"Linda Smith" in Profiles in Character: The Values that Made America. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.
Casting herself as a populist, 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 pass 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. “You can’t pull them along,” Smith observed when recalling her approach to leadership. “But you can stand and do the right thing and stand with your head up no matter what and people will follow that.”1
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.2 She graduated from Fort Vancouver High School in 1968 and married Vern Smith, a locomotive engineer, a few weeks shy of her eighteenth 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, but initially had no interest in running for office. “I thought politics were dirty . . . and I didn’t want to be in something dirty,” Smith explained. “And I remember thinking that I want something noble, I want to reach up and reach higher.”3 Smith recalled that her husband’s activism in the anti-abortion movement and his belief in her potential as a strong candidate paved the way for her future career in politics.4 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.”5 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 donation 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.6
In September 1994, Smith joined the race for a southeastern Washington House district that included the state capital, Olympia, and counties along the Pacific Ocean and, to the south, the Columbia River border with Oregon. Smith later recalled that her entry into the campaign came as a surprise. “We were driving into town and I saw a sheet on the top of a building up on the freeway and it said, ‘Write in Linda Smith.’ It had spontaneously started. People were starting to make their own signs, put them in their cars, in their yards, and on the roofs. And the first thing I thought was, ‘Who’s that?’ I really could not think of it being me.”7 Smith challenged incumbent Democrat Jolene Unsoeld—Republican businessman Timothy Moyer dropped out of the race in late August—in the all-party primary. The write-in campaign quickly gathered momentum. In less than three weeks Smith volunteers phoned 50,000 voters and mailed information to another 150,000 in an impressive grassroots movement. Smith 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. “I remember standing there and going these people did this, they really did,” Smith remarked. “Maybe write-ins do work.”8
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.9 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.10
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, DC, Smith immediately set the tone for her tenure, telling a reporter, “This city is so awful. I can’t wait to get back home.”11 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 believed being gay was an “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.”12 Smith’s opposition to abortion helped her forge close alliances with influential Republicans—in particular, Henry John Hyde of Illinois and Frank Rudolph Wolf of Virginia. “So some of these people that became friends that I knew had power, it was very important for me,” Smith noted. “Now, I was aligned to them.”13
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.14
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. “And then you start one by one building relationships,” she explained. “It was very unusual coalitions of people and that built relationships into other things because they were very legitimate and that would be the kind of group that I would put together and say, ‘I think I have enough votes to rock. Maybe you can get through me, but do you really want to get through me as being the new write-in candidate and the first woman that’s ever chaired a committee (the Small Business Committee) in their first year or term?’”15 Smith seemed more comfortable with the reform mold. “I’ve always been a crusader,” she said. “That’s just been my nature from the time I was a little kid. I was going to change the world.”16 Appearing before the House Committee on Oversight, she declared, “A PAC ban is essential to stop the checkbook lobbying that goes on here.”17 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.”18 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).19
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 Smith Walker of Pennsylvania. As a result, the leadership deprived her of her subcommittee chairmanship. Undeterred by the consequences of her rebellion, she later reflected that “if you’re not elected again or you lose a committee chair,” it was worth it if done for something “that you really believe is right.”20 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.21 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. “I actually decided I would get out of politics,” Smith reminisced. “But if I won the seat then that would make some sense. It would mean I could take the issues further. I ran for office like 12 times and never lost, but I just knew that you run without really believing every time that you’ll win because I was always the odd one. I never was the one that was preferred.”22 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.23 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.”24 Murray won by the most lopsided margin of victory in a Washington Senate race since the days of Henry Martin (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 raised money and awareness to free women and children who were the victims of sex-trafficking 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.25
1“The Honorable Linda Smith Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (18 September 2019): 2.
2Gregg Zoroya, “A Rebel With Many Causes: Campaign Reform. A Ban on Gifts. Tightened Rules for Lobbyists. Conservative—Very Conservative—Rep. Linda Smith Is an Odd Amalgam of Energy and Extremism,” 23 November 1995, Los Angeles Times: E1.
3.“Smith Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 2.
4“Smith Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 2–3.
5" Linda A. Smith," Associated Press Candidate Biographies, 1998.
6Almanac of American Politics, 1998 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 1997): 1485–1487.
7“Smith Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 8.
8“Smith Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 14.
9Eric Pryne, Jim Simon, and Robert T. Nelson, "Smith's Write–In Success Confounds Electoral Experts," 22 September 1994, Seattle Times: B1; Barbara A. Serrano, "Populist Opposites—Patty Murray: A Tightly Controlled Campaign—Linda Smith: Plays Up Image as Unapologetic Rebel," 25 October 1998, Seattle Times: A1.
10Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives,"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present."
11Robert T. Nelson, "U.S. House—Biggest Challenge to New Delegation: Coexistence," 9 November 1994, Seattle Times: B4.
12Zoroya, "A Rebel With Many Causes."
13“Smith Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 17.
14Zoroya, “A Rebel With Many Causes.”
15“Smith Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 24–25.
16“Linda A. Smith,” Associated Press Candidate Biographies, 1998.
17“Prepared Testimony of Congresswoman Linda Smith Before the House Committee on Oversight Hearing on Legislation Concerning the Role of Political Action Committees in Federal Elections,” 2 November 1995, Federal News Service; Christopher Hansen, “Smith Attacks Plan for Campaign Finance Reform Commission,” 3 November 1995, Seattle Post-Intelligencer: A1.
18Almanac of American Politics, 1998: 1485–1487.
19"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present."
20“Smith Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 6.
21Serrano, "Populist Opposites."
22“Smith Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 36.
23See, for example, two articles by Sam Howe Verhovek: "Year of the Woman in Washington State: Women Will Go Head to Head in Race for a U.S. Senate Seat," 17 September 1998, New York Times: A14; quotation from "Democrat or Republican, Woman Will Be Winner," 26 October 1998, New York Times: A18.
24Gregg Harrington, "Q&A with Linda Smith: Where Was Patty Murray? Hiding, Says Linda Smith," 8 November 1998, The Columbian (Vancover, WA): A1.
25David Ammons, "Linda Smith: Finding a New Crusade After Politics," 2 February 2002, Associated Press.
"Linda Smith" in Profiles in Character: The Values that Made America. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.
"Linda Smith" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.