This article first appeared in the November 5, 1997 issue of the Seattle Weekly.
I am driving with Linda Smith through Southwest Washington. She is noting the flaws of the "Linda Smith for U.S. Senate" bumper sticker on the car ahead of us. "It's too little!" the congresswoman points out. "I can't see it! The white needs to reflect!" We talk about the campaign, which is being hailed as the first in history to reject money from political action committees and Washington, DC, fund raisers. Suddenly the car we are trailing veers right. "We're not going that way!" Smith bellows. "Don't follow anybody! Wherever they're going, we're not going that way!"
Linda Smith could put that on a bumper sticker. The 47-year-old Republican has built her political career on not following anybody (even her own party) or anything (even conventional wisdom). The result has been an astonishing odyssey of unlikely victories. In 1983 the political rookie from Hazel Dell overthrew an incumbent in a run for the statehouse. Later, as a state senator, Smith spearheaded two successful citizens' initiatives, the campaign-finance-reform Initiative 134 and the state-spending-lid Initiative 601. Largely on the grassroots foundation of those efforts, the Christian right-winger pulled off an unprecedented 1994 bid for Congress as a write-in candidate, beating three-term Democratic incumbent Jolene Unsoeld in the heavily Democratic 3rd District. Two years later, after renouncing PAC donations, Smith reclaimed her seat over challenger Brian Baird. It was the narrowest victory of her career-so narrow, in fact, that Baird was initially pronounced the winner.
Since arriving on Capitol Hill, Smith has seized an unusually bright share of the spotlight: snaring a coveted committee chairmanship as a freshman; brazenly defying GOP leadership, as when she kicked sand in the face of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich with the now infamous "fat kid" remark; hammering incessantly on issues like campaign finance reform and removing perks from ex-speakers of the House. Many Democrats have long despised the aggressive Smith. Clark County Democratic Party Chair Dan Ogden used that verb in an interview with The Seattle Times last year, and gentlemanly State Sen. Sid Snyder once blurted out that Smith is a "self-promoting, miserable bitch." "She is as self-centered a politician as you're ever going to meet," says one Democratic colleague who begged anonymity. "We all have ego. But she'll be at any place at any time to have her ego needs met."
More striking now are the numbers of GOP faithful who don't like her either. Republicans on Capitol Hill privately seethe over Smith's cowboy propensity for bucking party leadership. New York Rep. Peter King branded the reformer "irritating as secondhand smoke." National Republican leaders have been actively recruiting candidates to run against Smith in the 1998 Senate primary (the winner will run against Democrat Patty Murray), with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott meeting recently with George Nethercutt in an attempt to talk him into running. Smith's own state Republican Party has appeared desperate in its attempts to recruit anti-Smith candidates. After Washington GOP state Rep. Jennifer Dunn announced that she wouldn't be taking on Smith, and after Nethercutt all but said no, moderate Republicans from around the state fervently turned to Pierce County Executive Doug Sutherland, who finally threw his hat in the ring in September.
Of course her fellow pols don't like her, Smith retorts: Her crusade for campaign finance reform will take away their perks. "I threw a fit about tobacco lobbyists passing out checks on the House floor before votes, and that's the kind of thing they say is abrasive," Smith says, shaking her head. "I say, 'You shouldn't be doin' it! If you don't want me to talk about it, don't accept checks from lobbyists on the House floor!' You take something from people, their golf trip with a lobbyist, and it's personal. One said, 'This is our life, it's rough, we deserve this! If you don't like it, then go home!' Well, no, the people who sent me here, they wouldn't like it either if they knew how influence was bein' bought!"
A lot of Americans don't like it. Groups and individuals as politically disparate as Common Cause, Ross Perot, John Miller, Charlie Chong, The Seattle Times editorial board, and Bill Clinton have all praised Smith for her principled attack on the campaign corruption that has become such a visible issue in recent years. Lobbyists donate "hard" and "soft" money to the coffers of politicians who can benefit them with favorable votes; a common soft-money move was Boeing's $300,000 donation to the Republican Party before the 1996 vote on Most Favored Nation status for China. Smith, with characteristic independence, was the only one in the Washington state delegation to vote against MFN. Along with Smith's already motley base of independents, union members, Christian conservatives, small-business people, property-rights proponents, and small- government fanatics, many Democrats who wouldn't normally consider a dalliance in the voting booth with a right-wing, anti-gay, right-to-lifer are finding themselves tempted to vote the gutsy outsider into the most insider club in America.
