A few years ago, Missouri state Sen. Jeff Smith was caught lying to the feds about the funding for a certain political-attack mailer and wound up sentenced to a year behind bars. The charismatic young progressive, who has since left prison and politics behind, contributed a chapter to the new book The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis. He tells confessional, instructive stories about what he learned from his mistakes. His chapter begins with a grabber—being strip-searched as he enters the lock-up.
Is the book literally a practical guide for politicians who’ve stumbled, or does it have a broader purpose? To some extent, it’s designed to be a guide, but in a broader way, it’s designed to give anyone who’s going through tough times a lot of ways to handle situations more appropriately, more effectively, in a way that’s healthier. For instance, let’s say you’re a salesman and you’re trying to sell widgets and the company you’re selling to says, “You knock 10 percent off that $1.7 million you just quoted me, and we’ll make it worth your while.” These things are often not so blunt, though. People in everyday life encounter ethical dilemmas in everything they do. The book provides a lot of insight into the mistakes that those of us in the public eye have made that mushroom out of control. Hopefully that can help a lot of people prevent their situations from ever getting to that stage. Most people are not going to be Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner, plastered all over the tabloids, but we all live in a constant state of trying to do the right thing.
The book offers tales of woe from a bunch of former politicians being painfully honest, more so than you usually expect from politicians. We are all pretty vulnerable in that book. We’re getting deep, talking about the lowest moments in our lives, and we’re hoping it transcends people’s typical views of politicians as full of crap and constantly dissembling. There’s not a lot of that in this book.
How did you get involved with the Recovering Politician blog? There are two guys—the former secretary of state of Kentucky and the former treasurer of Kentucky—they started it. My ex-girlfriend had worked in Kentucky, and I met one of these guys. The two of them got together and brainstormed at the time I had just come out of prison, and it came together by happenstance. They asked me to write an essay about my experience, and it went from there.
In a candid column for the Recovering Politician website, you wrote about how the revelation that you’d spent a year in prison got the attention of a group of jaded young people at a party in Brooklyn. Is that a weird feeling, to have a certain street cred by virtue of having served time? Yeah, it’s weird. But you have to try to always let people remember a couple of things—that a lot of people in prison aren’t very much different from them, and that even the ones they think are very different aren’t as different as they think. I try not to let people “go slumming” off my experience. What I’m concerned about is the complete lack of rehabilitation in most prisons and the effect that has.
You’ve had some time, since November 2010, that you’ve been out of prison and the halfway house you went to after prison. Have you gotten some emotional distance from everything? Yes and no. I’ve gotten involved in a lot of activities related to prison issues. Compared to 2011, well, then I wasn’t ready to engage in a lot of stuff like that. But in the last six months, I’ve been spending a lot more time on those issues. I gave a speech at the Cleveland State Prison in Texas to several hundred graduates of one of their programs. The experience of being back inside was emotional. I’m working on a book about my experience in prison and how it’s informed my views on prison policy, and about how we can do a better job leveraging of the untapped talent in our prisons and cut our spending and reduce our recidivist rate.
In 2010, you told SLM’s Jeannette Cooperman that academe “does not even resemble the real world… One of my objectives is to try to explore ways to better connect poli sci with real-world politics.” Now you’re the assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School in New York. Is that what you’re doing there? Yes. In fact, in the next week or two, I have to turn in my dossier, which is my giant file of everything I’ve done in the past few years, for my job renewal, and the opening of that is a statement of purpose, what you’re trying to do in academia. My goals are to help infuse academia with more of an understanding of real-world politics and to give students a better understanding of how things really work, what people who haven’t been in the game might not know. Conversely, I try to bring some of the social-science discipline and analytical training into the public world.
Contributing recovering politician Jeff Smith, who spent a year in federal prison for lying to federal authorities about a minor campaign finance violation, offers advice to his fellow pol/prisoner/hoopster Richie Farmer, set to spend some time in the can for public corruption charges. Here are excerpts from Smith’s piece in the (Louisville) Courier Journal:
Use your basketball skills to help others. Running the point and making your teammates better may be an effective way to build alliances.
• Be careful on the court. Some people who have it out for you may exploit the opportunity to try to hurt you on the athletic field and not get in trouble for it….
Don’t break prison rules.
• This may seem contradictory. The last rule suggested that you should tolerate prison rule-breaking — and you should. But try not to violate rules yourself.
• Don’t gamble. If you lose, you’ll be in debt and you do not want to be compromised like that. If you win, someone will be angry and may figure out a way to get his money back — a way that might leave you unrecognizable.
• Don’t “hold” anything someone asks you to hold. Even if it looks innocuous, it’s probably got contraband inside of it…
Don’t look for trouble.
• Don’t change the TV channel. There is a stringent seniority-based regime when it comes to TV watching, and your celebrity does not entitle you to alter it in any way.
• Don’t stare. There is generally no reason to make eye contact unless someone says your name.
• Don’t eat the Snickers. During orientation, you’ll watch a mandatory sexual assault prevention video featuring a guy warning you not to eat the Snickers bar that may be waiting for you on your bed in your cell. (The actor ate the one left under his pillow, unwittingly signaling the predator who left it for him that he was ready and willing.) All the guys watching the video will laugh. But take the video’s message to heart: Don’t accept sweets from anyone.
We’ve all seen it, a politician’s life derailed by scandal or personal crisis. While in years past that meant retirement from public life, nowadays we’re just as likely to see these individuals re-emerge to campaign another day.
On Wednesday’s Up to Date, we look at crisis management with Jeff Smith, one of the contributors to The Recovering Politician’s Twelve-Step Guide to Surviving Crisis. A recovering legislator himself, Smith relates his path from the Missouri statehouse to prison. He reveals how the lessons he and others have learned in handling their crises can be beneficial even to those of us who live much more private lives.
