In watching the 20-or-so Republican freshmen elected to the House of Representatives in 1982, a political reporter could be forgiven for ignoring Rep. Bob Smith of Oregon’s 2nd District.
As many of us agreed after learning of Smith’s death last week at age 89, we were all wrong.
The lanky, cigar-chewing country boy from Eastern Oregon quickly demonstrated the street smarts he previously evinced as speaker of the state House of Representatives and state senator.
He retired from Congress in 1994, but came back two years later on his terms: he would run for his old seat when Republican leaders needed him if his seniority was restored, and he became chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Speaker Newt Gingrich agreed to the deal, Smith returned to Congress, wielded the gavel at Agriculture for two years, and retired for good in 1998.
None of us saw that savvy, or perceived Smith as a standout in the House GOP’s “Class of ’82.” This was a class that included two future Republican presidential candidates — John McCain of Arizona and John Kasich of Ohio — as well as a future Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., and future Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, R-Pa.
Connecticut’s Nancy Johnson stood out as one of only two women in the GOP class and for her outspoken pro-choice stand in a party which was becoming increasingly pro-life. Simply put, there were just too many more interesting Republicans elected to the House that year to notice Bob Smith.
Even his name seemed so common as to ensure little press attention to Bob Smith. A year before, when redistricting moved Rep. Denny Smith, R-Ore., from the 2nd District to the newly drawn 5th District, then-state Sen. Bob Smith quickly declared for the Republican nomination in the 2nd.
“Bob’ll be fine,” Denny Smith (no relation) told me with a wink. “After all, the name will help because you have to realize voters in the 2nd know the good job I did.”
As it turned out, Bob Smith almost lost. Primary foe Mike Fitzgerald savaged him as an ersatz conservative and the attacks left scars even after Smith emerged triumphant with the Republican nomination. In the fall, liberal Democrat and environmentalist favorite Larryann Willis — herself a rancher from Vale — rode the depressed economy and rolled up 47% of the vote.
“For 43 years, as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., both as a congressional staff lawyer and in private practice, I have had the privilege of working with many members of Congress,” Washington “superlawyer” Bert Pena told Newsmax. “Bob Smith was one of the all-time great Members of the House I had the privilege of knowing well and working with in Congress and in my private practice.”
Pena recalled how the Oregonian “took to Congress with ease.” As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Smith focused on property rights and economic development — issues which were pivotal to Central and Eastern Oregon. He voted against the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, which he feared would impact negatively on jobs and private property (it became law in 1986).
And his conservatism, contrary to fears raised by his ’82 primary foe, was solid. Smith was rated 100% by the American Conservative Union in 1993 and ’94 and, according to Lois Anderson of Oregon Right to Life, “He had a 100% voting record with National Right to Life and steadfastly voted for the Hyde Amendment, keeping federal tax dollars from funding abortions.”
The son of the only doctor in Burns, Oregon, Robert Freeman Smith graduated from Willamette University and spent his early years managing his family’s ranch. He also started a small construction company.
Smith’s entry into politics was, as the “Oregon Encyclopedia” put it, “a comedy of errors.” After being talked into running for the state House in 1960, he missed the filing deadline, won the primary as a write-in candidate, withdrew from the race, and, after calling on fellow Republicans to nominate someone else at a special convention, found himself nominated again. He was elected in 1960.
Smith was elected majority leader in 1965 and four years later became speaker. In that capacity, he frequently clashed with Republican Gov. Tom McCall — “outspokenly liberal in domestic policy,” as David Broder and Stephen Hess characterized him in their 1967 book “The Republican Establishment.”
In 1972, Smith moved to the Senate and, six years later, he found himself working with fellow conservative Republican and Gov. Vic Atiyeh. Together, they were part of the effort that refunded more than $700 million (27% of the General Fund) to taxpayers.
“The great part about Bob is that he never forgot who elected him to the House,” Bert Pena told us. “And he will be sorely missed now.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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