Chris Smith won unopposed in November 2009 for an East Ward city council seat. The election date, he says, was exactly 150 years after his great-grandfather Robinson won the same seat. His grandfather, Carl Smith, was next on city council, followed by Carl’s son, Billy, Chris’s father.
Smith ran for re-election this year with a challenger. He eschewed elements of modern campaigns — a website and blog posts — and declined a candidate forum, advised by a former officeholder to avoid one because it "could get him into trouble." He stuck to a door-to-door campaign — "old school," he said — asserting he visited 1,000 homes, speaking to at least 60 percent of those residents. He got some 70 votes more than his challenger, crediting face-to-face campaigning for his win. If signs matter, it didn’t hurt that long-time family friend Rob Fowler allowed Smith’s signs on his many properties.
Smith is a 1986 graduate of Newton County High School and Leadership Newton County. For 19 years, he was a DeKalb Tech-certified emergency medical technician at Newton Medical Center and serves on the paramedic program advisory committee at Georgia Piedmont Technical College. A few years back, he joined the family business, Newton Electric Supply, as general manager and is now its president. He represents the city on the Newton College and Career Academy board of directors, is a member of the funding group at The Center, and is chair of the administrative board at First United Methodist Church. He was on the city planning and zoning commission for two years before joining city council. His first two years in office were marked by wrangling with the former mayor, "a personality conflict," he calls it. He took heat for not attending all Georgia Municipal Association training for council members, but says he finished all state requirements. He says he serves the public better by staying local and active in the Leadership Collaborative than in distant meetings. He seems to echoing long-time U.S. House speaker Tip O’Neill who said, "All politics is local." That’s where Smith keeps his focus.
With reelection under his belt, Smith exudes a confidence and pride in his service and the work accomplished by the city in the past four years. Smith takes special interest in the square and says balance must exist between the needs of retailers and restaurants and the square’s popularity for filming and special events.
"I’d like to see it 100 percent occupied with a priority on retail and dining over additional professional offices," he says.
For three years, he spearheaded the push for public restrooms near the square for tourists and event crowds. Just now, the city has bought a nearby building for that use to be paid for fully with hotel/motel taxes and contracted out. Smith pushed through an anti-panhandling ordinance to enhance and protect the downtown experience.
Smith served on the Main Street subcommittee that recommended the city swap shared management of the Main Street program with the county for full control, giving Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful management to the county. The next move is to integrate Main Street under the Chamber of Commerce umbrella.
As a former EMT, Smith pushed to get EMT training for 20 city firefighters, and, working with Chief Stacy Cotton, was successful in placing AED’s — automatic external defibrillators — in all police patrol cars.
"All the AEDs were bought with seized drug proceeds, and they’ve already saved one man’s life," he adds. He is proud the city has received full national accreditation now that the public works department has achieved that status, joining the police, fire and 911 departments.
Smith vigorously fought the rails-to-trails push, today saying Norfolk-Southern was never specific on the ultimate cost to buy the rail line. Nevertheless, he campaigned as a trails supporter, citing the motion he made for the city to pay $275,000 to pave with concrete — instead of asphalt or rock — the last leg of the countywide trail from Eastside High School to the library.
Smith cites the $2.5 million increase in city reserves over the past four years as proof "we’re doing our due diligence," while also citing the re-bidding of city health insurance, saving $500,000. The new Compressed Natural Gas re-fueling station he pushed for promises decades of revenue for the city, he asserts. A strong supporter of the Covington Municipal Airport, Smith says it ensures Covington’s bright future, along with I-20 and Hartsfield access, ample water supply and sewer capacity, a strong industrial base and new financial incentives for businesses. He’s troubled by the prevalence of housing stock that doesn’t help attract residents who could boost local per capita income.
Looking to the future, Smith says the city’s challenge is to remain at the forefront of issues and be proactive, not content with the status quo, with an eye on the surrounding competition. The legacy he wants is for the city to be better off for his having served.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.