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Smith's vision for Watertown's future


Here is my profile of Councilman Jeff Smith. You will note a change, the result of an error I made in describing Mr. Smith's son. Mr. Smith adopted Carlos when Carlos was 8.
He's not smiling, but Jeffrey M. Smith is excited. This time, it's about home renovations. Mr. Smith, 41 and a candidate for mayor, is taking a visitor through his living room, which is being renovated, and into his sunroom, where the renovations are already finished.
Breaking out a laptop, he shows the visitor a computer program that tracks the solar panels that adorn his roof. He explains his method for the changes to his Keyes Avenue home, which made the rare transition back to a home after it was converted to four apartments: He does most of it himself. From the research to the wiring to sanding down the doorway to the painting, gutting and scraping, Mr. Smith is in charge here.
“You want it done right, you do it yourself,” Mr. Smith says with certainty.
This is typical of Mr. Smith, a city councilman. Mr. Smith has been criticized over the years for shortcomings as a politician, criticism that he himself acknowledges has validity. One thing hasn't changed: his belief that he does his homework and knows what's right.
Here's another thing Mr. Smith is convinced of: He should be mayor of Watertown. He's facing off against four-term incumbent Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham for the Nov. 8 race, so the burden of doubt is on Mr. Smith. He needs to convince Watertown voters of many things. The big ones are: He has matured since he was first elected at 23. He is prepared to lead. And that the city could do better with him, and not Mr. Graham, despite the expansion that Watertown has seen in the past 20 years.
Mr. Smith was born in Watertown, and raised on State Street. He graduated from Immaculate Heart Central in 1987. After graduation, he attended Jefferson Community College for two years and then went on to SUNY Albany, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science.
He came back to Watertown and taught special education at area schools. In 1993, at the age of 23, he ran for what was then the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors and beat a six-term incumbent.
In his only term on the board, he ruffled feathers with a brash, uncompromising way.
“In the past, I was much more strident,” Mr. Smith says today of the hothead knock. “I thought you had to fight every single issue tooth and nail. I didn't always look at the bigger picture.”
Even today, Mr. Smith acknowledges, he can still speak bluntly.
When one of Mr. Graham's supporters, David W. Mance, said Mr. Smith once belligerently stormed into his office and demanded answers about Samaritan Medical Center, he responded brusquely: “I think either Mr. Mance can't read, doesn't follow City Council or is just lying to people.”
At an editorial board meeting with the Watertown Daily Times, Mr. Smith faced stern questioning about whether he supported the hospital. He did, he said. Every request for support that the hospital has put before the City Council, he has supported, he said, and will continue to do so.
But, he said: “Our hospital could be so much better.”
When he is making a point, the volume and pitch of his voice rises, seeming to say to listeners: Can't you see the plain, bare facts?
He told a reporter later: “That's where I'm a bad politician. I get passionate about things. Instead of being, ‘Eh, this might upset somebody,' I say, ‘This is the truth. This is the way it is.”
Mr. Smith didn't win re-election to the newly formed Legislature in 1995. In 1999, he won a seat on City Council, and served one term. He lost re-election in 2003 (he was traveling back and forth to Le Moyne College for physician assistant school, and didn't have much time to campaign, he explains) but came back again in 2005, a position he has held since.
That same year, Mr. and his wife, Milagros C. “Milly” Smith opened QuikMed Urgent Care Center, which treats non-life threatening injuries like broken bones and dog bites (Mrs. Smith, who works full-time as a physician assistant there, once treated Mr. Graham after a dog bit his hand while he was going door-to-door collecting signatures to help then-Rep. John M. McHugh get on the ballot).
Mr. Smith helps run the business side of QuikMed, and he is a full-time physician assistant at Owen & Krawchenko, which offers neurological treatment of spinal disorders. He meets with patients and counsels them on treatment options.
“He's very compassionate and considerate with patients,” Dr. John Krawchenko said of Mr. Smith's bedside manner.
Mr. Smith's family – a ubiquitous pillar of his campaign – has helped Mr. Smith grow into a person he believes is ready to be mayor.
Parenthood helped, said his wife.
“When I first got together with him, people viewed him as being immature, he was arrogant, he didn't have any care in the world,” Mrs. Smith said. “As soon as he was a dad that changed.”
They met while Mr. Smith was a paramedic working for Guilfoyle Ambulance, and Mrs. Smith, who was born in Peru and raised in New York City, was working as a physician assistant at Samaritan Medical Center. She was widowed with a 7-year-old son.
The two began dating in February 2001.
“For me, I laid it on the line,” said Mrs. Smith. “I said, ‘Look, I'm 35 years old. I'm widowed. I have a 7-year-old son. I don't go out, go to bars. If you want to go out, this has got to be serious.' And he said, ‘I am.'”
By May of that year, they were engaged. By September, they were married. By April, their first child, Estevan, was born.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith have three biological children: Estevan, 9; Iliana, 7; and Neicia, 4. Mr. Smith's 18-year-old adopted son, Carlos, is a pre-med freshman at the University of Maryland.
Mr. Smith said he has imparted on Carlos the wisdom of a 41-year-old dad who once was an immature 20-something.
