Sunday Interview with Calvin Smyre: 'I've been truly blessed and I thank God for that' [Columbus Ledger-Enquirer :: ]
(Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (GA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 10--Calvin Smyre has been in the Georgia General Assembly 40 years, the longest serving legislator in the state.
He has forged a path to powerful leadership positions on the local, state and national level.
At 63, he can see the end of that career. Asked how he wants to be remembered, Smyre paused and thought for a second.
"I want to be remembered as a person who gave of his time and energy in trying to make a better life for the people he represented," he said.
Smyre has worked 38 years in various roles for Columbus Bank & Trust Co. and Synovus. He plans to retire in December.
Smyre recently sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about politics, his career and his legacy.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length.
You're in the twilight of a very lengthy career in the General Assembly. How has Georgia changed in the 40 years you've been in the General Assembly?
Well, in many ways. Of course, the General Assembly now is much younger.
Is that because you're older?
It could be, but the General Assembly is much, much younger. When I was elected in 1974 -- of course, I've seen the political landscape change, and so with that, a lot of changes have been made -- and I have seen the growth in Georgia. I've seen the tenor and the tone of politics change. So ... to me as it relates to the makeup of the General Assembly, the fact of the matter is you have younger people there and maybe only 25 or 30 have been there more than 12 or 14 years. So, there's a major turnover rate. When I was elected, most all of the members had seniority and longevity. And to me, that was the most significant aspect of it.
Did you plan on spending 40 years up there?
No, I did not. I look back now and I shake my head sometimes when I think about 1974, and it's 2014. As a young man getting involved in politics -- I started when I was 23 -- I'll never forget the day I got a call from A.J. McClung to come to Golden Park for a baseball game to meet Red McDaniel. And consequently from that meeting, I was nominated to serve on the Columbus Medical Center Board of Trustees. I'll never forget that because at that time Hugh Landrum was chairman and the late attorney Martelle Layfield was the legal counsel. And I worked in the arena of health care for two years, then I sought the General Assembly state legislator post.
Did you ever think you and Red would become dinosaurs together?
Red McDaniel and I have had a long, long-standing relationship, and I would think that over my 40 years, I've been involved in a lot of portions of state and government. Just over looking some of the memorabilia I have, it shows me and it tells me how things have changed, and how the country and America has become more technology-savvy. I can remember the time we had no computers and there were no communication tools, per se.
You are constantly communicating with your constituents, right?
Always. I'm lucky and I've been able to maintain my position here in the city. A lot of the members of the General Assembly, they talk to me a lot about "Wow, in one stretch of your career, you ran 15 times unopposed, 30 years from 1970-2008 with no opposition." All politics is local. I've always tried to balance what I do with local politics, and I'm community-based and church-based.
What is your church?
Greater Ward Chapel AME Church. The Rev. Conitras Moore Houston is my pastor. I've been a member of Greater Ward Chapel since I was 7 years old. We moved from Pou Street to around the street on Talbotton Road next to Hannan Elementary School.
How did you end up in Columbus?
My father was military, his father was military, and my father was stationed here when I was born. I was born at Martin Army Hospital, went to Claflin Elementary School and Cusseta Road, then after that we moved around the country every two years.
Then my father got based in Frankfurt, Germany... and I finished high school at Frankfurt American High School. Many people don't know that. I finished school in Germany, came back stateside in 1965, after having graduated. I was a freshman at Spencer High School when I left.
I entered Fort Valley University and graduated in 1970. I've been a lifelong citizen of Columbus -- it is a city that I love. I almost left at one time. A.J. McClung and George Ford talked me into staying. When I got out of Fort Valley, there were not many opportunities here for jobs and to go to work.
Opportunities for blacks. Is that what you're saying?
I'll leave it at opportunities, but of course being an African-American, that narrowed it. But I won't categorize it ... That's what I've always tried to work for, making Columbus a better city, a better city to work, to play, to live in.