But first they want to know what makes Linda Smith tick. Turns out that's not as simple a question as a whole raft of unlucky opponents have assumed. Country bumpkin or canny pol? Straight-up or dissembling? Religious or ambitious? A coalition-builder or force for division? Driven by principle or driven by ego? To follow this whirlwind of contradictions around her district is to know only one thing for certain: There is absolutely nothing about Linda Smith one can know for certain.
Linda Smith is speaking at a town hall in Vancouver, the heart of her district, and even her delivery is telling two opposite stories about her. A surprisingly acculturated voice, all languid patrician vowels, is peppered with dropped g's. She is poised, animated, and blisteringly articulate on the arcana of tax reform, the political issue she's called this meeting to brag about. Impression no. 1: Linda Smith is no dummy.
Not the least of her intellectual feats is her ability to sustain a flawless "we/they" patter about the government, which is "we" whenever she's relating something she deems an achievement, and a highly suspicious "they" the rest of the time. "Here's how they pull off some of their fanciest budget tricks in Washington: They borrow from one pot to pay for another!" she tells her audience, her face fierce. "I know I'm supposed to trust them. But I don't." Then Smith artfully flips a switch-"We must have been thinking of you when we wrote that bill!"-and one marvels at her ability to have it both ways. The Senate candidate has based her candidacy on opposing the government she's part of: a proposition she, unlike other pols who try this maneuver, almost makes seem coherent.
"There's always been a great tension between Linda as an elected official and the fact that she doesn't want to play by those rules," explains James Moore, a University of Portland political science professor who has followed Smith's political career from its beginning. "Her politics has always been outside the lines-always. An awful lot of Linda's identity comes from being an outsider. Partly that's because being an outsider is the best thing you can be as a politician. You run as an agent of change."
Indeed, the current fashion in politics-with partisan animosities being replaced by a broader-based distrust of the government in general-shines a positive light on Smith's outsider persona. So do many in the media. The Seattle Times' 1994 endorsement of Smith reflected such delight in her brash incorruptibility and impolitic willingness to actually say something that the Times' editors all but admitted they didn't much care what her politics were.
In fact, her politics are to the right of nearly everybody. In 1995- the year she voted 95 percent with the Gingrich majority-Roll Call pronounced Smith the most conservative lawmaker in the nation. She has voted for amendments to limit congressional terms, ban flag burning, balance the budget, and require supermajorities to raise taxes. The League of Conservation Voters and the National Abortion Rights Action League have both ranked her at zero.
How has such a Republican Party loyalist kept her impeccable outsider credentials? In part by playing up her "just folks" loyalties. Smith's hometown of Hazel Dell is the bedroom community to a bedroom community (Vancouver); a middle- to lower-middle-class burg straddling a particularly tawdry stretch of Highway 99. It is part of the 3rd Congressional District, that hefty chunk of Washington where the Seattle country stations fade into the Portland ones; long considered the second most-Democratic district in the state but getting more Republican as swing voters pour into the Portland suburbs.
The rural portions of the district are also shot through with a potent populist distrust of big government, as one discovers in chatting with Smith's supporters. Smith's good friend Toni Radford, for one, mutters the word "government" like it will leave a trace of sludge on her tongue. "Governments don't create wealth; they confiscate it and give it to the lazy and the poor!" screams the infamous Chehalis billboard as I drive through Smith's district on the way to her Vancouver town hall.
Corporations may not own Linda Smith, but Vancouver clearly feels that it does. Questions from the town-hall crowd, which fills a good deal of the junior high school auditorium and is overrepresented by elderly men in suspenders, have a "What are you going to do about . . . ?" flavor. Smith knows many of the questioners by name. On her way out, one old coot pushes a thick folder in her face-just a few of his thoughts on trade-and she promises to read it. "These people know me, even if they've met me once," Smith sighs. "They didn't make the transition easily to me going to DC. They still drop by my house. I might have something on my front porch when I get home. They just don't realize that the district is now 800,000 people, but you can't tell 'em because then they'll just say, 'Oh, now she's too important for me!' Well I'm not too important for them, but I have to figure out a way to stretch me."
