For nearly 50 years in Washington, Liz Smith had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. From a coffee shop tip that landed her a job on Capitol Hill in 1961 to a chance encounter in a deli that led her to the American Federation of Teachers in 1995, Smith has followed a classic career path in the capital.
She retired from the AFT last month after 15 years as political director. "Now I'm playing sightseer in Washington," she said from her home in Foggy Bottom.
Smith was first bitten by the political bug while in college in New Jersey in the late 1950s, when she volunteered for a congressional candidate who promised her a job in Washington if he won. Her man lost, but Smith decided to head to the Capitol anyway. "My mother gave me two weeks," she said. "She said if you can't get a job with Congress in two weeks, you have to come home."
Smith spent a week sightseeing before going to the coffee shop in the Russell Senate Office Building to prepare for a day of knocking on doors. Two Hill staffers directed her to an office taking applications for jobs that had just become available under a new law expanding congressional staffs. She soon had four offers, including one from the late Rep. James O'Hara, D-Mich. "I was going to work for him for six months and then try to move to the Senate," Smith said. "I ended up staying 16 years."
O'Hara ran for the Senate in 1976, but lost in the primary to soon-to-be Sen. Donald Riegle Jr., so Smith signed on with then-freshman Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich. Less than a year later, she was offered a job as a lobbyist for the textile workers union, which led her to Asia to work on trade issues and to meetings with Crystal Lee Sutton, the late union organizer whose story was made famous by the movie "Norma Rae."
Smith gave up the labor movement briefly in 1993 to take a job with Xerox Corp., but when they sent her to a Capitol Hill fundraiser in 1995 she realized how much she missed politics. About that time, she ran into a friend from AFT, Ed McElroy, at the renowned Mel Krupin's Deli in D.C. McElroy asked how things were going at Xerox. "Just great," Smith replied, but McElroy must have detected some doubt in her voice, she said. Not long afterward, he called and asked if she'd be interested in working as AFT's first political director, a post she retained until March.
"Liz is a true leader, always doing the right thing in a manner that is respectful of others and in turn earning others' respect," House Majority Leader Hoyer said in a tribute to Smith upon her retirement.
This article appears in the April 24, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.