Public Citizen Tom “Smitty” Smith Looks Back on a Life Well Lived
The man in the white hat's relentless hard work and willed optimism
The appearance of Public Citizen Executive Director Tom Smith at the November meeting of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club was not unusual in form. The man known universally as "Smitty" schmoozed with the group in the crowded back room of Scholz Garten, waited through the regular meeting business, and eventually walked to the speaker's platform to deliver a talk on the latest Texas and Austin developments in renewable energy. Smitty recalled, "the first time I ever lobbied ... with a bunch of Sierrans defending Barton Springs from balls of goo," and at least a few people in the room also recalled that battle.
"We're winning the war on coal," Smitty began, introducing the latest Public Citizen report on energy production in Texas, citing research that represented not only the environmental advantages of wind and solar, but the growing economic muscle of the once "alternative" energy resources. We've reached "the beginning of the end" of reliance on coal and other fossil fuels, he continued, noting the persistently low natural gas prices that have undermined the market logic of coal, the growth of wind resources, and his expectation that 12 of the 19 existing Texas coal plants will be retired by 2022, with the solar industry now the 26th largest in Texas.
Here in Austin, Smitty continued, the eventual closure of the coal-fired Fayette Power Plant has become imminent, not only because of its environmental consequences, but because his research reflects that Fayette is now losing about $30 million a year. (Austin Energy owns a one-third interest in Fayette.)
Moreover, the city of Austin has become increasingly committed to reducing its carbon emissions, with updated Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plans intended to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2030. Smitty also delivered a thumbnail history of the Texas environmental movement – against nukes, to protect local resources, and to fight climate change – and he credited his audience for providing the activist legwork. All of this was possible, he told the Sierrans, "because of the organizing we did in Austin and Texas."
It was vintage Smitty: the casual manner and good humor; the bar graphs reflecting resource and economic analysis, energy analytics combined with political commentary. Most especially, the optimism – the absolute conviction that with enough public spirit and hard work, all things are possible.
The only difference was the date: Nov. 9, 2016. The night before, Donald Trump had been elected president, seemingly bringing with him the end of many progressive hopes, particularly those concerning environmental progress and the international effort against climate change. That shock was still very much in the air, and pre-meeting conversations had reverberated with apprehension.
Smitty was unbowed. He told his audience, "We will do it even if the federal government won't." He noted that the international Paris climate agreement (which Trump has excoriated) wasn't the most aggressive agreement made there – it was the "C40" agreement concluded among 40 international cities (joined since by many more). "This is a challenge we can meet and exceed," he said. "And I urge you to take this loss, and this defeat, and respond, 'We know how to do it.'" Despite Trump's insistence that coal means jobs, he noted, "In Texas, there are 7,000 people working in the coal industry; there are now 40,000 working in renewables. Renewables create more and better jobs, at better wages, and ... they are eternal."
Smitty reminded his audience that all this progress was a consequence of their own hard work as environmental and political activists. Going forward, he said, they would have to rely even more on "people like us, who have that vision, and have made that difference."
For a moment, thanks to Smitty, it was possible to believe that the election outcome would be a mere speed bump in an uninterrupted journey.
White Hat and Six-Guns
Smitty's reliance on relentless hard work and willed optimism is familiar to his friends and allies. More than a few were in the room that night, in recognition of a lifetime's accomplishments and a special occasion: Smitty, now 66 years old, recently announced that he will be stepping down from his post at Public Citizen. Council Member Leslie Pool was on hand to deliver a proclamation, calling him an "Austin treasure." The award mentioned his efforts against global warming, his career as a lobbyist on environmental and ethics issues, and his accomplishments in helping establish the Texas "renewable portfolio" standards, the Texas emissions reductions program, and his work to increase energy efficiency and to block a dozen new Texas coal plants. "We the people are grateful to Smitty for his passion to do the most good for all people," read Pool, declaring Nov. 9 "Tom 'Smitty' Smith Day." "We appreciate his tenacity, his honesty, and his wit."