And all the things I've done, I've tried to create public policy that makes Columbus a designation city for industry and for families. One thing about us, we had a leg up -- and we didn't start utilizing it until late, I think, in the game -- and that's Fort Benning. To me, Fort Benning was sort of a hidden treasure. Not any more. Its monthly payroll, we started recognizing it for the economic engine that it is, and now it is part of -- I call it the "three-legged stool" in the tri-city community -- Phenix City, Columbus and Fort Benning.
So, if you look at it at from that perspective, Columbus has had significant growth and we've seen some intro into industry and now the opportunities are much better. We're not where we ought to be or should be, but we are much, much better in that arena thanks to Aflac, TSYS, Synovus and others that are here.
What legislative accomplishment are you most proud of?
I strongly believe in education, and it would have to be working with Gov. (Joe Frank) Harris and some of his education reform and QBE (Quality Basic Education), and then the HOPE Scholarship. To me, education is the escalator to upward mobility. It is the key to all keys to have a productive life.
Could you have done what you did without your degree from Fort Valley State?
I would say no, because in that era and the era that we're in now, a college education is not a prerequisite. But at the same time, it is a way to become a productive citizen and it is a way for the mainstream of society to acquire a better quality of life.
Had I not gone to college back then, I don't think the opportunities would have opened for me because you just have to have some type of education to get past the maze of obstacles at that time. And if you did not have a degree, you would not have been given any consideration, in my opinion, during that juncture.
When you look now at the educational opportunities young people have, how proud are you of your role in helping to establish the HOPE Scholarship?
I am so proud of that. I worked extremely hard on it. Zell Miller, a person I worked with very closely and was a political ally to -- in fact, I have a chapter in one of his books where he talks about the election and thanking me for his re-election.
We were very close and when we had the 20th anniversary up in Athens on the lottery, I drove up and was there for the 20th anniversary of the HOPE Scholarship and had a chance to engage with Zell. In fact, there was a major picture in the AJC. We had a chance to chat and talk about old times.
And I'll never forget the day when I went over with Zell to Peachtree Street to announce the lottery and he purchased the first ticket. ... To me the lottery changed forever the landscape of Georgia.
In what way?
Having a sound university system is key to workforce development. It's a key to having a great workforce to supplement all of these universities and careers we have in the state of Georgia. What HOPE did was ... it protected our "diamonds in the rough," so to speak, and it gave them an opportunity. So, it allowed more students in Georgia to stay in Georgia and to go to school on HOPE.
Has that been good for the state as a general policy?
It's just remarkable. That's why I say good public policy creates the environment by which you can do business. And that's what public policy is all about.
Public policy shapes the lives of how people live every day. And the only people in America that set public policy are elected officials. And public policy determines basically -- not in totality -- but basically the quality of life in any community in the state.
Did you understand that 40 years ago?
Oh, no. You have to grow into that. Because when you first get started as an elected official, you have a tendency to go to events that have lights to them. You just don't know and you haven't learned yet how to get into the nuts and bolts, how to fix the battery. You acquire that; it's not given.
But you have to have a certain amount of political acumen to acquire it, right?
I said to you earlier, I was lucky and I think I was in the right place at the right time. I don't think I could say whatever I've done is attributed to me. That would not be a good analogy. In December 1973, the late Albert Thompson -- Judge Thompson, former state representative -- was chairman of the special judiciary committee, and he told me I needed to go and speak with Tom Murphy. And I went to see Murphy -- I'll never forget this day -- and I walked into Tom Murphy's office. I was 26 years old.
Were you in the General Assembly?
Just representative-elect. And Albert Thompson said, "I want you to meet him prior to the Legislature." So, we drove up. He took me in, I met with Speaker Murphy. We had a talk and the first thing he said was "Son, what can I do for you?" Not "representative-elect," but "Son, what can I do for you?" I said, "Mr. Speaker, I'm just here to introduce myself and I appreciate the Chairman inviting me here to meet you." He said, "What kind of committees do you want to serve on?" And I said, "I'm not a banker, but I want to go into the financial field, and I feel like I would be a good choice for the appropriations committee."
You weren't asking for much, were you?
