U.S. Senate Race: Republican Tom Smith ready to leave farm to bring conservative agenda to Washington
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SHELOCTA, Pa. -- This is what Tom Smith loves: harvesting grain from atop his monstrous, air-conditioned, self-leveling combine. Hearing his grandchildren's laughter fill his house. Visiting the coal mines he sold two years ago to check the size of the new owner's refuse pile. Planting a small vegetable garden just to watch it grow. Watching sparrows navigate through a windstorm across an open field. Bragging about his children's decades-old athletic accomplishments as if they'd happened yesterday.
Mr. Smith, 64, lives a dream and he knows it.
"My wife and I have been blessed. There's no doubt about that," Mr. Smith said on a recent Tuesday afternoon on the family farm in Shelocta, 40 miles north of Pittsburgh. "This is a great place to grow kids and grandkids."
That's what makes it so hard to run for U.S. Senate.
A win would take him away from these pristine hills where he spent his childhood building forts out of hay bales, his adolescence milking cows and his adulthood running the farm, a trucking company and nearby coal mines.
Mr. Smith says he's prepared to do that if he can make Democratic Sen. Bob Casey a one-term senator and replace the incumbent's agenda with one that seeks to reduce government regulation, repeal the Affordable Care Act and institute a flat tax.
Even now he's trying to strike a balance between being a candidate and being a farmer. His election staff says Mr. Smith gets grouchy if he doesn't spend enough time in the fields, and he's had to promise his campaign manager that when he's plowing, he'll check his email every four acres.
"I try to hold up my end," he says.
It's in the fields where he does his best thinking. It's where he was when he decided to add on to the family farm, when he figured out how to cut his fuel costs and where he decided -- while cutting oats last summer -- to run for Senate.
He heard a radio piece about Randy Johnson, a political newcomer who had defeated powerful Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold. Mr. Johnson became his inspiration to take on Mr. Casey, a popular Scranton Democrat.
Mr. Johnson "was a businessman, a family man and willing to put some of his own money into it and that's what got me to [run]," he said.
Mr. Smith, who had been a longtime campaign financier for other Republicans, said he would have stayed behind the scenes if another good conservative candidate had stepped up. As it was, he faced a tough primary, defeating party-endorsed businessman Steve Welch and three others.
"All due respect to [the Republican Party of Pennsylvania] but I didn't see where they had a Pat Toomey-type person warmed up in the bullpen ready to take on Sen. Bob Casey," he said. Mr. Smith saw himself as the only primary candidate with both the money and the ambition to unseat Mr. Casey. Already he's put at least $6.2 million of his own money into the campaign as of the August filing deadline. He acknowledges that he's spent more since then, but won't say how much.
His wealth has been both an asset and a hindrance, as Democrats cast him in the same light as presidential candidate Mitt Romney -- a rich guy who doesn't understand middle-class struggles.
Mr. Smith deflects that. He says he understands. He has children trying to pay for college, employees at his two carwashes who depend on him to keep the business running and a childhood with four siblings in a small farmhouse where everyone was expect to pitch in to milk cows, grind feed and muck hog pens.
That was half a century before Mr. Smith hit his stride in the mining business and put an addition on his home: a full-sized basketball court. He unlocks the door each morning so neighbors can walk on the track above, most afternoons so elementary school teams can practice and some evenings for movies on a projection screen that descends from the ceiling. Youth baseball teams had hitting practice here using pitching machines and batting cages that pull out along tracks.
There have also been Bible study sessions, class reunions, school dances, family volleyball games and several political fundraisers for prominent Republicans including U.S. Sen. Toomey and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley. A full kitchen built at track level has made it available for Thanksgiving dinners and wedding receptions.
A disco ball and sound system make it a great place for dances, Mr. Smith said.
The Smiths never charge, not even to recoup the cost of repairing a window broken by a wayward softball.
"We have to give back and help people," Mr. Smith said.
His neighbors, it seems, like to give back, too.