Another local environmentalist, Dick Kallerman, had introduced Smitty as "The Man in the White Hat" – a nickname picked up at the Capitol for his ever-present white straw (with variations) – but, Kallerman added, that's "with two six-guns." Smitty responded to the fuss wryly: "Every dog gets his day."
Smitty's friend, Michael Osborne – an early, innovative advocate for renewable energy and founder of the Texas Renewable Energy Industry Alliance, and a veteran member of Austin's Electric Utility Commission – recalled last week that earlier that Wednesday, he had been crestfallen, essentially "hiding under the covers" following Trump's election, when Smitty called.
"He was already bursting with his idea that the cities are now going to have to take the lead on global warming," Osborne said. "Half of me wanted to thank him, and the other half wanted to say, 'Don't be so fuckin' resilient.' Right now, I'm somewhere between anger and depression. But Smitty is already working on the next things that need to be done. He has more energy than any 10 of us. He just works, and works, and works."
Another environmental ally, Karen Hadden, laughs and says almost grudgingly, "He's human" – then also emphasizes just how hard he works. Hadden and Smitty came to know each other in 2000, worked on "parallel things" for years, and finally married in 2012. (Hadden heads the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, or SEED.) She summed up her husband: "He works really hard and has a good moral compass."
"Anybody can do this work," Hadden said, more than generously. "But Smitty does it so well, is an excellent strategist and so creative, and he will work with anyone and everyone who's willing. He has inordinate patience at persuasion, and where there's intransigence, he's learned to maneuver. And if there's a rally and a microphone, he's ready to give people facts and inspiration. Again, he's human – he struggles with the work, the way everyone does. But he just keeps working."
One mystery cleared up: He's nearly always gone by "Smitty."
"Since I was in the first grade," he says. "There were a bunch of Toms in our combined first grade; there were six kids named Tom. Various of my friends became 'Bear,' or 'Tom,' or 'Thomas.' They tried desperately to give each one of us a nickname, and I became 'Smitty.'
Over an October lunch at Austin Java's City Hall venue, with scavenging grackles and passing traffic competing for conversation, Smitty recalled his journey. He grew up in Illinois, and describes his parents as "liberal Republicans, very much into things like civil rights and civil justice, and social service. So that was always part of my life: thinking about helping people, making society better, while I was a kid." When college beckoned amidst the early-Seventies political uproar, his parents believed their son would be safer at the Lutheran-founded Valparaiso University in Indiana. "They thought I would be safe from the radicals at the University of Illinois. Little did they know that Valparaiso was in the midst of the same uproar."
In 1974, he received his B.A. there in urban studies, and had already begun what became his life's work as a lab technician in the Engineering Department. There were several major steel mills in northern Indiana, and Smitty collected air and water samples for analysis. "I learned things like how to read smoke for density, and document that," he recalls. "And then we got monitors that would show us how many particles there really were in the air. [The mills] were running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so we could literally watch those particle counts go up and down, as those [basic oxygen furnaces] opened up, shut down. When the furnaces opened up, you'd see these big spikes."
The consequences often didn't require lab analysis. In wintertime, "the snow would be coated with these black particles. It was so bad, that we were having alewives die in Lake Michigan, and the squirrels that had normally been part of northern Indiana, genetically, had gone from being brown to being black, because of the soot that was coating the trees." State monitoring agencies insisted there was no problem, but the researchers were documenting the reality and creating pressure on officials to take action.
Other factors – most prominently, several mills moving elsewhere in search of cheaper labor – had an effect, but Smitty sees environmental progress in action. "I went back, 40 years later, and the squirrels are brown again. ... It's partly because the mills left. But I've got a picture on my computer at my office which reminds me how far we've come. When I was there, you had 18 large [smoke] stacks, seven steel mills which were burning; today you have three stacks that are burning. The rest of them are gone, or no longer emitting."
Smitty finds a deeper lesson. "Looking back, it reinforces in me the realization that what we do, in terms of air quality, can matter in a generation. Pollution is reversible. It's really been interesting to watch, the claims that were made by the industry then, and claims by the industry now, concerning coal plants – how much it's going to cost to clean them up, and then seeing actually how little it's going to cost, compared to projections. In many instances, those economies stay stable."