He laughed and said, "No, son, you're a freshman," and said, "You may not even be going into that room." I said, "Ways and Means." He said, "There you go again! You're asking for something that with freshmen we don't even consider." So, I said, "What about banks and banking?" He said, "I'm trying to think if I ever appointed a freshman to banks and banking." He said, "I tell you what, since that's your third choice, I'm going to give it to you."
So he called the person in and said "We're going to appoint Mr. Smyre to banks and banking. So, time passes and I bump into him and he said, "How are you doing, son?" "I'm all right, Mr. Speaker." He said, "You know, you're going to be all right up here." I said, "What do you mean, Mr. Speaker?"
He said, "A little bird told me that banks and banking was your first choice and you gave it to me as your third." He said, "That's pretty astute, and then you kept your cards close to your chest, and I like that." And he said, "I think we're going to be able to work together." He said, "Son, I'm really impressed with you at this juncture."
You got into Speaker Murphy's inner circle, correct?
Were you the only African-American?
Yes, at that time.
What was that like in those rooms?
Well, you know... the Speaker put me on Ways and Means -- which was really remarkable, I think -- my fourth year. And I was on appropriations, I think, my eighth year. So, that was pretty strong -- and I think with the combination of Tom Buck, Larry Walker, Terry Coleman and Bill Lee, the combination thereof. Buck took me in and we got to be connected to the hip. We didn't know each other initially at first, but we became seat mates, and when you sit next to someone, you get close. And at one point in time, we thought about it -- two people for the same delegation -- but the Speaker never saw it that way. And he brought me in and one day things just started happening. And Tom of course was well respected.
How did Columbus benefit from this?
Well, Buck and I served on -- I may have the number wrong -- but it was maybe six. I'll just say many -- we were confreres. Only three people in the House and three from the Senate touched the budget.
There were times, of the final six people doing the budget, three of them were Columbus guys, right?
At one time, yeah.
It was you, Tom and Pete Robinson -- I bet people did not like Columbus
People used to joke that the budget leans toward Columbus.
I don't want to say that in the newspaper.
I think you just did.
Once I was on a state plane with Zell Miller and we were talking about politics. And he said, "I'm going to tell you something, young man." He said, "You're from one of the strongest delegations I've ever seen in the General Assembly." And he said, "You know what I attribute that to?" He said, "When other delegations come up here divide, y'all come up here with one voice."
Many of the other delegations were divided, and they were divided along race. How did Columbus not get divided along race?
I think relationships. We had great relationships and I don't think I have ever openly -- I may have privately -- been at political odds with anybody in our delegation in 40 years, whether its race or political differences or what. But understanding the nature of politics, the key is the takeaway -- not how many first downs you get, but do you score? I'm not into feel-good politics. A lot of policies do things to make you feel good. I do think that affects change and affects the betterment of Columbus.
Were you a big fan of Speaker Murphy?
Speaker Murphy and I had a remarkable relationship for a white rural legislator and an African American. To this day, people are amazed by our relationship and how close we were. I recently spoke at West Georgia College where his papers are. The family asked me to come up and I went up and spoke on the anniversary of his passing. It was a great opportunity for me once again to talk about the man who really gave me an opportunity in Georgia that I don't think many others could recognize how significant that was.
I want to talk about your relationships outside of Georgia. I know you have a very strong relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton. How did you and President Clinton first meet?
It was either 1989 or 1990.
So, three years before he became president?
Yeah, right in there somewhere. But I do know where I was. I was in Cleveland, Ohio, and I forget why I was in Cleveland. It had to be for NCSL (National Conference of State Legislatures), or something legislatively. And a friend of mine called me and we were just on the phone talking, just in general. Can't tell you the conversation, but he said Gov. Clinton is there. And he said, "Have you ever met Gov. Clinton?" And I said, "No, I've never met him." He said, "You ought to go by and just say hello; he's at the Sheraton Hotel and tell him I sent you.
