Farewell to a perfect politician

Photo: Berkshire EagleCharlie Smith died this week and there’s a pretty good chance you don’t know who he is, but he represents a long-ago era that his obituary today recalls.

Smith was the mayor of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a G.E. town back in the day — more than 5,000 people worked at the largest power transformer plant in the world, long since shuttered by “Neutron” Jack Welch, who got his start in the city — and one of the first politicians I covered regularly.

I got lucky at an early age to see what decency in politics looks like. Smith was a populist, the kind who gave populist politicians good names before this current crop of bigots and racists who play to the worst in us.

He was a city councilor when I moved to town and there was no chance he was going to be elected mayor when he decided to run for office, upset that a mall developer was going to knock down most of the main street in the Berkshire city and put up a mall. The previous mayor had signed a pact with the devil and bowed to a threat to build the mall on the outskirts of town.

Pittsfield was a blue-collar town surrounded by old money. Smith smoked cigarettes and wore his common sense on his sleeve. He was a Marine who joined to serve in the Korean War, earning his GED later. He was a lot like the factory people who voted him into office.

He and the incumbent had some furious debates over that mall, which was eventually built on the outskirts of town and now is increasingly dormant.

But here’s the best part of the Berkshire Eagle’s story today.

Despite serving in the City Council for six years and eight years as mayor, Smith retained the respect of political friends and foes alike. The mayor he defeated in the 1979 election, Paul E. Brindle III, remained a friend over the years.

“Even though we were opponents in the election, we were still very good friends,” Brindle said Monday. “I was very sad to hear the news.”

He added, “That was the nice part about years ago: You could have political opponents, but after all was said and done, and you left City Hall, you remained good friends.”

Brindle recalled later serving as the speaker during an anniversary party for Smith and his wife, the former Patricia Eastland.

People didn’t think Charlie Smith could get elected mayor; he wasn’t polished. He wasn’t connected to the old money that controlled the city’s politics. He didn’t portray himself to voters as an “average guy” while trying to sound ignorant, dropping “G’s” or using obscenities. He appealed to them by being who he was.

That used to be enough to get you elected to things in this country, where an entire generation is growing up with no experience in feuding politicians remaining friends.

Charlie will be buried this week. And, according to the newspaper, many of the 100 foster children he took in while serving his city will return to say goodbye.

‘I think the most we had at one time were seven foster children, in addition to our own kids,” Smith told the New York Times in a 1987 feature. ”But we always found room.”

The Smiths have also helped children struggling with physical or mental disabilities or children with the trauma of incest and family abuse, drug habits and other severe personal troubles. Mr. Smith spent one night in an emergency room with a teen-age boy who took a drug overdose.

”They really deserve a lot of credit,” said Patrick Litano, a counselor at the high school near the Smith residence. ”They’ve successfully handled some very tough situations, and stuck by kids that most people would have given up on.”

”We’ve had our share of problem children,” Mr. Smith acknowledged. ”We’ve had some who were retarded or handicapped, and we’ve sat in court with some of them. But it’s basically just the same type of things that many other parents have to deal with at one time or another.”

Charlie Smith was the sort of politician who could make people feel that anybody could grow up to be elected to office and make a difference, armed only with decency, honesty and authenticity.

There was nothing phony about him.

Like Mayor Smith’s, those days are over.