They stop him -- sometimes even in the middle of the road -- to ask how they can help the campaign.
Mr. Smith has seven children ranging in age from 22 to 38. Four of them, biological siblings, were adopted as adolescents from foster homes in Texas. Three daughters live in homes built on land their parents gave them on the Smith complex and all but the youngest, who is away at college, live within 30 miles. They've given Mr. Smith nine grandchildren, the youngest born just two weeks ago.
For them, he says he wants a country that isn't dependent on foreign oil, a government that doesn't let regulation impede free enterprise, a simplified tax code that doesn't favor special interests and a health care system that allows more robust competition among private insurers.
Mostly, he wants to keep government out of where he thinks it doesn't belong.Mr. Smith says he has been through his share of regulatory hassles as operator of eight coal mines with 130 employees in Western Pennsylvania between 1989 and 2010.
He believes Democrats are waging an "all out war on coal." He said they aren't intentionally trying to destroy the industry but their lack of experience is putting energy companies out of business, making jobs scarce and making a struggling economy worse.
"President Obama and my opponent Bob Casey have never worked in the private sector. They have no clue of how to produce jobs and make jobs, which small and medium-size business owners like myself have been doing all our lives," Mr. Smith said. He said most companies will do the right thing without government intervention because they are moral and because those who employ bad practices will destroy their businesses on their own. He also said he often went beyond government requirements.
"I was very, very meticulous," he said. "I love the environment. Look, I live in it."
But his operations have been issued a series of mine safety violations -- the Mine Safety and Health Administration has 1,760 violations on record for the eight mines. The most frequent violation -- the reason for 83 citations -- was an excessive accumulation of combustible materials. Mr. Smith also has gotten $358,000 in federal fines, and an employee died when the bulldozer he was operating rolled over a hillside in 2005.
MSHA found the death to be accidental, caused by an inappropriate machine being used to remove trees and by the operator's failure to wear a seat belt. Mr. Smith's company was cited for failure to provide instruction on safety regulation and procedures.
"I've lost more sleep over that than anything else, bar none," Mr. Smith said.
If Mr. Smith strays from the Smith complex, he's likely to be at the small brick Lutheran church adjacent to his property.
"I'm God-fearing, and fear is a great motivator. Each and every one of us is only allotted so many heartbeats in life and I don't want to waste any of them," he said.
Raymond Smith said his younger brother has persevered through adversity in his life. When their father died following heart valve replacement in 1967, the older children were already out of the house and the youngest was still in high school. That left Tom, the fourth of five kids, to take over both the farm and his father's fleet of 14 school buses.
"He was the person in the family in the best position for it at the time and he just stepped forward and did it," Raymond Smith said.
Tom Smith was just 19 then -- "young and full of vinegar," as he likes to say.
If he hadn't taken over the family businesses, he likely would have gone to college, he says. Democrats like to point out that he would be the least educated member of the U.S. Senate were he to win.
Democrats also have attacked his membership in the Tea Party, and say his tax and Medicare policies are more conservative than Mitt Romney's.
He's also faced criticism from some Republicans who point out that Mr. Smith has been a member of the GOP only since August 2011.
"I registered Democrat out of respect for my parents, and I stuck with that party until it just left me too much, but I have always been a conservative," Mr. Smith explained.
He's had to do a lot of explaining this campaign season.
For example, he's had to back away from his description as "eloquent" for a speaker at a Tea Party rally over the summer who compared the president to Adolf Hitler. Mr. Smith later issued a statement saying he hadn't been paying close attention to the speech, that his compliment was meant as a routine courtesy and that he regretted his comment.
He also had to backtrack after he compared conceiving a rapist's baby to conceiving out of wedlock.
"I do regret it. I'm pro-life, period," he said. "What I've found as I travel across the state is that what the vast majority of people want me to talk about is jobs and the economy, and I'm at a point where I'm focused on that. If I get asked, I say 'I'm pro-life, period. Now let's talk about jobs and the economy.' "
First Published October 14, 2012 12:00 am