(Story By Jeff Ledington, The Mountain Advocate)
Tom “O’Dell” Smith is looking to return to Frankfort three decades after his previous stint as State Representative. Smith spoke with The Mountain Advocate about jobs, policy, and the many projects he has worked on in the area. He also spoke about the conviction that ended his previous term in office and explained that a lot has changed in nearly 30 years.
Smith has been a prominent figure in local business and politics long after his original time as State Representative. His consulting business has found money for numerous projects including the Union College School of Nursing and Health, located in the old hospital building, and the upcoming renovations of the former nursing home into a new trade school. He stated he doesn’t want to become a career politician and that he has ideas he wants to get done. “I’m not looking to finish up my lifetime in a political seat,” Smith said.
“Everyone runs on getting jobs. It’s one thing to say but it’s another thing to actually bring jobs in,” Smith said adding he wants to address the root of the jobs issue. “We’re not ready,” he said. Smith pointed out that many Knox County young people go to college and get a degree, only to not find a job at home. “One of my goals is to get funding for our vocational schools,” he said adding that he wants to bring our existing facilities up-to-date.
Smith pushed the benefit of the trade school opening at the old nursing home, a partnership with Southeast Community and Technical College that he helped secure funding for. He stressed that the facility’s certification program combined with our existing trade schools and dual-credit courses would allow people to become certified and work-ready in a short period of time. “If you’re able to get certified and don’t have that debt it’s a win for our young people and our community,” he said. Smith said the facility would likely open next fall. “I think we need to train our young people into a workforce that will be able to get a job,” he added.
Smith spoke to his pro-life stance, saying “We need to be active.” He continued that we need to find homes and families for children that need them, “We shouldn’t just say we want them to have that baby. We don’t want it to be aborted; we should be a part of trying to find a solution for them to find homes.”
Smith wants to find a “fast-track” for adoptions so families don’t have to wait years and spend tens of thousands of dollars to adopt a child. “There’s grandparents that want to take a child out of a bad drug situation and adopt that child but they have to wait three or four years while the child is in limbo,” he stated. “You should either meet the criteria or you don’t,” he added regarding those wishing to adopt.
Smith says he’s “open to listen to things,” on education; noting he “hears it all the time” from his wife, a retired teacher. He stated he would like to see more flexibility for school boards in regards to curriculum. “We’re different from Louisville, we’re different from Lexington,” he said,” I’m for opening up letting school boards have more flexibility in curriculum.”
As for his competition, Smith said he’s “running for the office, not against anybody.” He added that the others running in the race were all “good people.” He stated the coronavirus has limited his ability to campaign but that he’s recruited over 70 volunteers to work phones and get the word out. “Nobody wants any one come around to talk politics while all this is going on,” he said.
On the topic of the pandemic, Smith spoke of concerns regarding some of the measures taken. He noted gun-control measures taken in other states and stressed his pro-second amendment stance and his record with the NRA, noting he received the highest grade in their survey. He was also troubled by the closing of churches during the pandemic. “I never thought we’d see the day we’re told we can’t have church, whatever the circumstance,” he said continuing that that someday it might be over something else. “They’re taking our rights to assemble in church and that’s our constitutional rights,” he stated adding “I’m a strong defender of religious freedom and our constitutional rights.”
Smith did praise local schools for the measures they took during the pandemic and their hard work regarding teaching and feeding students. “I think that saved the epidemic from getting bad here,” he said. He added that it’s not popular to shut school down but that it likely kept things from getting worse.
Smith says he’s in favor of peaceful demonstrations regardless of the issue. He noted the constitution explicitly grants the right to protest and stressed the importance of being able to “protest our government.” He continued that in regards to race issues, he wants to see fair laws and opposes police brutality, black or white. “There should be fairness in the way people are treated,” he said.
Smith added he doesn’t support looting and believes it goes against what the protests stand for. “I think some people are taking advantage of the situation and that’s wrong…that’s a totally separate issue,” he said. He continued that if we put God first the rest will “work out.” He says it’s not easy to live a Christian life, but that Christians need to remember God is a forgiving god, “we’re not put down by God, we’re put down by man.”
Smith was asked if he’d like to address his previous time in office. Smith was convicted on two counts of extortion and sentenced to serve 27 months in the early 1990’s. He was accused of accepting money in exchange for helping a Whitley County woman obtain leniency for her husband on federal drug charges. Smith’s conviction was the most prominent to come from the FBI’s “Operation Crabgrass,” which focused on Eastern Kentucky.
“My true feelings is I made a mistake. I thought I was doing things right and it ended up they showed me a hard lesson,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons in life … Hopefully in the last 30 years I’ve showed people I’ve tried to do what was right, I’ve tried to be a good neighbor, a good citizen of our county. To do things to help people,” he stated. Smith continued that he was a younger and naïve man back then and that he made the wrong moves but that that was not an excuse. “I allowed somebody to manipulate me and get me in a bad situation.”
Smith said he didn’t benefit personally from what happened and that it “took a lot out of my family and myself.” He continued that he thought he was trying help someone who asked for help. “I’m hoping over the last 30 years my life has shown I care about people, I love my community, I want to see us get some things.” He stressed that over that time, he has built strong relationships with Congressman Hal Rogers and other state officials, “and that’s how you get things done.”
Smith says he “Made a mistake…I hope I’ve lived a life that people are willing to say we’ll give him a second chance.” He said the decision to run again was not an easy one given his family. He added he’d be happy to sit down and talk about it with anyone and would provide the paperwork on it if asked. “I’m not trying to hide anything,” he added continuing that anyone can go back and read about it. “I looked at it as a learning experience and I’ve tried to do better ever since,” he said, “I’m an open book.”
Smith says there are givers and takers and “I’ve always looked at myself as a giver.” He said he hopes his actions since have shown the kind of man he is and that he’s worked hard to take care of my family and my neighbors. “There’s a lot of things I’d like to go back and take away,” he stated. He added, “I could pass away tomorrow or today and know that my conscious is clear that I’ve tried to do what’s right.”