I went there and somebody showed me where he was. I went up to him and said, "I'm Calvin Smyre, State Rep from Georgia. Sonny Walker, a friend of yours and he's a friend of mine, and he told me to come by." And we just started talking, and I gave him my card, and didn't think anything else of it.
He said, "I'm coming to Georgia. I'd like to give you a call." I said, "OK, that's fine." And low and behold, a few months later, he came to Georgia and he called me. I met him at, I think, the downtown Marriott. We had a chat. I don't know whether it was rumored then, that might have been earlier, but the rumors were there...
Did you know you were talking to a future president?
Had no clue.
Y'all have become friends, too.
We've become very close friends. Zell Miller was part of the caveat, because (James) Carville and Paul Begala were Zell's political operatives, and I remember the day that Clinton came to Georgia and met with Zell, and Zell introduced him to Begala and Carville.
So, I had worked with Carville and Begala on Zell's campaign, so it wasn't a hard intro for me. So, naturally they got me involved in the president's campaign and the rest is history. And when Hillary came for the first time -- first visit to Georgia -- Zell and I flew with her around the state. She made about six or seven stops. At the end of the day, about 5 or 6 p.m., she walked over to me and said, "My husband has told me a lot about you, and today you have seen me and my love for the state, and anything you can do to assist us is much appreciated." I received one of the nicest notes, and then when he came back, it just grew from that. It didn't start from a political... it just started from a basic introduction.
Is that how politics works?
Well, Clinton and I clicked. He jokes a lot. He's told this joke in so many places: Everyone knows I have a bad hip. When we were at the Omni, the day after New Hampshire when he was described as the "Comeback Kid" ....
This was in 1992.
Yeah. And the stage gave away, and Zell and I were there. I was kind of next to him and he grabbed me and the Secret Service grabbed him, and the stage collapsed. And the headlines read "Smyre catches Clinton," or something to that effect. He sent me that article and signed it, and we have had a fairly good working relationship since that time.
Do you think Hillary will be President of the United States?
Well, I don't know whether or not she's going to run. I've talked to her.
If you had to make a bet right now?
Those things I don't do. I think that's a decision she has to make, and once she makes it, my mobile will ring.
Six years ago you worked very hard for her in the Democratic Primary against President Obama. You were one of the more high profile black leaders in the country working for Clinton. Was that a difficult decision?
Very difficult, but I try to carry myself in a very diplomatic manner. In other words, try to be very, very respectful. I knew Barack prior to him running. I knew him as a state senator, I knew him as a U.S. senator, I've had the chance to have very, very private conversations with him prior to his run for the presidency. I committed to Hillary very, very early -- I mean very early. In fact, we were in General Assembly session ...
A lot of people committed to her early and backed out, right?
I believe in loyalty, and loyalty has gotten me politically to where I am. I believe in that word "loyalty." He and I had conversations. We talked on many occasions, and I explained to him my situation and apparently he understood it. I had an agreement with the campaign that if he got to a certain point that I would announce and say I would vote for him. In fact, that was pretty newsy at that time, because I was one of the first to say I would vote for him. And I've had a close relationship with the President since that time.
You're in and out of D.C. You've met with him from time to time in your role with National Conference of State Legislatures, right?
I've had the opportunity to meet with him one-on-on. I've had a chance to meet with him in groups to talk about issues that are facing our country. And I feel like all things being equal, I have a good relationship.
And I called on Washington on both sides of the aisle. The role that you play in politics, you just have to be participatory. When I go to Washington, I do that. I've called on many, many Republican leaders, as I do in Georgia. And I did it prior to the General Assembly in Georgia becoming Republican -- I did it prior to that. So, my relationships are pretty substantial.
How difficult has it been to watch President Obama struggle with a lot of his agenda?
Yeah, and I say politics in Washington is at an all-time difficult point for anything to get done because of the divisiveness and the bipartisanship. Everything is "I've got you."
Whose fault is that?
I wouldn't put a blame on it. There's enough blame to go around, I can tell you that. But at the same time, trying to put blame on it is not the answer. The answer is to try to provide a better tenor there, to provide a better atmosphere for which you can set public policy.
Is that possible?