By all accounts, Smith genuinely doesn't consider herself too important for them. Every weekend she flies back to Hazel Dell and the modest '60s split-level house she shares with her husband Vern, a railroad engineer. "She is not 'Representative Smith,' she is 'Linda,'" notes the University of Portland's Moore. "There's that sense of ownership." Even though he disagrees with her anti-abortion stance, Seattle political gadfly and mayoral candidate Charlie Chong plans to vote for Smith because "she represents people, not a party."
"She really does surround herself with more schoolteachers, truck drivers, and accountants than power brokers," notes Scott Hildebrand, Smith's campaign manager. "Linda's not an attorney, she's not an ivory tower academic, she's not comfortable talking about the exigencies of Peruvian rhetoric." Her smarts are practical, not theoretical, which is evident from the way her mind shreds logistical tangles. A born multitasker, Smith can talk to a journalist, solve the next day's scheduling problems, put her granddaughter to bed, and rewrite a radio spot at the same time. "Sometimes I'll can a counter full of tomatoes while doing my callbacks," she says brightly.
Smith's folksiness also bespeaks a lack of sophistication. A blurter who once called the League of Women Voters the League of Women Vipers, she is renowned for rash, often humorously intended pronouncements that betray a kind of hillbilly insensitivity. Whether she's wisecracking to a group of underpaid journalists that nobody would work for the salaries they make, or to the elderly town-hall crowd in a hot auditorium that somebody just passed out, or to her earnest 10-year-old granddaughter that she's going to have to wait for her ride outside in the pouring rain (only after Heather's little face fell did Smith laugh merrily and confess she was teasing), one can see in Smith the same raw, countrified sensibility that had to apologize for likening Newt Gingrich-realistically as it turned out-to the fat kid who hogs all of the food at the family table.
The idea of Linda Smith in the Senate is odd, one realizes, because the chronic outsider seems incapable of being that far inside. "Linda speaks the little guy's language," reflects Moore. "It's her natural place. But when she deals with the elite, her view of the world is different enough that she has a hard time keeping her mouth shut. She gets into fights. Elites get her back up."
Linda Ann Simpson grew up poor. Born in La Junta, Colorado, in 1950, her alcoholic father took off when Smith was still a toddler. Her mother, determined yet physically frail, packed Smith and her older sister Cindy off to her parents while she worked at the nearby Army depot. There she met her second husband, who moved the new family to Oregon when Linda was 5.
"Oh, I remember it just hurt leaving my grandparents," Smith now recalls. Devoutly religious, her grandparents had given Smith her first connection to God. "I built my own relationship with and belief in a God that loved me through my grandmother's and grandfather's love," she explains. In Oregon, by contrast, Smith had no extended family and very little stability, moving from town to town as her stepfather would get hired and laid off by the railroad. Her mother, already sick with cancer, also had to work, leaving Linda and her sister to mind the home. "We had to be real adults as kids," says Cindy Yarnell, who now lives in Eugene.
Smith, who without parental accompaniment marched off to church every Sunday with her little half-siblings, accepted Jesus as her savior before she was 10. "I remember the weight of the world coming off my shoulders," she says. "Responsible" is the word Smith uses to describe herself as a child: an entrepreneur who would organize the neighborhood kids into work parties or pop-bottle drives, then divvy up the money. Yarnell remembers her as a serious, earnest girl (she took some time getting jokes) who was "too busy to have a rebellion." In her teens Smith was a cheerleader, took in laundry, cared for her mother, became the youngest in her school to make Honor Society, and ran track. She only ran races she knew she could win. "Linda is like our mother in that she hated to fail," reflects Yarnell. "Mother hated that her first marriage failed."