Jenji Kohan, the creator of Netflix’s new hit series Orange Is The New Black, had to grapple with a pretty serious conundrum: How do you make a compulsively watchable series about a milieu whose defining characteristic is boredom? And yet, the show’s writers have pulled it off.
Of course, they have had to take some liberties; the series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir but is highly fictionalized. So what did they get right about prison life, and what did they miss?
Though my year in federal prison was quite unlike Piper Kerman’s — largely on account of the differences between men’s and women’s prisons — here’s my assessment of where Orange nailed it and where it missed the mark.
Here’s what they get right:
Small things can have outsize consequences — in positive and negative ways.
By Jonathan Miller, on Wed Aug 14, 2013 at 2:30 PM ET
MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” talks with Piper Kerman, the real-life inspiration behind the series, “Orange is the New Black”, and Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state
senator who read Kerman’s memoir while in prison on campaign finance violations, about the prison system in the U.S. and AG Holder’s recent remarks about mandatory prison minimums.
They call themselves “recovering politicians”—political figures whose careers and dreams have come crashing down because of scandals. Two of them are Missourians.
State Senator Jeff Smith was a rising star in the Democratic Party when he went to federal prison for a year for lying to federal investigators about a minor campaign finance law violation. Former Speaker of the House Rod Jetton was looking at a lucrative career as a political consultant when he became entangled in a one-night stand of rough sex. He avoided prison by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge. But his political career, like Smith’s, was ruined.
Smith knew as soon as he heard that an associate had been charged with a series of non-campaign crimes that he was political toast. “In just a few moments of weakness in that first campaign, I now realized that I’d thrown away everything that I’d worked for all my life,” he told county officials last November.
And Jetton realized as soon as his incident became public that he could not avoid admitting what he’d done—to his father, a Baptist minister. “That pretty much strips your pride away,” he has told us.
Their book is called “The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis.” Smith and Jetton are two of about a dozen former office-holders whose lives have taken new directions since their falls from grace. Jetton now is in private business and is president of a political newspaper that covers the Capitol. Smith now is a political science college teacher in New York and has written several political articles for national magazines.
The book: The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis, …
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The first Correctional Officer (CO) I met was straight out of Deliverance. I came in with a young black guy who mumbled and a middle-aged Chinese man who spoke broken English, but at least I could decipher their words. The CO was harder to understand. Manchester, Kentucky is tucked in an Appalachian mountain hollow, and he had apparently never left. When he sauntered into the austere, concrete holding room and asked the Chinese man his name, the man replied, “Shoi-ming Chung.”
“Sesame Chicken?” replied the CO; laughing uproariously and then repeating it twice as if it were the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
He sent me to a heavyset nurse for a battery of questions.
“Height and weight?” she asked.
“5’6”, 120 pounds.”
She examined my slight frame and frowned. “Education level?”
She shot me a skeptical look. “Last profession?”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, I’ll put it down if ya want. If ya wanna play games, play games. You’ll fit right in – we got ones who think they’re Jesus Christ, too.”
Another guard escorted me to a bathroom without a door. He was morbidly obese and spoke gruffly in a thick Kentucky drawl. “Stree-ip,” he commanded. I did. “Tern’round,” he barked. I did.
“Open up yer prison wallet,” he ordered.
I looked at him quizzically.
“Tern’round and open up yer butt cheeks.”
“Alright, you’se good to go.”
Read the rest of… Former State Sen. Jeff Smith: From Politics to Prison — AN EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT from The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis
Jeff Smith spent a year in prison. But what he discovered inside wasn’t what he expected — he saw in his fellow inmates boundless ingenuity and business savvy. He asks: Why don’t we tap this entrepreneurial potential to help ex-prisoners contribute to society once they’re back outside? (From the TED Talent Search event TED@NewYork.)
Many have written eloquently about Jesse Jackson Jr.’s sad fall. But now it’s time for Jackson to focus on minimizing his penalty and reputational damage in order to preserve future opportunities for himself and his family.
In his letter of resignation from Congress, Jackson eschewed the defiance of Rod Blagojevich, suggesting a guilty plea is likely. Jackson also said he is cooperating with investigators.
But cooperation has a legal meaning far stronger than its common meaning; a defendant can be “cooperative” without cooperating in the legal sense. That is, a defendant may promptly fulfill most of a prosecutor’s specific pre-indictment requests — detailing his crime(s), resigning from office, declining interviews, etc — but that won’t be enough to receive an elusive 5K-1 letter, the government’s reward for defendants who help them make cases against others. A 5K-1 letter is the best way to persuade a judge to depart downward from federal sentencing guidelines.
The public typically associates politicians with ambition. But many investigators are similarly motivated. Law enforcement officials know that people who prosecute Joe Sixpacks aren’t first in line for promotions. The chosen — and those who write books, appear on TV, or even seek office themselves — are investigators who pursue the biggest scalps. (See Congressman-elect George Holding, the prosecutor who indicted John Edwards and then resigned to seek office before the trial.)
Therein lies Jackson’s problem/opportunity. He is surrounded by possible high-value targets: his dad, the famed civil-rights leader who runs Operation PUSH; his wife, Sandi, a prominent Chicago alderwoman; his brothers Jonathan and Yusef, businessmen/activists who own a lucrative beer distributorship purchased after their father had organized a boycott of the brewery’s products; dozens of high-level public officials with whom he mingles.
Sun-Times columnist Mike Sneed reported Friday that Jackson is, in fact, “singing with the voice of an anxious canary” and that the feds are interested in all he knows about a “powerful dem femme” who is not an alderman.
Read the rest of… Jeff Smith: Should Jesse Jr. Cooperate with the Feds?