Last night I had the opportunity to see the premier of the film Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? At the Tivoli Theater in St. Louis. This film follows Jeff Smith, a progressive Democratic candidate for congress in 2004 as he tried to win the Democratic nomination for the congressional seat held by Dick Gephardt for 24 years ( and Lenora K. Sullivan for more than two decades before him) .
There were ten candidates in the field to replace Gephardt; but in the end it came down to two men and they were Jeff Smith and Russ Carnahan and the two men could not have been anymore dissimilar.
Smith ran as a progressive populist and was the first white candidate in Srt. Louis that I know of, ever, to make racial reconciliation a center-piece of his campaign. He had never held political office before and was a 29 year old teacher at Washington University in St. Louis. He began his campaign with no money and only a handful of volunteers and ran an issues-oriented campaign based on his support for universal single-payer health-care, a strong commitment to public education and racial justice.
The real story with Smith was his bio however; he grew up in the affluent suburbs the son of a basketball fanatic who wanted him to be an NBA player. The problem for Jeff was that his dad was 5”6 and his mom 5”2; but that did not stop his father from sending him to play for all-black teams in North St. Louis as a kid. As a kid the young Jeff remarked to his father “Dad why do the houses in the neighborhoods down here look like this?”
Basketball was an important tool in the Smith campaign as he would go to North St. Louis and play basketball in the streets with African-Americans and hold events at rec centers. If you have not lived in St. Louis maybe you do not understand how major this is. There is really only one political issue in St. Louis and that is race. The issues of policing, education, housing and the like are all racial issues (not solely class-issues as those on the white-left would have you believe). White candidates have a power base in white areas and black candidates in black areas. There are two political parties in St. Louis, the white dems and the black dems, and they fight like cats and dogs. If African-American voters support a white candidate , as has happened in the past, it is almost always the case that they are being encouraged to vote for a white politician who has cut a backroom deal with some leaders of the elders of the black political machine and Clergy Coalition. Never has a serious white politician came into the black community with a passionate commitment to the issues of the community and then went back to white audiences to talk about race as Smith did.
The Smith campaign became a strong grassroots campaign of the likes St. Louis has never seen. Smith was able to attract a sea of young volunteers and he personally called thousands of voters on his cell phone and door knocked at dozens of homes in the district everyday. A friend of mine voted for Smith because he called him and discussed issues with him at length. My sister voted for Smith because he knocked on her door and made a good impression on her. There are many other stories like that.
While Smith represented something new for St. Louis Russ Carnahan very much represented something old. He had money, the support of the Democratic machine, his father was the former Missouri Governor, his mother a former Senator (who got her seat because her husband died in a plane crash before the election but still managed to beat John Ashcroft), his grandfather a Congressman, and his sister an elected official. Carnahan was the machine guy who had the apparatus behind him and other factors, such as sympathy at the untimely death of his father and brother, going for him.
Politically Carnahan represented the kind of Democratic mush we see out of Hillary Clinton; conviction by polls, commitment to nothing, and caution. However, many at the time, including myself at one point, thought that as painfully bland as he was he might have been the guy who could carry the entire district that extended into rural areas.
In the end the idealism of Smith was hit by a sober dose of reality. Despite campaigning tirelessly in the black community he was not able to throw around the kind of money to black leaders like Carnahan and the machine and he lost the endorsement of the St. Louis American to Carnahan and money won the day. Sylvester Brown, Jr. of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out that the black political establishment is based on their relationship to the white establishment and that black leaders are reluctant to take a gamble on an outsider. More simply put; the job of the black machine is to extract money and jobs from the white machine, the good of the community be dammed, and if you don’t have any money to line their pockets with then you don’t have shit comin.
Eventually Smith lost by less than two points to Carnahan in a race he was supposed to not have even been a factor and it was his grassroots effort and idealism that made the race close.
After going to teach at Dartmouth for a year Smith is back in St. Louis running for State Senate and his main opposition is an African-American Muslim woman named Yaphet el-Amin. Smith also has close Muslim friends, Muslim volunteers, and has a good record on Muslim issues. I have met el-Amin, and have met her father many times, and I would like to support a Muslim. However, I have not seen el-Amin articulate any vision and her message basically is “I’m black, vote for me”. This was highlighted in a recent press release were she referred to Smith as a “known Caucasian”. Smith is heading a campaign for “One City” and el-Amin is practicing good old fashioned St. Louis racial politics. The choice should be clear.
The film is will be showing at art house theaters in Washington, DC and Boston soon and I definitely recommend it.