Smith deeply admired her mother. "Can you imagine raising six kids, moving around all the time, bein' sick?" Smith marvels. "As I look back now, I realize she was teaching me how to work against the odds and I didn't know it. My mother instilled in me something very valuable, and that is: You can do anything you want to do. The only thing in the way of you is you. You can make up your own future by how hard you decide to work, and how early you get up in the morning, and whether or not you're willing to work with people. Those are things I watched my mom do. I inherited a lot of strength from her."
Yarnell read a book once in which personality types are categorized according to the ancient physical humors: the phlegmatic type, for instance, or the sanguine type. "Linda corresponds exactly to the choleric type," Yarnell declares. "A born leader, dynamic, compulsive, has to correct wrongs no matter what, decisive, not easily discouraged, exudes confidence, impatient with those who don't see her goal . . . she just fits right down the line." Yarnell remembers the time her 4-year-old sister emerged from the bedroom layered in dress-up clothes and jewelry. When her mother told her she couldn't wear it all, Smith got frustrated and pitched a fit. "Mother, you and Cindy want to be plain!" Smith cried. "I want to be fancy!"
When Smith was in high school, the family relocated to Vancouver, where Smith joined the Glad Tidings Assembly of God Church she still attends. A Pentecostal denomination-evangelical and fundamentalist, with an emphasis on spiritual gifts from encouragement to speaking in tongues-Glad Tidings was also home to a kind, soft-spoken young choirboy named Vern Smith. "My real life started when I met Vern," Smith now says, looking adoringly at her husband, who giggles. Upon graduating, she was offered a political science scholarship to any school in Washington, but she turned it down, convinced politics was a dirty enterprise. Instead she married Vern and enrolled in tax preparation school.
The next years brought increasingly heavy responsibility. Smith took to tax law "like a sponge"; one H&R Block franchise she managed soon grew to seven. She nursed her declining mother, who died when Smith was 22. Suddenly she and Vern were the stable center of the larger family, surrogate parents to her little brothers, and actual parents, in time, to a boy and a girl of their own. A strike at the local Crown Zee plant extended their duty across their community, as Vern and Linda contributed to the funds that kept a huge proportion of their church family afloat for more than a year.
Until this time, Smith, like most of the folks in her community, considered herself a Democrat. In her early thirties, in the first of what would be several self-reinventions, the pro-choice feminist right-turned into the Reagan revolution. Smith explains that mounting small-business regulations and the doubling of the state Business and Occupation tax forced her to lay off two employees. "I split with being a Democrat over too much centralized government control," Smith says. "It brings a disconnect from personal compassion."
Never content to merely join a movement, Smith was at once compelled to lead it. Though Vern had been the one with political inclinations, Clark County's GOP chairman met them both in 1983 and pronounced Linda the politician. But first she had an issue to resolve. "I'd always felt pro-choice, but now that I was running I had to decide what exactly that meant," Smith recalls. "It entailed deciding at what point a baby wasn't a person, and I decided I couldn't declare an unborn baby not a person. Not when the Constitution was supposed to protect the vulnerable."
By the next year Smith had apparently forgotten all vestiges of her earlier ambivalence, issuing this declaration to her fellow churchgoers: "If you vote for someone who believes in abortion, you have made a conscious decision to participate in sin . . . to those who say you can't force your narrow beliefs on other people: Hogwash, you definitely can force your narrow beliefs on other people!"
Smith checked out a library book on campaigning and ran her first statehouse race on shoe leather, a quality both friends and foes credit her for. "I walked and I walked, 'cause we didn't have any money," she says. "I'd go to someone's door and they'd say, 'You've been here three times! We're gonna vote for you!'" They did: Smith upset a Democratic incumbent in a Democratic district. Four years later, in 1987, she repeated that feat in her bid for the state Senate-this time over an opponent who had been considered unbeatable three months before the vote. That win gave Senate Republicans their first elected majority in 33 years.
In Olympia, Smith distinguished herself as a zealous crusader for the Christian Right, beating the drum against abortion and sponsoring bills to end no-fault divorce and outlaw sex for those under 18. Seemingly on the force of her will alone, Smith stopped legislation she opposed on moral (Death With Dignity Initiative) or fiscal (Children's Initiative) grounds. She began gaining a reputation as a "bulldog," as Democratic legislator Pat Thibaudeau called her in the Times: In 1992 she launched a one-woman campaign against the sure-to-pass Natural Death Act. The night before the vote, ill with the flu, Smith stayed up into the wee hours drafting 45 amendments she would present to stall the vote-a fruitless maneuver that used up the time allotted for consideration of some three dozen other bills.
