The New School Free Press recently published a feature interview on one of their newest professors, contributing RP Jeff Smith. Here’s an excerpt:
Last September, Jeff Smith’s first class as assistant professor of politics and advocacy at Milano was cut abruptly short. After explaining to the class that he had recently been released from federal prison, he received a text message informing him that his pregnant wife had gone into labor. “I told the class that I would have loved to stay, but I had to go to the hospital,” Smith says. “One of the students said, ‘Man, I think we just got Punk’d.’”
The series of events that eventually brought Smith to The New School started back in 2004. It was then that Smith narrowly lost the Democratic primary in his bid to represent his home state of Missouri in the U.S. Congress. It was the first time Smith had run for office and, though he began his campaign as an underdog, the election came down to a tight race between Smith and his opponent, Russ Carnahan. During the campaign, Smith illegally coordinated with an independent political group that ran negative advertisements about Carnahan. Smith initially denied his involvement during a federal investigation of the events and submitted a false affidavit, which turned out to be his biggest mistake. After a recording of him admitting his guilt surfaced in an unrelated investigation in 2009, Smith was sentenced to one year and one day in a federal penitentiary. He was released in 2010.
Although the incident abruptly ended Smith’s political career, he came to The New School on a quest to keep political commentary as a part of his life. He’s currently a contributor for Salon, writing recently about the Todd Akin controversy and former New School president Bob Kerrey’s U.S. Senate campaign, among other political issues. The Free Press sat down with Smith recently, just after he had returned from a sleepless night at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
FP: How did you end up at The New School?
JS: I saw a job opening online, and while speaking to the chairman of the search committee I mentioned how much I appreciated that [the committee] was open-minded enough to consider me, given the fact that I had just got out of prison. The chairman said, “We had a lot of applications, and at least yours stood out.”
FP: Your political and criminal background has been well documented. How do you apply your experiences to your teaching?
JS: What happened to me was that I made a mistake. What I did was relatively common in politics – but the point is that I did it, I got caught, I paid the price, [and] I learned first of all that even the smallest attempt to cut corners can get you in a lot of trouble. Hopefully, in a broader perspective, I can use my experiences to help public officials around the country operate in ways that are always 100 percent ethical.
From a teaching perspective, young people are obviously very impressionable and see teachers, in many cases, as role models. I try not to make a cornerstone out of my experiences, but I’ve had good opportunities within the context of the courses I teach to explain how in any campaign, the smallest mistakes can have outsized consequences.