When Rep. Chris Smith was first elected to the House, he was brand new to the Washington scene. But after 27 years of representing New Jersey in Congress, Smith has spent almost half of his life living in Virginia.
Smith went to Washington to take on Washington politics as usual. It took two tries for Smith, then a staunchly pro-life 27-year-old who worked at his family’s sporting goods store, to beat liberal Democratic incumbent Frank Thompson. But, Smith won in 1980 after Thompson was indicted on corruption charges over his role in the Abscam sting that ultimately convicted him and four of his colleagues.
Smith soon became a vocal young voice known as a fiscal conservative with an independent streak – while admiring President Reagan, Smith fought his cuts to some social programs in the 1980s.
Twenty-seven years later, Smith maintains a squeaky clean reputation, a record of effectiveness and has, by most accounts, a safe hold on his 4th Congressional District seat. But insiders and some of Smith’s many vanquished opponents have whispered that the blue collar kid from Hamilton has become a creature of Washington himself – if only by the amount of time he spends there.
Smith is in his home state only a small fraction of the time. That is a point that the congressman conceded in an interview with PolitickerNJ.com, but he said his virtual absence from the 4th District is a sacrifice he makes for its residents and to be near his family.
Smith has spent about half his life in Congress and has lived in Virginia for most of that time. In 1983, he bought a home in the Washington suburb of Herndon, Va. in order to be near his family while attending to his Congressional responsibilities. He currently rents a small apartment in Hamilton Township.
In 2000, Smith spent 73 days and 41 nights in his district, according to Congressional spending reports. That’s 20% of his days (including travel days) and 11.23% of his nights. Since then, records show the number of days Smith spent in New Jersey has decreased almost every year.
2001- 59 days, 31 nights
2002 -56 days, 26 nights
2003- 47 days, 23 nights
2004 -43 days, 19 nights
2005 – 40 days, 15 nights
2006 – 29 days, 7 nights
2007 – 48 days, 22 nights
Over the last eight years, Smith has spent a total of 395 days and 184 nights in New Jersey while on official business. There have been some additional days during even years that aren’t accounted for in the Congressional reports, since they were campaign stops and not paid for by his legislative office. But Smith himself says that the numbers are, by and large, accurate.
“I have no reason to question your numbers,” said Smith, who said that he only spent seven nights in the district in 2006 because his wife was hospitalized for much of the year. “But the more important question is – and I think it’s the only question – are you being effective?”
Smith is the only member of the state’s Congressional delegation who does not own a home in New Jersey, but he said homeownership is not a credential for residency.
“Frankly it’s an affront to say to anyone who does rent in New Jersey that they’re any less a resident of a town,” said Smith. “That tells you nothing other than the status of their financial situation at a given time, or a snap shot.”
Surprised neighbor: ‘You’re kidding’
Most of Smith’s neighbors in the quaint, middle-class townhouse complex that he lists as his New Jersey residence were surprised – and sometimes elated — to hear that their Congressman was also neighbor. PolitickerNJ.com knocked on all of the doors of the units that adjoin Smith’s apartment, and of the six neighbors who answered, only one had ever seen Smith. Only two had any idea that he lived there.
Louise Ferrazano, a retired school teacher who lives two doors down from Smith, said that she’s seen him a couple times over the last four years, always by himself. While she doesn’t know many of her neighbors, she tends to see them more often than Smith.
Seven doors down, a resident said “you’re kidding” when told that Chris Smith had an apartment about 100 feet away.
“I don’t suppose that’s illegal, but if you’re representing a district, it would be nice to have the Congressman here,” said the neighbor, who said that he’s actually a fan of Smith’s and didn’t want his name used in anything that reflected negatively on him. “I like the way he votes on issues, so I wouldn’t want to say anything derogatory.”
A sacrifice for his district
Smith prides himself in the amount of work he gets done and argues that no member of the legislature is more in touch with his district’s needs.
Raw statistics seem to bear that claim out. Since 1993, Smith has sponsored 326 bills in the House, 33 of which have passed. Combined, the 12 other members of the New Jersey delegation have sponsored and passed the same number of bills.