Organizing, Food, and Hope
Smitty landed in Texas after graduating from Valparaiso as a U.S. Vista Volunteer and a legal assistant with Texas Rural Legal Aid. In South Texas, Kingsville, he began documenting patterns of institutionalized racial discrimination. "I did a lot of organizing work down there, in the minority communities. ... In the Anglo section of town, they had paved streets, they had curbs, they had running water, they had streetlights. You'd go to the [majority] Latino part of town, and it was mixed, but generally it was paved. You'd go to the black section of town, they had dirt roads, they didn't have indoor plumbing."
"My senses told me there was something really wrong, and once we started putting it all on maps, it was stunning to see the disparities." The town was "triply stratified," dominated by the Anglo ruling class – ranchers, merchants, and oil and gas producers – with almost no middle class, a few Mexican-American professionals, and African-Americans at the bottom. Smitty worked with others to document the disparities in municipal services. Other grassroots organizations – Texas Farmworkers, La Raza Unida, NAACP, LULAC – were gathering broader public pressure. "The local ruling class rejected all our claims, and attempted to intervene in the lawsuits. ... But the evidence was so compelling, they realized they were not going to win, and began to change those policies. ...
"We ended up using those disparities in various lawsuits and federal complaints, under civil rights provisions for services under law, but also affecting redistricting. Suddenly, Kingsville had a city council that became primarily Latino, and there were much more diverse governing bodies around the county, as well. That really made quite a difference – now you go back to Kingsville, and among other things you see, the black part of town has got really nice streets."
Smitty credits these years with providing him with a sense of political empowerment, and the germ of the importance of public interest lobbying. Trying to help a legal aid client with a food stamp denial, he learned that bureaucratic obstacles were illegally obstructing increased allotments even for changed circumstances, like job loss. A court case stalled on appeal, so he contacted Valley Congressman Kika de la Garza, and helped turn out 500 farmworkers to a field hearing – before long, the law was changed nationally. He would later use similar tactics at the Legislature, in support of a law to enable food banks to accept surplus food donated by supermarkets.
"So it occurred to me that lobbying could make significant social change. And though it took a lot of work to do all the organizing, that was possible. So that became a life lesson — that if we'd just get organized, we could make profound change happen. That's been true in many of my endeavors ... It's been a real life blessing: organizing people to get stuff done."
Smitty spent a couple of years doing legal aid back home in Illinois, but was drawn back to Texas, specifically Austin. Under a federally funded program with the Community Nutrition Institute, he helped people apply for programs like school lunch and food stamps, "pretty much new at the time." That drew him into broader food initiatives, and soon (1980-81) he was helping organize the Capital Area Food Bank – now better known as a major service institution, the Central Texas Food Bank. That job led in turn to Smitty becoming the inaugural director of the Houston Area Food Bank – a relatively brief engagement, although he continued working with the national network, Second Harvest, helping to develop food banks in 10 Southern states.
Those years also included an interim of odd jobs, even brief stints as both a freelance clown and Santa Claus. "I was doing what the job counselors tell you – everything you might want to try. As a Santa Claus, I learned the importance of the rubber pants liner, when a kid sits on your lap and the inevitable happens. They give you a matching red cloth to cover the wet spot."
Smitty's next major gig (1983-85) was working as a legislative aide at the Capitol, two terms in the office of Beaumont Rep. Al Price, an 11-term legislator (1976-98) and a staunch advocate for civil rights and social justice. Price died in 2012, and Smitty still speaks of him with awe, and in deference for his role as a mentor.
Price "was schooled at the same time, at Morehouse University, with Martin Luther King and a bunch of the other icons of the Civil Rights Movement. So I was sort of steeped in that culture, but also stunned at the power of public speaking. Al was a gifted orator, and taught me a lot about speaking – choices of words, but also building in hope to every speech, and making sure people felt empowered, as part of the arts that were embodied in so much of the Civil Rights work. Reminding people of how far we have come is a critical element to organizing, and bringing them to the reality that they have power. That was all part of things that he was taught at Morehouse, and passed on to me. I'll always be grateful to him for that."
