Jeff Smith: Do As I Say — A Political Advice Column

Jeff SmithQ: In House of Cards, Congressman Russo is having sex with his aide, while House Majority Whip Underwood is having sex with a journalist. Which happens more often?
A.S., New York City

Great question—it actually inspired me to write a separate column on the fact and the fiction behind House of Cards.

The answer is, definitely the former. During my time in the Missouri Senate, I never knew of a legislator sleeping with a journalist, but there was a lot of sex with legislative aides—though it generally happened with other people’s aides, not one’s own. Something about working with someone 16 hours a day makes them decidedly less sexy. I even knew of one legislator who slept with a constituent who visited his office to lobby for special needs children (though it happened after several meetings). They are now quite happily married.

Q: Our campaign is preparing to hire a bunch of summer interns to canvass this summer. I saw in the documentary about your race that you had this awesome group of interns who worked their hearts out for you. How did you find them? Did you have to weed a lot out?
J.L., New York City

Well, I was lucky. As a college prof I was blessed to be in contact with a lot of young people who were into politics. And as I used to joke, it’s amazing how much you can motivate students to engage with passionate teaching…and a little extra credit.

But the key was the weeding out process. During my 2004 campaign for Congress, I implored anyone who expressed a scintilla of interest to become an intern. Most did, and about a quarter of them ended up not working out.

In my 2006 campaign, based on the twin notions that the desperate guy at the bar goes home alone and the girl who plays hard to get usually attracts many suitors, I decided to do things differently. When a student inquired about volunteering, I’d give her my email address and tell her to contact me in the next 48 hours to learn more about the application process. If she did that, I’d ask her to send her résumé to my campaign manager in the next 48 hours. If she did that and her résumé wasn’t terrible, my manager would tell her we still had one to two internships available and ask for a time she could come in to interview in the next 72 hours. If that went smoothly, my manager would ask for three references he could call within the next 48 hours. But by that point, we barely even needed to call them (though we did), because we could tell that the student was responsible, aggressive and committed to the cause. We didn’t lose a single intern that campaign.

Q: I’m a junior at the University of Virginia. While a business major, I’m also interested in politics. Specifically, I’m interested in working across the aisle for bipartisan solutions to challenging problems. I’m from Virginia and considering running for the House of Delegates. I’m not a member of either party and believe that I can bridge the differences between the two. Should I run as an independent?
B.Z., Charlottesville, Va.

No, not unless you left out the fact that you had an extra few million bucks to spend to fund an effort to get on the ballot, buy TV ads and direct mail to get your name out, and pay for an extensive field operation that targets, identifies and pulls your supporters out to vote. But even well funded independent candidates seldom meet with success (see: Golisano, Tom or Davis, Jack).

Hate to say it, but in a system where pluralities win (as opposed to a European style system of proportional representation), there will always be two dominant parties except in very unusual circumstances. (Political scientists call it Duverger’s law.)

You seem like a nice kid, but unless you have the money to essentially buy what a party nomination gets you (access to some donors, activists and a base level of credibility with voters), you will lose if you try to run as an indie. My advice is: Figure out which party you are closest to, and which party is more hospitable to moderates. Given the success of people like Mark Warner and Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia, the latter question would appear to answer itself. Good luck.

Q: Senator Smith, you made a mistake, admitted it, asked for forgiveness and got a second chance in life. And I think most people here in St. Louis who remember you are just fine with that. I saw Mark Sanford is running for his old House seat. Should he be forgiven?
S.N., St. Louis

Absolutely. First of all, after originally asking forgiveness of God and his family, Sanford went on an 18-month statewide apology tour. That should count for something. Second, what happens in a politician’s marriage really isn’t anybody else’s business. But suppose you believe that if a pol lies to his wife, he’d lie to his constituents. Even by that standard, Sanford seems to fare well. Instead of calling a press conference and denying sexual relations with the other woman, or claiming that he’d received a nude massage from Playboy bunny Tai Collins (like former U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb) but refrained from doing the deed, Sanford bared his soul: Not only did he shtup his mistress, he confessed that he was actually in love with her. (This was no spring fling; they are now engaged.) So, at least after his original deceit, which was unspeakably humiliating, Sanford wins the gold medal for candor

(Cross-posted, with permission of the author, from


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