cost TV time to candidates as a return for the stations' access to the public airways.
"Republicans don't have a patent on term limits," he says, pointing to what he calls the Duncan dynasty, the 30-plus-year-total that Duncans senior and junior have represented the Second District. "Democracy, not dynasty," is one of his rallying cries.
For all that, he does not categorically reject support from political action committees, though he has not yet received PAC money. His donations have generally been small and from individuals, and workers say privately that the campaign coffers are shallow.
"I don't like PACs," he says, "but I don't like it more that we've got an important message to get out and I'm afraid it's not going to get out."
Smith candidly admits that he's not expecting much support from the Democratic Party nationally, since the accepted wisdom among Democrats and Republicans alike is that beating Duncan is, at best, a long shot.
Looking for weaknesses
Smith pins his election hopes on his analysis of Duncan's strengths and weaknesses. He praises Duncan for personal services to the people of the district.
"So many people have had an interaction with him," Smith says. "His staff has helped many get passports or social security checks. People feel almost indebted to him. I give him credit for constituent services."
Duncan's weakness, in Smith's judgment, is in representing the real interests of the people. In every talk he points to zeroes the congressman has earned on scorecards published by environmental and senior citizens groups. (To be fair, Duncan also rates 100s with Christian and conservative groups). But Smith makes the biggest distinction between himself and his opponent by contrasting their vision.
"No one has heard a vision of East Tennessee from Jimmy Duncan," the challenger says.
His own vision for the region revolves around what he calls "the three E's--energy, environment and economics."
"With the infrastructure that's in place, we could advance technologies in energy and environment that would let East Tennessee define itself for advanced energy-efficiency technologies," he says. He envisions a technology corridor that would include agencies in Chattanooga, Oak Ridge and Knoxville in cooperative research and development agreements on energy efficient, environmentally responsible technologies.
"There's a gold mine here," he says. "With TVA as a living laboratory, we could catapult the developing world over a lot of the mistakes we made."
Young David's Achilles heel
Smith has already had a sample of how vicious the campaign could get. As he answered questions on a call-in show on WUOT-FM, one caller accused him of failing to pay child support for his two children, who live with his ex-wife in Nashville.
The reference to child support angered his ex-wife, Rhonda Smith, when she heard about the exchange later.
"It bothered me when he was called a deadbeat dad. I wouldn't want anyone to think that," Rhonda Smith said. "He pays his child support. We had a disagreement at one point. Whoever said that didn't finish reading the case; they took bits and pieces out of the [legal] papers." The dispute apparently involved whether the support payments would include money for private schooling.
Rhonda Smith lives in Nashville now with the couple's two sons, Andy, 13, and Taylor, 10, and works in animal care. She says Stephen is always with his children on his weekends and every other chance he gets. "It's hard for him not to be with his children."
Rhonda Smith is more than willing to talk about Stephen, whom she met when they were 15 at Hillsboro High School in Nashville. They married at 20 and divorced about three years ago. She reflects for a moment on Smith's motivations: "He's not doing this [running] for personal ambition at all. Steve has never been one who's money-seeking. When we lived in Knoxville, we didn't have a lot. We grew our own food, kept a compost pile, and managed to take care of our kids and our animals."
Would she vote for her ex?
"Yes, I would."
The ambush on WUOT may have been more an effort to trigger Smith's temper than to spread untruths about him. Both Republican and Democratic insiders perceive him as quick to anger, even petulant, in the words of one observer.
Early in the campaign, in a call to Hallerin Hill's talk show on WIVK-AM, 990, Smith lost his temper on the air as he sparred with Hill and political commentator George Korda on TVA. Democrats listening were disturbed that he seemed to lose his composure.
"What he says is passion comes across like he's angry or spoiled," one observed. "If George Korda can get your goat. . . . "
Republican insiders say the Duncan campaign isn't very worried about Smith. "He's not even a blip" in early polling, one claims. "He hasn't been here long enough."
Lobbyist and former newspaper editor Ron McMahan is characteristically more outspoken. "I don't think he has a chance in hell--in no shape, form, or fashion. Any poll that I have looked at shows Duncan is 20 points ahead of everybody, including Victor Ashe. Duncan is ahead of [Sen. Fred] Thompson."
McMahan, a pillar of Howard Baker Republicanism, estimates Smith would have to raise three quarters of a million dollars just to get his name known and, he says, "that might not be enough to make a race of it." McMahan doesn't expect the Duncan camp to come after the challenger.
Old-line Democrats have advised him to focus his message on Duncan's record and not confuse this race with his earlier causes.
"Jimmy Duncan is on the ballot, not TVA," says one long-time Democrat. "He [Smith] has got to remember he's not running against TVA. He's already got the green vote and the anti-Duncan vote. In order to get elected, he's got to look to the people he has to have."
His current campaign shows that Smith has taken some of that message to heart. When he talks to groups now, environmental issues take a back seat to concerns about health care, wages and education. He's proving to be just as quick a study in the nuances of campaigning as he was in nuclear issues and energy policy. Early in the campaign he tried an informal look, with turtle-necks instead of the traditional suit-and-tie look. One older woman gave him some motherly advice, telling him the turtle-necks weren't appropriate for the campaign trail.
"Now he's actually wearing suits and stuff," says a Democratic woman from Oak Ridge.
Supporters and campaign workers still complain that he tries to crowd too much into his day. "He's punctuality-impaired," one observes, and others note that, as he attempts to get in just one more stop, he's habitually late for evening coffees and campaign events like his Fourth of July fund-raiser at the Foundry in Knoxville.
Smith expects Republicans to go into attack mode later in the campaign, especially on the issue of his arrests. He's been arrested during various protests, including the Watts Bar protest and one in then-senator Al Gore's Washington office right before the Persian Gulf War.
"I disagreed with Sen. Gore about the use of force in the Persian Gulf," he explains. "I was arrested in Al Gore's office the day after the vote to use force. Al was the swing in a tight vote. My opposition to the war was in no way against the men and women in the service."
As Smith takes on Duncan and the district's GOP political structure, he does so virtually single-handedly. Early on he rejected professional fund-raisers and campaign managers, and people inside his organization say he has no close personal advisers. He admits as much himself: "I don't have a circle of friends that I consider to be my advisers. I look at the issues myself, and no one person has a lot of influence on me. I have a tendency to want to talk to a lot of different people."
That solitariness worries some of the old-line Democrats, who don't see any critics in his own camp to help him make judgments. They sense that he doesn't take advice well, that he won't listen to criticisms meant to help him hone his campaign.
"Steve is a determined person with a broad vision of what ought to happen in the Tennessee Valley," Smith's fellow activist Ralph Hutchison says. "He's able to articulate that very well. But because he is driven, he moves fast. One of the challenges of leadership is to continue to move fast but go slowly enough for people to get on board.
"Sometimes our greatest strengths are also potential weaknesses. Because of the depths of his beliefs and his passion for the issues, he comes on really strong. That's a great strength, but it also sometimes scares people.
That passion is evident in the campaign Smith is waging. Though he is realistic about the challenge he is facing, he is confident of the outcome.
"We're not going to lose," Stephen Smith says. "We may not get as many votes as he does, but we're not going to lose.