Pull the Plug
For Rep. Price, Smitty worked on anti-hunger legislation, consumer and tenants' rights, and lemon laws. In 1985, he took all this accumulated experience with him to the nascent Austin office of Public Citizen, and began the work for which he's best known. That work is basically two-fisted: a wide range of environmental action on the one hand, bolstered on the other by work on ethics, campaign finance reform, and open records. Public Citizen was founded in 1971 by Ralph Nader (although he later moved on), and since 1985 Smitty has led an Austin office of five to 10 people, donation and grant funded, focused on both research and organizing.
"We've always done sort of think tanky work, and advocacy work at the Capitol," Smitty summarizes. "We often do reports; we do a lot of work on energy, and campaign finance, and less known to people in Austin, we have a [national] medical research group that reports on dangerous drugs ... or bad medical practices. And then we have a litigation group that has done precedent-setting open records and open meetings work. We do, today, a lot of internet freedom work. We were the people who literally stopped every president from Richard Nixon on, from destroying their federal records. ... We got an injunction to prevent George Bush the elder from hauling his stuff off to College Station, so it wouldn't get sent to the archives."
At the Capitol, Smitty considers the most important accomplishments: his work on the passage of the Texas Renewable Portfolio Standards for utilities, "which have led to more than 10,000 megawatts of wind power being installed in Texas"; the Texas Emissions Reduction Program, which has cleaned up dirty diesel engines statewide; passage of laws encouraging Texans to use energy more efficiently; and the blocking of 12 new coal plants. Locally, he points to steady, successful advocacy to persuade the City Council and AE to increase commitments to renewables, and the city's broader commitment to "climate protection." Smitty credits the Austin progress for altering the national market for renewable energy.
None of these things were accomplished alone, of course, but if you raise the subjects with anyone knowledgeable at the Capitol or City Hall, Smitty's name is inevitably near the top of the list. The Man in the White Hat is cited by friend and foe alike for his tireless advocacy at the Legislature, and specifically for his ability to devise workable compromises for progress. Attorney Christina Wisdom, who represents the Texas Association of Manufacturers, knows Smitty largely through her earlier work for the Texas Chemical Council, and says of his retirement plans, "I'm really going to miss him.
"I've always been really impressed with Smitty," Wisdom said, "despite the fact that we rarely agreed on solutions to the state's environmental problems. He's just a really good example of how we should all behave at the Capitol. He treats people as he would want to be treated; he's always kind, he's always professional. Smitty is clearly very passionate, but I've never seen him lose his temper and he never takes it personally."
Hector Rivero, the president and CEO of the Texas Chemical Council, says he has known Smitty for nearly 25 years, and is "so happy to appreciate Smitty's life and work." Rivero acknowledged that he "hasn't agreed with Smitty all the time," sharing his ideals "but not necessarily his approaches" to energy and environmental protection. Nevertheless, said Rivero, that Texas now has more renewable energy from wind farms than any other state "would not have been possible without Smitty's advocacy," and he respects his passion and skill as a negotiator. "I have a strong affection and respect for him."
Yet it has hardly been smooth sailing. Hadden recalls one senator, suspecting that Smitty had provided fuel for a newspaper's editorial attack, angrily telling Smitty he had "lost the right to talk to him" and throwing a half-hearted punch that Smitty stepped inside of and rendered harmless. The legislator stomped off in a rage.
Smitty recounts making initial progress with Gov. George Bush in 2000, as he readied to run for president. Bush was persuaded by Jim Marston of Environmental Defense, Smitty, and others that the state needed to take action on pollution and climate change. Some GOP donors were on board, and statewide organizing by Public Citizen generated 1,500 letters to the governor demanding a platform commitment from Bush against climate change and pollution. "But what happened then is [Dick] Cheney walked into Bush's office with some missive from people in Wyoming and said, 'We need to pull the plug on our efforts around climate, because we're gonna lose a lot of the coal states in the next election.'"
