Casting herself as a populist politician, Linda Smith won election to two terms in Congress where she voted conservatively on social issues and repeatedly clashed with Republican leaders in her attempt to push gift bans, lobbying restrictions, and an overhaul of the campaign finance system. In 1998, Representative Smith chose to leave her House seat to challenge Senator Patty Murray for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Linda Ann Simpson was born in LaJunta, Colorado, on July 16, 1950. Growing up in modest circumstances, her biological father abandoned her mother, Delma Simpson, and their family. Her mother and stepfather eventually moved to Clark County in Washington state, where Linda was raised with five siblings. Her stepfather worked as a mechanic to support the family. After her mother died, Linda worked part–time in an orchard and retirement home to make ends meet. "I felt like by 17, I had had more lives than most people," she recalled.1 She graduated from Fort Vancouver High School in 1968 and married Vern Smith, a locomotive engineer, a few weeks shy of her 18th birthday. The couple raised two children, Sherri and Robert. Linda Smith worked as a district manager for seven tax preparation offices.
Smith considered herself a liberal Democrat until a large business tax hurt her enterprise. She then converted to conservative Republicanism. In 1983, she entered elective politics by defeating an appointed Democratic incumbent in a special election for a seat in the Washington state house of representatives. "I didn't have a clue what it would be like," Smith said. "All I knew was I wanted change. I didn't like what was happening. I certainly didn't understand the political system."2 In 1986, Smith beat another appointed Democrat to win election to the state senate—and swing it to GOP control. In the upper chamber, she successfully opposed the Children's Initiative, a tax hike earmarked for welfare programs and schools. She also carved out a reputation as a religious conservative who opposed gay rights and gay adoption laws. Unable to move campaign finance reform and tax relief through legislation, Smith sponsored two major ballot measures. In 1992, Initiative 134, which slashed campaign spending and amounts from big contributors, passed the Washington legislature. A year later, Initiative 601 passed, requiring voter approval for all tax increases. Smith considered the latter her greatest triumph.3
In September 1994, Smith made her first campaign for Congress, entering the race in early September for a southeastern Washington district that included the state capital, Olympia, and counties along the Pacific Ocean and, to the south, the Columbia River border with Oregon. Republican businessman Timothy Moyer initially challenged incumbent Democrat Jolene Unsoeld, but he dropped out in late August. Smith managed a write–in campaign with less than three weeks to go before the all–party primary—phoning 50,000 voters and mailing information to another 150,000 in an impressive grass–roots movement. She carried 29 percent of the vote (well ahead of the other GOP contenders), second behind the incumbent, Unsoeld, who carried just 40 percent. Smith became Washington's first candidate ever to win a congressional nomination as a write–in. In the general election Smith ran on her record as a ballot initiative specialist, and as an anti–abortion, tax reform, and campaign finance reform candidate. She had strong support from a network of followers drawn from the ranks of anti–environmentalists and the Christian right. In Unsoeld, she faced a leading Democratic feminist and environmentalist. Unsoeld, a three–term incumbent, ran in opposition to gun control and to the North American Free Trade Agreement while trying to paint Smith as an extremist. But Smith's base, referred to sometimes as "Linda's Army," encompassed a variety of conservative–populists: anti–tax groups, government reformers, gun owners, and property rights advocates.4 Unsoeld had been a GOP target for six years, since she had won the district narrowly in 1988. Against Smith, she was hurt by a third–party candidate, Caitlin Carlson, who siphoned off part of the gun–control vote. Smith prevailed with 52 percent to Unsoeld's 45 percent.5
When Smith took her seat in the 104th Congress (1995–1997), she received assignments on the Resources Committee and the Small Business Committee. She served in both capacities through the 105th Congress (1997–1999). During the 104th Congress she also chaired the Tax and Finance Subcommittee of the Small Business panel.
