Face to Face: A Conversation with Chris Smith
The minority leader of the Florida House of Represenatives discusses state politics and what it'll take to get Democrats out of minority-party status.

Q. You're about to become minority leader of the Florida House of Representatives, a chamber dominated by Republicans. You're a Democrat. Where's the win-win here?

A. This year, one of the best wins comes through committee votes. A lot of issues have been decided in committees now, and Republicans are starting to get into their little subgroups. So now our committee votes are meaning a lot. Some of your major issues have been decided by one or two votes in committees. At one point, the speaker [of the House] was so scared of committees that he added people to the State Administration Committee to make sure that his [telecommunications] bill got through.

A lot of issues are decided in committee by Democrats. We're determining a lot of the agenda here.

Q. Now, will that strategy have to change next year when you get a new speaker?

A. No, I think it'll be more effective because the incoming speaker is less totalitarian. He will have more open rein, giving his members more room to vote their conscience.

You get a certain way when you reach big numbers. When we had 80 members, you had the North Florida Democrats vs. the South Florida Democrats, the blue dogs vs. the yellow dogs.

Now the Republican are at that point where the arch-conservatives are against the moderates. They're picking fights and they're fighting each other on issues.

Q. Let's get a clear definition of your new job. What is the role and responsibility of a minority leader?

A. A lot of my work this year is political. I've got to raise all the money for House Democrats for a program called House Victory. I have to develop the strategy and decide where to spend the money around the state, which races to invest in, how much to invest and when not to invest. I run the entire political operation. I have a staff of six in offices near the Capitol.

Q. Talk about the elections for a minute. Does the party have a shot to make gains in the upcoming House races?

A. My goal -- and I've told everybody -- is that I'm concentrating on five races. I'm going to put as much money as need be, as much as $500,000 total, to win five seats.

The goal is to get us back to over-40, to stop [the Republicans'] two-thirds majority. As long as I can put my candidate on the same footing as the Republican, then I have an opportunity to win.

Q. Where do you see your best chances to win?

A. They are in north and central Florida. South Florida is pretty well-defined. The places where we have Democrats are represented by Democrats. The places we don't, by Republicans. The swing seats are your north and central Florida seats, where Democrats haven't been voting for Democrats.

Q. You talk about raising money. What steps have you taken to do that?

A. I've toured the state, much to the chagrin of my wife. I've pushed boxes in a paper plant in Jacksonville. I've dug out phosphate in Live Oak. I've handled Coca Cola products in Tampa. I've gone around this state and met with major corporations and major donors face-to-face.

I don't do the Tallahassee make-a phone-call-and-try-to-get-a-check. I've been from Miami-Dade County to Pensacola, meeting with people, discussing my philosophy and what I'm trying to do. That has gone extremely well in terms of fund raising.

Q. How so? How much?