BY STARLA VAUGHNS CHERIN
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
Four years ago, Democrat Christopher “Chris’’ Smith of Fort Lauderdale was elected to the Florida Senate, one of a small number of African-Americans in Florida’s most exclusive legislative body.
In just a few years, he has moved up the ranks due to his planning, patience and preparation.
This year, Smith was elected unanimously by Democrats in the Florida Senate as the Senate “minority leader” – because the Democrats are the “minority” party, since Florida Republicans control the Senate.
Smith is one-half of a historical political duo in the Florida Legislature’s 2012-2014 legislative term.
State Rep. Perry Thurston, also of Broward County, is the Democratic leader of the Florida House of Representatives. It’s the first time in the history of the Florida Legislature that Black politicians have held the top political offices in both legislative chambers at the same time.
It’s also the first time the post has been held by politicians representing the same county, and the first time either party’s top legislative leaders have all been educated at historically Black colleges or universities – Smith at Johnson C. Smith University and Thurston at Morehouse College, respectively.
(If Democrats controlled the Florida Legislature, Smith would have been the first African-American Senate president and Thurston would have been the first African-American House speaker in Florida history.)
Both Smith and Thurston are lawyers.
Smith moved up through the ranks of the Senate after winning a seat for District 31 in 2008. He cut his teeth in the Florida House from 1998 to 2006, where he was the Democratic leader from 2004-2006.
Over the years, he sponsored legislation such as the “Jim King Keep Florida Working” Act in 2011.
It prohibits state agencies from denying an application for a license, permit, certificate or employment based solely on a person’s lack of civil rights.
This year, Smith took on Florida Gov. Rick Scott and urged him to review the state’s controversial “stand your ground” self-defense law that George Zimmerman is using to defend killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, in Sanford.
Gearing up for the upcoming session, Smith refiled his “American Jobs” legislation this month. The bill requires that all state contracts worth at least $35,000 that use call-center services must use services staffed by persons located within the United States. Subcontractors are included in the proposed law.
“American tax dollars, along with Floridians’ tax dollars, should go to rebuild our own economies – not China’s or India’s or some other foreign countries,” Smith said after filing the bill. “This is an effective way to put the power of our money to work creating American jobs on American soil.”
Smith introduced a similar jobs bill last year that passed on the Senate floor with strong bipartisan support.
‘Time to work’
As Senate minority leader, one of his duties is to corral bipartisan support for important Democratic legislation and to be the voice for Democratic legislative priorities in the 2012-2014 term.
Smith’s legislative priorities include economic development and jobs, education, insurance and election reform and Florida’s implementation of the federal Patient Protect and Affordable Care Act popularly known as “Obamacare.”
About 3,000 bills are expected to be introduced in the Senate; approximately 10 percent may actually be approved.
“The campaign is over; it’s time to work,” Smith said.
Tea Party drama
During last week’s Senate committee hearings in Tallahassee on Obamacare, Smith faced loud opposition from Tea Party members from across Florida who attended the sessions. Smith noted the bipartisan group of senators discussing the upcoming legislation held to their bipartisanship.
“In the audience of the special select committee to implement Obamacare was a cadre of opponents, primarily Tea Party members, who felt compelled to boo and hiss at senators with no agenda other than to carry out their constitutional obligations in service to the people of Florida.
The committee, by the way, consisted of a broad spectrum of senators all appointed by Senate President Don Gaetz, a conservative Republican, and no fan of the new health care law,” Smith explained.
“Despite the disruptions and to their credit, committee members – many of whom I know had also opposed Obamacare – held to the bipartisanship promised by President Gaetz…they, too, recognized the duty inherent in the oath of office they each took last month and the mission with which they were now tasked.”
Smith and his Democratic team will play a critical role during the upcoming legislative sessions.
Additional members of the leadership team elected last month include Caucus Whip Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, Deputy Whip Darren Soto of Orlando, Policy Chair Bill Montford of Tallahassee.
(A “whip” makes sure that the party votes together on various issues.)
Deeming the Caucus as “the conscience of the Capitol,” Smith adds, “With an unemployment rate that continues to remain stubbornly high, job creation and economic development will remain top priorities. So will criminal justice and elections reform.”
He adds, “There is no lack of talent in the Florida Senate to conquer these issues once policy takes precedence over partisanship. And I believe those lessons were driven home earlier this year when moderate Republicans joined united Democrats in the Senate to defeat legislation that was all about partisanship over policy.”
Coach and mentor
Smith’s legislative committee experience includes banking and insurance, criminal justice, criminal and civil justice appropriations, communication, energy and public utilities, transportation/tourism, economic development, appropriations, and a select committee on protecting Florida’s children. He currently is vice chair of the Criminal Justice and Rules Committees.
Raised in Broward County, Smith received his bachelor’s degree from Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. He then went to Florida State University’s College of Law and worked for a private firm after graduating.
His leadership abilities started in Fort Lauderdale in his community and church. Growing up in Fort Lauderdale and playing at Carter Park in a predominantly Black neighborhood, he gives back as a football coach, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity member, NAACP Youth mentor, community leader, and family man.
He is married to Desorae Giles-Smith and has two children, Christopher and Christian.
Supports youth sports
As an attorney, his interest in criminal justice extends to understanding the importance of sports and enrichment activities that has help youth stay focused on success.
At one time, Little League teams in Central Broward County had no annual comprehensive championship game. In 2003, Smith started the annual Chris Smith All-Star Football Classic held at Dillard High School. Since then, the Chris Smith Classic has expanded to the Lauderhill Sports Complex.