I pray and hope so. I just pray and hope for the betterment of the country that we get a grip on it.
Is part of the pushback against President Obama racial in nature?
We look at race too much, and that's what divides us, looking at it from a racial perspective. Naturally racism exist in America, and so for me to couch it in that way would be unfair to the good people that support the president... because he's got good people from all races supporting him to a large degree. So... does racism exist in America today? Yes. Is it the reason or rationale of all the problems that we have or encounter? I would say no.
How is the racial climate different now than it was 40 years ago?
I think we've come a long way. I was on a panel in Cincinnati recently at the National Urban League talking about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And I've seen the growth of elected officials, and I've seen a lot of the doors open for opportunity. And to me, it's something that's always in progress, something we should always try to address to eliminate the obstacles of anything of oppression and not giving everybody the opportunity to be the best and all they can be. So, we've come a mighty long way since 1964 and the Civil Rights Act. And we've got to continue to make progress. That's what I get up every morning and try to do as an elected official.
I don't have a magic wand, so with that in mind, you just have to work to continue to make it a better community. That's what I strive to do. Every day that I get up, I try to do things, try to emulate things that are positive and try to make Columbus a better place to live. We've just got to continue to try to provide opportunities so that everybody can have an equal footing and to continue to try to be the best they can be in whatever they are trying to be in life.
Does a guy today that was your age when you were first elected, does he have the same chances, opportunities?
He has a much better chance -- much more. Naturally, when I was at that age it was more difficult. But this day and age, there are more opportunities out there than there were 40 years ago. The whole scenario has changed. With that in mind, getting out of Fort Valley and coming home, the opportunities were narrower. There was not much for my first year out of college. I was a substitute teacher. Then I went to work at GMAC as a repossession guy -- I was a repo man. I left that and went to Swift Textiles.
You are at a point in time now in your career where you are getting a lot of what I call lifetime achievement awards. You were recently given a doctorate degree from Morehouse and you've been given a brick on the Civil Rights Walk of Fame. What do these mean as you start to get these honors now, these lifetime achievement awards?
Well, there are two mottos I live by, and people have heard me say so many times. In fact, I made a speech at the SaMarc (Foundation) dinner the other night, that I was going to use it one more time. But that was my next to the last time -- this is my last time using it. I really believe that quote, "If you ever see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know he/she didn't get there by themselves; somebody had put them there." So, I truly, truly, with all my heart, believe that.
And the other one that I live by is -- Benjamin Mays, former president of Morehouse College used it, but it was coined, I think, by Winston Churchill -- "You make your living by what you get, but you make your life by what you give." So, those two quotes -- I call them "credos" -- absolutely frame how I live every day and how I take life, and how I frame what I do and what I've done for the 40 years I have been in public life. That no matter how far you get into the political arena or whatever arena you're in, no matter what your service is, no matter what it is, is that somebody helps you get where you are. And to get caught up in self-aggrandizement is a danger that I just refuse to take a risk at.
If you are that turtle on the fence post, who put you there?
Well, I've been truly blessed -- and I thank God for that -- I really have. Obviously the people in Columbus believe in me. You cannot stay in office for 40 years without people believing in what you're doing or what you've done. So, that's one thing. And then I've had persons along the way who have helped me and who have been mentors to me, and who have assisted me. In 1972, I formed an organization called LOTT -- Leaders of Today and Tomorrow. There were about 25 of us and we were all 23 and 24, and I said what we ought to do is get involved in all facets of Columbus. We ought to get on boards, we ought to get on commissions, and we ought to make a contribution to this city. Gosh, when you think about Bennie Neuroth, when you think about Robert Anderson, you think about Howard Pendleton, you think about Dan Doleman, who was president of the school board, you think about the late Benny Parker, who was very active in politics.
I can't remember all of them, but there were about 25 of us. So I asked A.J. McClung, George Ford, Albert Thompson, Clarence "Hickey" White, George Rowell, one or two others, can we meet with you all and talk about this city and how we can get involved. Will y'all do that? And A.J. said, "Of course." So Leaders of Today and Tomorrow -- we were the leaders of tomorrow, they were the leaders of today -- and we met with them and I was kind of the convenor, and through A.J. and him mentoring me, and George Ford, they met with us.
