Sam Smith, `Everyone's Neighbor,' Dies -- Former Seattle Councilman Was 73

They'll lower Sam Smith's casket into his grave next week, but that won't mean Sam Smith is dead. He lives on in the many people he helped and the causes he championed.

Long before Sam Smith, the man, passed away at age 73 yesterday, Sam Smith the icon had become a permanent part of his city.

Smith's oldest son, Carl, recalled how his father idolized the legendary Huey Long, the masterful Louisiana politician of the 1930s who knew how to get what he wanted for the folks he served and put everybody at ease while he was doing it.

Sam Smith became that kind of politician, but without the scandals. After all, he was a Sunday-school teacher longer than he was a politician.

Metropolitan King County Councilman Ron Sims is one of many who credit Smith with giving them their start.

"I thought Henry Jackson, Warren Magnuson, John Cherberg and Sam Smith represented a style of politics I enjoyed a lot," Sims said. "They weren't arrogant; they were comfortable with themselves. They had character."

Smith represented Seattle's 37th District in the Legislature for 10 years and followed that with 24 years on the Seattle City Council.

Gov. Mike Lowry, calling Smith "a wonderful and unique individual in our political system," this morning ordered flags at all state agencies to be flown at half staff through Nov. 25 in recognition of Smith's death.

Asked what set Sam Smith apart, many said he answered his own phones. That phrase, repeated again and again, has become shorthand for the way Smith operated. There were no polls, handlers, consultants. He talked with everyone who called and called everyone his neighbor. There was no distance between Smith and the people he served.

Seattle City Councilwoman Sue Donaldson said that whenever she picks up her own phone and says " `This is Sue,' I think of Sam. And I do it in his honor."

A story about his 1983 re-election campaign is typical. He and the other candidates addressed the Lake City Chamber of Commerce. Afterward, the other candidates, having made their case to the business leaders, left the restaurant where the meeting took place.

Schmoozing for votes

Smith stayed and made the rounds of all the diners. He didn't have to. There was no chance of his losing - in the end, he won by almost twice as many votes as the other candidates put together.

Smith lost some elections, including his first bid for the Legislature in 1956, although he won two years later. He also ran for mayor four times and lost, and he lost to Sherry Harris in his 1991 campaign for a seventh City Council term, which ended his political career.

Things had been different in his last term. The council was different. Reporters remember that Smith, discussing some contentious issue, would rock back in his chair, drum his fingers and say, "Five votes is policy." In his last term, though, often he couldn't muster those five needed out of the nine.

He was a fiscal and moral conservative outvoted more and more often. Still, he retained a large core of supporters; all those favors over the years added up to a lot of loyalty. But the old energy wasn't there.

Also, gays upset with some of Smith's morally conservative stands helped push Harris' campaign forward four years ago.

Smith had been been ill for some time and didn't campaign much. He lost his left leg to diabetes in 1985. His wife, Marion, always his biggest supporter, died of heart failure a few months before the 1991 election.

Smith's right leg was amputated after that election. He was living with his daughter, Amelia, in his Seward Park home when, according to his son Carl, he died peacefully in his sleep about 7 a.m. yesterday.

Carl Smith said his father had been doing well, undergoing dialysis three times a week at the Northwest Kidney Center.

"We as a family, we have to express appreciation to the public for allowing him to serve all those years," Carl Smith said at a news conference yesterday at Mount Zion Baptist Church. "He did feel everyone in Seattle was his neighbor."

Carl Smith and his brothers have been successful in their various pursuits, but they couldn't help feeling at times that because of their father's stature, "we became his sons more than individuals." None followed their father into politics.

His father was a bit disappointed by that, but always, the younger Smith said, "He was a father first and a politician second."

Sam Smith, youngest of eight children, was born in Gibsland, in northwestern Louisiana, on July 23, 1922, the son of a Baptist minister who had a farm outside town.

Young Sam liked education so much that he repeated the seventh grade three times because that was the highest grade available for black children at his school. At 15 he left home so he could go to high school.

He served in World War II, rising from private to warrant officer. The Army brought him to Seattle in 1942, and he stayed. He and Marion King, whom he'd met in high school, were married that year.

He earned a degree in social science from Seattle University in 1951 and a degree in economics from the University of Washington in 1952.

He got a job at The Boeing Co. and then entered politics. In 1958, he became only the second black to be elected to the Legislature.

He was never shy about pushing his issues. Smith immediately introduced a bill to ban illegal discrimination based on race or religion in the rent or sale of homes.

Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard entered the Legislature at the same time and worked with Smith on the bill. "We became good friends," Pritchard recalled. "He was a likable person. He was enjoyable, but he had real character and a great sense of humor. He took the work seriously, but he didn't take himself seriously."

The bill failed, but Smith kept reintroducing it. "All we ask is that if we must share the full burden (of taxes) like everybody else," he pleaded with fellow lawmakers, "give us the opportunity to enjoy life as much as possible."

He saw himself crusading for those who didn't have any other champion. In 1967, when he announced he would run for a Seattle City Council seat, Smith said he was doing it to be a voice for "the poor, the aged, minorities."

That mission carried through his City Council career. He fought for equality. He once recalled that when he was elected, there was one black firefighter and one black police officer in the city. He pressed successfully for others to be hired.

He fought rate increases, especially by Seattle City Light, and sought programs that would help young people. Jobs and Christianity were the cures for most of the ills young people had, he believed.

He wasn't the first African American to find success in politics in Washington, but he was the one credited with widening the channel so there was more than one black success at a time.

Sims said: "He said it was OK for African Americans to have aspirations. It was not just the door, but the floodgates opened for the George Flemings, Norm Rices, Ron Sims, Jesse Wineberry, Sherry Harris, John Manning, Peggy Maxie. But at the time, people were not very receptive to him. He had to have police protection."

African Americans weren't the only people who benefited from his help. City Councilwoman Cheryl Chow has said she might never have run for office if Smith hadn't suggested it and given support.

Smith once said that what he tried to do was help everybody a little.

County Councilman Larry Gossett recalls how Smith tried to help everyone who called him, no matter how small the problem. "I was executive director of (the Central Area Motivation Program) for 15 years," Gossett said. "He would call me and say that Mrs. Jones has a problem, her light has been disconnected and I know CAMP has a program to help."

Last year Smith was interviewed by the Washington State Oral History Program. "When I ran for mayor in Seattle in 1981, I was determined to make Seattle the kind of place it ought to be," he said.

Work wasn't finished

That work wasn't finished when he left office, but he'd given it a good start as a councilman and legislator.

The City Council took a break from intensive budget deliberations yesterday to remember Smith.

A service for Smith, which is open to the public, will be held at 11 a.m. Nov. 25 at Mount Zion Baptist Church. As Smith was a 33rd degree Mason, a Rose Croix Masons service will be held next Friday at the church.

Southwest Mortuary is handling funeral arrangements.

The family asks that remembrances be made to the Mount Zion Baptist Church Scholarship Fund, 1634 19th Ave., Seattle 98122.

Besides his children, Amelia and Carl, both of Seattle, Smith is survived by sons Anthony and twins Donald and Ronald, all of Seattle, and Stephen, an Army sergeant stationed in Tobyhanna, Penn.; sisters Willie Mae Nelson, Yakima; Lillian Oliver, Seattle, and Mattie Lou Stevens, Los Angeles; and six grandchildren.

Seattle Times staff reporters Charles E. Brown, Susan Gilmore, Linda Keene, Peter Lewis and Lee Moriwaki contributed to this report.