The real showcase for Smith's zeal, however, was her populist penchant for taking legislation to the people. "I negotiated a lot of bills in the Senate, but there were points where I felt the system would not work and my goals could not be met by the state," Smith explains. "That's when the coalition became of the people, and I'd have to go out there and say, 'I think this is what we want. If there's enough of us, we can do it.'" After several efforts to push campaign reform through the state Senate, Smith drafted Initiative 134, a campaign-contribution limit. It was approved in 1992 by more than 70 percent of Washington state voters.
The next year she followed up with Initiative 601, a state tax revolt that passed on the strength of its grassroots support despite Republican resistance and the competition of the better funded Initiative 602. Indeed, Smith spun the relative poverty of the 601 campaign into its most authentic grassroots credential. Though these successes were followed up by a dud (the government-restricting Initiative 634), her two populist triumphs established Linda Smith as a force to be reckoned with-a woman with an uncanny aptitude for getting her way.
All morning long, Linda Smith's earring has been falling off. All morning long, she's been jamming it back on her ear, unwilling to accept no for its answer. We're on our way to the Bonneville Power Administration's 60th anniversary celebration, and she's reliving last night's town hall. "There's nothing in my life I enjoy more than the challenge of a lot of people like that in a crowd," she tells me, dark eyes blazing. "Even the guy that yelled at me 'cause I didn't answer his question right, or whatever! There's something, you know, really American about it!"
Linda Smith thrives on combat. She's a textbook extrovert, invigorated by people, but with a twist: She's most invigorated by people who resist her. Because opposition is her fuel, she consistently pulls her stunning victories out of the most dismal possible prospects. She's never so enthusiastic as when recounting war stories, a typical example being the one about her crusade on behalf of a constituent whom she believed was treated unfairly by a local college. "We just fought and fought!" she says happily. "I made their life miserable!" As Marjorie Dannenfelser, director of a pro-life PAC, admiringly told The New Republic, "Linda couldn't be more vitriolic."
Smith's combativeness shows up in all kinds of ways. She delights in correcting people, and does so every chance she gets. When a constituent good-naturedly greets her at the BPA celebration as one of the "few here from Clark County," Smith informs him that he's wrong, that there are lots of people here from Clark County. When challenged, she gets testy and thrusts. "Do you know what you were like as a kid?" she snaps to the journalist who has obviously stumbled onto the wrong question. "How would you like to be asked these questions?"
"If you challenge her, she'll glare you down," Moore explains. "She'll close up and get a real cold look in her eye that says, 'I'm right, and you're wrong.'" "Linda gets impatient with people who don't see what she sees," explains her sister Yarnell. "I wouldn't want to be her opponent." At times, however, her supporters haven't fared much better. On primary election night in 1996, after squeaking by Brian Baird, Smith tongue-lashed the Republicans for not supporting her vigorously enough-an outburst that was caught on tape.
"Sometimes she does lose her patience, but it's because she's laser-focused," admits her communications director Jim Troyer. Smith calls it "tunnel vision," and although she pays lip service to the statesmanlike art of compromise she spends a lot of energy at her town halls rationalizing the tradeoffs she's made ("We didn't get everything we wanted, but we came closer!")
"The choleric personality," intones Yarnell, "is very black and white. Linda believes that you don't solve an issue by going to the periphery; you go to the core. If the core is rotten, you have to take it out."
It is this combination of abrasive, self-righteous, and unyielding traits that political insiders say make Smith allergic to cooperation. "What you want is somebody who can work with people, and Linda is a loner," says one Democratic colleague who echoes the sentiments of many off-the-record commentators of both political persuasions. "There's a 'You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' ethic that's necessary in politics, but she's only a taker. She'd be an absolutely terrible senator, because there's no good will for her anywhere inside the process. She can't build groups around her because she wants to be out front all the time."
