In January, residents of the 66th District began finding in their mailboxes color glossy campaign material from Rep. Sam Smith, aimed at lining up early support for a Republican nomination for another term — what might have been his 15th term — in the state House.
So it was surprising on Tuesday, especially to those 66th District constituents, when Smith publicly announced he had decided not to seek re-election. The early campaign mail blitz “was an effort to restart my personal desire,” Smith said Tuesday. “It waned.”
Smith said that in the past six months, his supporters — locally and in Harrisburg — were “pushing” him to run for re-election.
“I was trying to get myself focused on running. … I was trying to get my mind adjusted,” he said. “I kept laboring with the decision. I couldn’t get myself to say ‘I’ve got to do this one more time.’ … I labored with it.”
And, eventually, he came to a realization: “If you’re not going to give it 100 percent and your heart isn’t fully in it, it’s time to step aside,” he said.
Smith said his decision to leave office may have started as long as two years ago when he “mailed in” the 2012 campaign.
“I was losing my commitment to do the best I could do,” he said.
There was a time, he continued, when “no matter how tough the issues, I could look anyone in the face and say, ‘I still really enjoy what I’m doing.’ … You’ve got to love this job to do it well.”
But, he said, in the past several years while in leadership positions in the House, “I’ve been the guy in the middle trying to balance out factions” and sometimes felt like “a teething ring — chewed on from both sides.”
Smith said he’s curious about what the remainder of this term will be like for him as a “quasi lame duck.”
“I’m still speaker,” he said, and he believes he still has the friendship and respect of other lawmakers and will still have a positive influence on what happens in the House.
“I’ll continue to do my job to the best of my ability,” including the “heavy lifting” of budget preparation and adoption in June, he said.
“I don’t have anything specifically planned for Dec. 1,” the day after his term ends, he said.
He said he’s not planning to run for any other office, but neither is he planning to outright retire.
“I expect to contribute to the commonwealth in some other non-elected capacity,” he said.
Some of Smith’s fellow legislators hinted Tuesday they had an inkling he might decide not to seek re-election.
“It surprised me, but it didn’t,” said Sen. Don White, R-Indiana.
White said he talked at length with Smith Monday about his decision not to be a candidate, a day before he made it known publicly.
“He’s very passionate about his work,” White said. “He’s been down there (in Harrisburg) a long time. He’s one of the best friends I have on earth. He’s the one who convinced me that I could fit in down there.
“I’m devastated by it. I’m sorry, but I’m happy for him. … To achieve what he’s achieved from rural Jefferson County is truly amazing,” he said.
“In this business, you really have to have a fire in the belly. … The business of Harrisburg wears on you. … It really takes its toll,” White said, adding that as speaker of the House, Smith had to be the “baby sitter for 203 people.”
“(Indiana) County will miss him. He’s been great to Indiana County,” White said. “He was a great mentor … loyal to a fault.”
“It took me by surprise,” Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, said of Smith’s decision. “I tried to talk him out of it” Monday. “It’s a good day for Sam and a bad day for Pennsylvania,” he said. “He was an even hand on the keel. He was my go-to guy” in the House for assistance.
Pyle said he’s not aware of any one issue or development that influenced Smith to leave office.
“He took a step back and said, ‘I’ve been here (nearly) 30 years.’ And I believe him,” Pyle said.
“I know it’s something Sam has given a lot of thought to,” said Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana. “I think he decided it’s time to flip the pages to another chapter in his life. … His heart was in a different place.
“Sam was truly a great mentor,” Reed said, especially to a young representative from a rural area like Reed was when he was first elected. “He understood what it was like to represent a community like Indiana County.”