Back to City Hall
Smitty characteristically looked elsewhere for opportunity, and found it at City Hall. "Austin Energy had done a number of progressive things over time, on energy efficiency, and the Council was pretty 'green' at that time. So we began to work with the utility, to begin to develop climate-friendly policies. They had begun to buy a little bit of renewable energy [and] we have worked with Austin Energy and the city of Austin to create national, precedent-setting projects that have been adopted all over the country." The progress has been uneven but steady, and Smitty credits the steps taken by AE and a series of Councils with changing fundamentally the national market for renewables.
"The decision by Austin Energy to buy 650 megawatts of solar energy ... and put 400MW in one bid package, was enough to dramatically decrease the price of solar energy to, at that time, national lows. It broke the floor on the price of solar, and dropped it below four cents [per kilowatt] for the first time anywhere. Suddenly people everywhere started looking at this data, and were willing to bid that price, or below. As a result, when you look at the future of energy in Texas, for the next 15 years, it's pretty much all solar plants. There are no new gas plants, certainly no coal, or no nuclear plants. It's all going to be solar — a little bit of wind, and maybe one or two new gas plants coming in. We're talking somewhere between 14 and maybe 27,000 megawatts of solar, for somewhere between 14 and 27 percent of the state's energy. The Austin move forward moved the needle nationally on the demand for solar. That's the kind of thing that Austin can do."
Former AE General Manager Roger Duncan has known Smitty since the early Eighties, when Duncan served on Council. They've mostly been allies, although they occasionally disagreed. (Duncan acknowledges that the 2008 East Texas biomass power purchase has turned out badly; Smitty opposed it, but says he understands why the diversification gamble was made.) "Smitty's had tremendous influence in Texas and Austin," Duncan says. "From my limited viewpoint, he's had the most influence on Texas energy policies concerning renewable energy. I consider him the leader, chief tactician, and strategist at the state level."
An Austin Treasure
When we spoke in October, Smitty was characteristically optimistic about the possibility for acting against climate change – as he told the Sierra Club on Nov. 9 – and looks to Austin and other cities to keep pushing. "It's in places like Austin where we're beginning to take a look at resiliency down to the kinds of trees we plant, and looking at changes that are likely to come in the climate. ... We're going to have to begin to think about how it is we take care of ourselves. What we'll see, I think, is sort of the rise of city-states, where communities like Austin and San Antonio ... become much more resilient, much more concerned about water and other resources – banding together to create smaller economic structures.
"Because of the investments we've made, in solar, wind, and the manufacturing of those things, we're going to do just fine economically. Now are we going to be able to do that climatically? I don't know. But because of places like Austin, I do have hope, as other cities emulate what we've done. Last December, when Mayor Adler came back from Paris – he said the most creative ideas and the most commitment to really doing something were coming from the cities. ... They had decided to establish strong climate reduction goals and began to look systematically at what they could do. It's cities like Austin that are going to be able to profit from all of the technologies that they have developed, and all the people they have trained, as the rest of the world really begins to take this seriously. We know how to do it, and we've trained the people who can make it happen."
Anyone near despair over the state of the world would do well to consider a good dose of Smitty. Save Our Springs Alliance Director Bill Bunch says on energy matters he "doesn't know what we will do without him," and jokes, "We might have to break his legs to make him stay on the job."
"He's got tremendous institutional knowledge," said Bunch, "and he's such a nice guy. And he's always got the right words to say."
Leslie Pool reiterates that Smitty's an "Austin treasure," and that he has "forwarded the mission and the values of environmentalism here in Austin and lives those values. ... I'm glad to have him in my world."
Michael Osborne echoes and expands all this praise. "Clearly Smitty's impact is not just local or regional, but national and international." He anticipates that even after Smitty formally steps down early next year, he'll still be engaged in his life's work. "He's not going to wither up and go away," Osborne said. "Maybe he won't work quite so hard, and we'll miss all of that. But he won't be too far."
At 66, Smitty looks a good deal more like Santa Claus than he must have back in 1982. During a Chicago visit last winter, a parade Santa caught sight of Smitty in the crowd, pulled his own beard in recognition and shouted, "You could do my job!" Smitty says he shouted back: "Maybe in the future."
Recalling the moment, and an engaged life fully lived, he says now: "You never grow up."