Mr. Smith was charged with driving while ability impaired after he crashed his car, injuring himself and a passenger, in 1995. He was 25 years old at the time.
“I don't hide it from him,” he said. “I impress upon him, ‘Look, you can't think you've just had one or two drinks and you're going to be all right to drive.' That's what I, at the time, thought. You can't have any. You've got to learn from my mistakes.”
Mr. Smith has focused on family in his campaign. A late-in-the-campaign flier had the word FAMILY emblazoned across the front.
Mr. Graham, his opponent, is unmarried and does not have children. Though Mr. Smith denies it, Mr. Graham has characterized it as an attack on those who don't have children.
Fellow Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso doesn't see it that way, though the discussion has at times bothered her, she said.
“I'm used to people making comments about the fact I don't have children, but it wasn't my choice,” she said. “It wasn't something I set out to do. Sometimes, you're just dealt things, and that's the way it is. Am I angry with him about that? When you're campaigning and you want people to look at you a certain way, you're going to try to appease the people who have children.”
Mr. Smith's family isn't just for campaign paraphernalia. They're also whom he points to when asked about his policy positions and the overarching theme of his campaign: a vision for the future.
He's pushing for a second sheet of ice at the Fairgrounds, and other recreational opportunities, like a projector screen movie theater at Thompson Park. He wants the city to invest in solar energy and geothermal, which will cost money up front but eventually pay for itself, he argues.
“We have the opportunity for people like myself and Councilman (Joseph M.) Butler to make our community a great place for our kids and our future,” Mr. Smith said at his campaign kickoff in August.
Mr. Butler, son of former Mayor Joseph M. Butler Sr., said that's why Mr. Smith has earned his support.
“Smith, I think he enjoys less the politics and more the job of trying to make a better city,” Mr. Butler said.
And his focus on recreation has also earned him the support of Jayme M. St. Croix, the former Recreation Department superintendent who was at the center of the controversy about the Department of Public Works' shoddy bookkeeping. He retired in August.
“He's more attuned to what I've worked hard for,” said Mr. St. Croix, who held a meet-and-greet for Mr. Smith at his north side home. “He sees what our pools need. Our arena. He's more in line to where I want to see Watertown go.”
Another community member agrees: Mr. Smith has vision and would plan for the future. That's a good thing. But that's not what Watertown needs right now, said retired Col. Michael T. Plummer, the former chief of staff with the 10th Mountain Division.
“I'll go with experience, because of all the changes coming down the pipe,” Mr. Plummer said. “Smith would be great because at least he has an appreciation for vision. But it's not a stable environment.”
The future of Watertown will depend much on what happens at Fort Drum, the military installation and home of the 10th Mountain Division. And Drum is responsible much of what has happened in Watertown. The new housing developments that are popping up; the moving trucks that are coming into the city, and not out of the city, like they're doing so many other places upstate; the shining neon lights from the newest hotel or restaurant in town.
Given that expansion, that success that has happen during Mr. Graham's tenure, why vote him out of office?
Mr. Smith has an answer for this, too.
“Could our community do better? Yes,” he said. “I don't think we've capitalized on all the assets of Fort Drum. We could be doing a better job having families stay here.”
Even Mr. Smith's supporters acknowledge that the Mr. Graham, if he loses, won't be run out of town.
“I have nothing against Jeff Graham,” said former Mayor T. Urling Walker, Mr. Graham's predecessor who has endorsed Mr. Smith. “He's done a good job, and he's learned his politics pretty well. But it's time for a change. Smith has been in the office long enough that he's learned where the men's room is.”
Mr. Smith, whose quiet voice belies his strong convictions, has well kempt brown hair, graying at the temples, combed to the side. At his house, his foyer is filled with hockey gear and a map that he uses to keep track of all the homes he's visited in the city – nearly every street is highlighted. And if he gets elected – or, in his parlance, when he gets elected – he would attend the same ribbon cuttings and community events that his opponent prides himself on attending.
Mr. Graham also prides himself on his ability to navigate Watertown's form of city government, in which the mayor is one voting member of a five-member city council that sets policy for the city manager. The city manager is in charge of the city's day-to-day affairs.
Mr. Smith said he'd bring a different leadership style to the city than Mr. Graham does.
“I think the mayor can be more proactive in assuring that the wishes and the wills of the council, who sets the policy, are accomplished,” he said.
For example, AMP Entertainment had scheduled hard rock act Godsmack for a concert at the Fairgrounds, but because it felt the city took too long to approve permits, it moved the concert to LaFargeville.
“It didn't have to take months to figure out those issues and concerns,” Mr. Smith said. “Is it bathrooms? Security? Get more bathrooms and more security. That should take two days to figure out.”
But, he said, he'd work to accommodate all views if he was elected.
“It's recognizing that you're not always going to get 100 percent of what you want,” he said.
At a radio debate the Tuesday before the election, Mr. Graham questioned whether Mr. Smith would be able to achieve consensus on City Council.
“I'm concerned whether or not you can continue to work with me toward progress in the city of Watertown,” Mr. Graham, ever the political jiu jitsu artist, asked Mr. Smith.
Said Mr. Smith: “I hope to assure them that I'll be working with you, you being in the private sector next Tuesday.”

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