Upon arriving in Washington, D.C., Smith immediately set the tone for her tenure, telling a reporter, "This city is so awful. I can't wait to get back home."6 She voted to support much of the "Contract with America" in an attempt to overhaul the scope and function of government. She was consistently rated one of the most conservative House Members in the 104th and 105th Congresses, voting against gun control and environmental legislation, perceiving the latter as a threat to property rights. She viewed homosexuality as a morally unfit "inclination" and also opposed using Medicaid to fund abortions for victims of rape and incest—telling The New Republic that "We don't kill children because the father is a jerk."7
But it was Smith's commitment to campaign finance reform which brought her national attention as a "rebel" among the GOP "revolutionaries" of 1994. It also brought her into open conflict with party leaders, whom she chastised for not carrying reforms far enough. During her first year in Congress, she insisted that House leaders had to overhaul the gifts–lobbying–campaign system to enact true reform. In a fall 1995 editorial piece in the Washington Post, she questioned how Congress could reform government without producing new laws to regulate itself: "You can't perform surgery in a dirty operating room and with a team that hasn't scrubbed." Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia rebuked Smith for making her dissent public, eliciting a private letter from Smith to Gingrich (which also made its way into the public). "This institution, under your leadership, is truly on trial," she wrote.8 After submitting her own plan for banning gifts and overhauling campaigns, she eventually backed the Shays–Meehan Campaign Finance Reform Bill. In an attempt to support that measure, Smith organized an unusual coalition of reform groups: the League of Women Voters, Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, and Common Cause. She also allied herself with Ross Perot, founder of United We Stand, and stressed her populist bona fides as she took on her party's leadership. "I am not Republican–hard core," she insisted. "I was not written in to come here and be part of this mess."9 She seemed more comfortable with the reform mold. "I've always been a crusader," Smith said. "That's just been my nature from the time I was a little kid. I was going to change the world."10Appearing before the House Committee on Oversight, she declared, "A PAC ban is essential to stop the checkbook lobbying that goes on here."11 As a result of her work, the 105th Congress adopted more stringent limits on gifts from lobbyists in November 1995.
In 1996, Smith faced Democrat Brian Baird, head of the department of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University, in the general election. Baird charged that Smith approved of slashing the Medicare budget and highlighted her support for the GOP "Contract with America." The Congresswoman stressed her independence: "Linda Smith is owned only by the people from the district."12 On election night, Baird had racked up a 2,400–vote lead and was widely presumed to be the winner; however, a count of 40,000 absentee ballots gave Smith the election by 887 votes (50.2 percent to 49.8 percent).13
The razor–thin victory did little to deter Smith's attack on the institution and on GOP leaders. In January 1997, she voted against Gingrich as Speaker in favor of former Congressman Robert Walker of Pennsylvania. As a result, the leadership deprived her of her subcommittee chairmanship. She also was the only Republican to vote against an IRS reform bill in 1998, arguing that she could not support legislation which also slashed veterans' benefits by $10 billion. In addition, Smith rejected "most favored nation" trade relations with China because of that country's human rights violations, again parting company with the majority in her party.14 Every year she was in office, from 1995 to 1998, Smith offered amendments to end tobacco subsidies, each time failing by a slender margin.
Several months into the 105th Congress Smith declared her intention to forgo a re–election bid to the House in favor of joining the 1998 Senate race against Democrat Patty Murray, then considered a vulnerable incumbent. Smith won the GOP nomination after an expensive contest against Seattle multimillionaire Chris Bayley, setting up just the third woman–versus–woman Senate race in U.S. history. Gender provided only a background issue, since both candidates were so distinctly split with Smith opposing nearly every issue that Murray embraced: affirmative action, tighter environmental restrictions, abortion rights, trade with China, and increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.15 Combined, Murray and Smith spent more than $7 million, with Smith at a considerable disadvantage in the general election after emptying her coffers in the primary. Murray purchased large blocks of television time. She agreed to debate with Smith only once in a carefully choreographed campaign, leading to Smith's criticism that Democrats "hid" Murray from public view and the "people never got a campaign."16 Murray won by the most lopsided margin of victory in a Washington Senate race since the days of Henry "Scoop" Jackson, taking 59 percent to Smith's 41 percent.
After Congress, Smith returned to Vancouver, Washington, where she started a nonprofit called Shared Hope International. Smith's group sought to buy women and children out of sex–slave status and end all forms of human trafficking. By early 2002, the organization operated 19 homes in India, Nepal, and Jamaica, accommodating up to 300 people.17
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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