That's not entirely true: Smith is capable of getting coalitions started, at least. In 1995, she became a lead sponsor of the "Bipartisan Clean Congress Act," a sweeping set of congressional reforms that drew the support of a diverse coalition led by Smith, Democrat Martin Meehan and Republican Chris Shays. Later, however, the bill became simply Shays-Meehan; a change that is conventionally interpreted to signal Smith's increasingly polarizing status. Even campaign manager Hildebrand tacitly acknowledges that Smith is not a team player by saying that's not what she was hired to be. "If you were elected to be a party leader, then [not being a team player] would diminish your effectiveness," he says. "But if you were elected to do something that's not necessarily what your party stands for-then that's what makes you effective."
Smith argues differently. "I'm a great team player!" she insists. "It's not fun to be called abrasive, or not a team player, just because you don't take special-interest money. I like to make it work. I think that's all the years of big family and challenges. I want to make it work! In the state Senate I was elected to leadership over and over again because I could bring consensus."
Smith calls hers a "consensus-building aggressive style," and as we're driving in the car she tells me how it works, using an example from her Olympia experience legislating foster care. "You stand up and you say, 'I don't care if you guys agree or disagree-I do care about a solution! So we're not gonna leave this room until we can find the first step where we agree! I can't imagine going out of here and failing at something as important as a child having a permanent home, can you?' Well no, they can't. That's how you get them to consensus."
Ten days before the 1994 primary, the leading Republican 3rd District Congressional candidate Tim Moyer dropped out of the race under charges of tax evasion. Fresh off her 601 triumph, Smith was pegged by party leaders as a high-profile prospect with a ready campaign infrastructure. Against the naysaying of campaign experts, Smith's army of volunteers mailed (38,000 pieces of literature), phoned (50,000 households), and doorbelled their way to the first write-in victory in Washington state history. On primary day, more than 34,000 voters wrote in Smith's name.
The ensuing campaign between Smith and three-time Democratic incumbent Jolene Unsoeld was memorably fierce. "Here were two women who did not like each other at all," says Aberdeen Daily World editor John Hughes, who recalls their "venomous" exchange at an editorial board interview. Smith's jabs were particularly vicious, centering on the suggestion that Unsoeld's Republican father was a political supporter of hers and that she, Smith, felt kind of like an "adopted" daughter to him. Smith won, swept into Congress as part of 1994's GOP tidal wave.
That election was notable for another reason: With it Smith finally transcended her Christian label. Those who know Smith best insist that she still "loves Jesus with all her heart," as her friend Toni Radford puts it; even as a Congresswoman she attends Glad Tidings nearly every Sunday. "To understand Linda, the first and most important thing to know is that she is very, very religious, and she takes that as the touchstone of her entire life," observes James Moore. During her bruising 1996 campaign, he recalls, Smith became quietly committed to ministering to a number of people from her church who were in the hospital. "It wasn't a publicity thing; I'm not sure anyone in the media even knew about it," says Moore. "She just has some deeply held religious beliefs that are central to her as a person."
But beginning in the early '90s, she stopped talking about them in public. It bespeaks another reinvention: Whereas pre-1992 newspaper references to Smith inevitably included the tag "Christian conservative," most by 1994 had switched to "populist conservative." "I don't think I've met the real Linda Smith," says Hughes, who admits frustration in having tried on several occasions to engage her on the subject of her faith. "I felt she was evasive. It's like she wants to have it both ways."
Indeed, with a journalist she underplays her religion, characterizing the church as valuable for offering "belonging" and "stability," her God as "bigger than most things, most circumstances," her devotions in terms of their shortcomings ("I try to spend time in the Bible each morning, but I'm not perfect at that"). No Ellen Craswell, who idealistically and openly traces her political positions back to the Almighty, Smith appears altogether more pragmatic, more earthbound, in her faith. Smith speaks of God as a kind of supernatural campaign volunteer: not so much source as supporter of her positions; useful politically when conferring that all-important outsider status, but easily backbenched in favor of the less divisive issue of government reform. One can't escape the sense that Smith, being fond of God, wants to help Him out a little. A clipping on her refrigerator, entitled "When One is a Majority," reads: "Does the opposition seem overwhelming? Are you in the battle alone? It's often wh