And one Saturday morning we were at Albert Thompson's law office, and he said, "There's a seat coming open in the General Assembly of Georgia -- we have a reapportionment in 1973, and in 1974, we're going to have a seat. So, one of y'all should run for the seat in the legislature. I don't know which one, but one of y'all ought to run." They said, "Why don't Calvin run? He's the one who got us together?" And I said, "Let's talk about that." ...And so I said, "OK, let's look at it." That was my start of public office right there from that meeting at Albert Thompson's law office that morning. And we went back about two or three weeks later and said, "OK, I'm going to run."
You're on the ballot again this year with no opposition, right?
Is this the last time you'll appear on a ballot in Muscogee County?
I have not made up my mind yet, but I'm close. I have had a great, great opportunity to serve, and this may sound phony, but I love it. I absolutely love what I do. And I get up every day in 2014 like I did in 1975.
You're a little slower now.
A little slower, but my commitment and my fervor for serving is the same.
It hasn't gotten old?
Well, I travel quite a bit, and I just got back from a seven-day trip -- three days in Cincinnati for the National Urban League, and went to Little Rock for the Southern Legislative Conference. But I love what I do. I think I've made some contributions to the city of Columbus and to the state of Georgia.
How do you want to be remembered?
There's two dates on your tombstone, your birthday and the day you passed away. The birthday we celebrate, the death date we mourn. ... And I want my dash to say that I was compassionate, that I did all I could to help somebody, that I always tried to pull others up by their bootstraps, and that I was a person that never looked down to anyone. And the reason I believe in pulling others up by their bootstraps is because when you go up the ladder -- there are a lot of hands that are helping you -- it's slower. But when you come down, it's much faster. When I come down I want the same hands to be there that I had going up.
So, I want to be known as a person that gave of himself and loved his community, made a contribution to his community. It's been a great opportunity for me. I knew early on that public service was "it." I don't know what that "it" means.
... And on that wall (in his office) is a letter I wrote in 1972 to Bill Turner to come to work for Synovus and I didn't make it. So, I was very persistent. And Bill Turner, who happened to be the chairman of my board at the Neighborhood Service Center at that time -- it was part of the old office of the Economic Opportunity, if you remember that -- I told him what I wanted to do and he said, "You need to go see Jimmy Blanchard." And I did and I wrote Blanchard, but for some fate, I just didn't get it. But four years later I came to work here from that onion-skinned letter that I wrote. With it is my 20th anniversary letter I have with the company. So, CB&T and Synovus has been a tremendous part of my life. Elected office and career wise -- that's the only two things I know -- my career here at CB&T and Synovus, having gone from manager trainee to executive vice president of corporate affairs, and at one time, president of the Synovus Foundation. So, I've run dual tracks, and what I try to do is to bring them together.
And I didn't have to do this -- a lot of people have to do this in their career, they have to juggle -- but I try to get my to run parallel to one another so I could do both. Miraculously, and with the help of a lot of people that are my team members here at Synovus, and I worked for three CEOs -- Jimmy Blanchard, Richard Anthony and Kessel Stelling. So, early on, naturally Blanchard was a part of my development. But I can truly say that CB&T and Synovus has played a very, very integral part of my life. I knew when I came to work here I was coming to work for a good corporate citizen and one that firmly believes in corporate social responsibility.
I've been one of the driving forces trying to make sure that we as a company create a lot of goodwill in this city and in this state, and the other four states that our footprint is in. So, I've had a good career here. To me, all of that contributes to what I am and who I am today.
I've tried to show a lot of humility and not walk around with my chest sticking out on what I've done because early on somebody told me if you stick (your) chest out you become this or that. I said, "What do you mean?" He said to stick my chest out and I did. Then he said, "Let it go." He said, "Don't stick it out no more. If you can become who you are by being who you are, why change? Just keep being you."
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