|Sunday, July 04, 2004
Smith built regional ties, but his conservatism didn't take root
|Former Mayor Ralph Smith reached out to other regional entities like no Roanoke mayor before him, but his fellow council members distrusted his unwavering allegiance to a state and national Republican platform.
By Todd Jackson
Former Roanoke Mayor Ralph Smith half-jokingly told his city council colleagues last month that he knows more about steel than he does about government.
And therein may lie the story of his one term as the city's mayor. The Republican mayor tried to impress his staunchly conservative philosophy on Roanoke city hall, but he concedes that he knew months ago that he would have had a better chance at pole vaulting Victory Stadium with a toothpick.
"I'm surprised that so many put politics over good government," he said in a recent interview.
Smith, who was the lone Republican on council for the last year of his term, will return to running his steel fabrication firm on Patterson Avenue. He says he's got plenty of work to catch up on because of the amount of time he put in as mayor.
Smith's mayoral term ended last week, and in the months after he announced his intentions to leave office, he was notably more at ease than at any other time during his term. He hammed it up with his council colleagues, poked fun at himself, and he actually hugged outgoing Democratic council member Bill Bestpitch, a Democrat who was one of Smith's most persistent critics.
Smith says he plans to stay in politics in some form, but has no plans to ever run for mayor again. He said he's thought about running for statewide office, possibly for lieutenant governor. He's also been frequently agitated by the criticism he's taken from The Roanoke Times editorial board, which Smith considers elitist. He said he's considered starting his own media entity to compete with the newspaper. He did not elaborate.
Smith has long cringed at the perception among some that he's an elitist himself because he lives in a historic home near the top of Mill Mountain, drives a Cadillac and socializes with national and state Republican political figures.
Smith grew up in a working-class Roanoke neighborhood, and he started his business career as a service station mechanic. He said he considers himself an "invader" into the upper-class South Roanoke area where he now resides.
He told the Williamson Road Area Business Association last month that there's an elitism in Roanoke's upper crust that "looks down its nose at Williamson Road and Garden City and Southeast."
Smith told the group that he will miss being on the council, which he called the biggest honor of his life. He maintains that he enjoyed it immensely, even though his council colleagues often ignored his opinions.
The city's new mayor, Nelson Harris - a council member for eight years - said Smith's main failing wasn't his personality, but his unwavering allegiance to his own conservative political ideology. A majority of Smith's colleagues felt his politics were often tied too much to state and national Republican happenings rather than to what was happening locally, Harris said.
Smith always felt that his anti-tax, pro-private sector approach never got its due respect from his council counterparts. Smith acknowledges that he was partly to blame because he had a hard time on occasion getting his points across.
"To some, I have been misunderstood," he said, adding that, when it comes to communication, he wishes he were more like his political hero, the late President Ronald Reagan.
However, it was Smith's ability to build relationships with Roanoke County officials that many already consider his crowning achievement as mayor. Those relationships were beneficial in helping to deliver what may prove to be one of the most substantial regional accomplishments in the history of the Roanoke Valley - the Western Virginia Water Authority.
The authority, which began operation last week, is a joint water and sewer venture between Roanoke and Roanoke County. In 2000, as he campaigned for mayor, Smith emphasized the need for increased regional cooperation and, after being elected, he immediately formed working relationships with Roanoke County politicians - most of whom were fellow Republicans.
Smith later went on to start regional leadership summits among elected officials from a number of area localities - an initiative that Smith believes was his most significant achievement as mayor.
"With Ralph, there came an opportunity to have a relationship with the city that we'd never had before," said Fuzzy Minnix, who recently retired from the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors. "He realized that no matter who prospers directly, if we do things together, it makes everybody stronger in the long run."
Jill Nance l The Roanoke Times
Ralph Smith, in one of his final duties as mayor of Roanoke, celebrates with the Airlee Court Neighborhood Watch Association at their neighborhood sign dedication Wednesday.
Ralph Smith, as one of his final duties as mayor, talks with the Airlee Court Neighborhood Watch Association at their neighborhood sign dedication Wednesday.
Mayor elect Nelson Harris is congratulated by current Roanoke Mayor Ralph Smith at the Democratic campaign headquarters in Roanoke following Harris' win Tuesday night.