Since the Web site that tracks Congressional bills began counting in 1993, the numbers naturally favor Republicans, who controlled the House from 1995 to 2007. And, as the longest serving of New Jersey’s delegation, Smith’s seniority could have factored into his numerical advantage (Rep. Jim Saxton comes in second, passing 14 of the resolutions he sponsored).
But it wouldn’t have been possible, Smith said, had he not been so dedicated to the job.
“Within our own district, I don’t care what party you’re from, whether you voted for me or not, we roll up our sleeves and try to leave no stone unturned on behalf of the constituents,” Smith said.
Smith’s constituent casework has won him accolades from many non-partisan advocacy groups. Project Freedom, a group that advocates development of housing for the disabled, is honoring him with their June Ronan Angel Award at an October gala. St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton is set to give him their Spirit of St. Francis Award. During one week last month, Smith said he received four awards.
“I’m not an award guy but I keep getting awards,” said Smith. “And most of them emanate from the district itself.”
He looks at it this way: to be the most effective Congressman in the state means that he needs to work hard day and night for his constituents in Washington committee rooms, hammering out compromises in weekend sessions and lobbying colleagues to get the bills passed.
Smith typically works 12 hours a day, six days a week. He writes his own speeches, comes up with most of his own ideas for legislation and pushes hard to get that legislation through.
“Case work and lawmaking are the two tests. It’s not how many cocktail parties did you go to, how many backs did you slap, how many hands did you shake, although I like shaking hands,” he said. “It’s really all about your work product for your district.”
Smith is careful not to criticize how his colleagues spend their time. Most, if not all of them, spend at least half of their days in their own districts. PolitickerNJ.com talked to the staffs of 11 of the 12 other Congressmen (Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s staff did not return a request for comment), and they all typically head back to their districts as soon as voting ends on Thursday or Friday.
“Congressman Garrett owns a home in Wantage, N.J. and only rents a studio in Washington D.C.,” said Mary Vought, press secretary for Rep. E. Scott Garrett. “It’s extremely rare that he would be in Washington over the weekend, usually, as soon as votes are over he gets on the next train back to New Jersey so that he can spend more time with his family and attend district events.”
Still Smith says that he considers the Garden State his home. He has a New Jersey driver’s license, pays state taxes and votes here.
It’s not that he prefers to live in Virginia. In fact, he views his time spent there more as a sacrifice.
“I’m on assignment here. I fight for New Jersey in Washington,” he said. “I want to fight for my constituents and make a difference in Washington.”
Family: ‘To me it’s a priority’
Smith moved his young family to Herndon in 1983 – just two years after he entered the House. The decision to move, Smith said, came after he tried it both ways. In 1981 he rented an apartment in McLean, but the next year his family moved back to Hamilton. It was unbearable, Smith said, to spend the majority of his time apart from his family.
While Smith wouldn’t speak for how other Congressmen handle their familial obligations, for him, being near his wife is paramount. It even makes him a better Congressman, he said.
“To me it’s a priority to be with my wife and to be with my children,” said Smith. “It’s not a criticism… but it’s a hardship for those who don’t see their wives.”
Smith has raised his four children in Virginia. The youngest of them currently attends one of the state’s public universities. But Smith, who has made it a policy not to talk publicly about his children, would not say whether the family pays in-state tuition.
Like Smith, retiring Rep. Mike Ferguson also has four children, who are all still young, and he cited family obligations as the main reason for his decision not to seek re-election this year.
Smith has faced questions about his residency in previous campaigns. In 2000, Assemblyman Reid Gusciora made it an issue in his own challenge to Smith.
Gusciora had faced criticism for living in Princeton, which is part of the neighboring 12th District. He countered that by pointing out that Smith spent more time in Virginia than the condo he owned at the time in Washington Township (Smith sold that four years ago and moved to his current rental in Hamilton).
During a debate, Gusciora even said that Smith probably didn’t have a driver’s license from his native state. Smith responded by showing holding up his valid New Jersey driver’s license.
“I have heard people talk about the fact that he spends more time in Washington than he does at home, but it hasn’t had traction as a campaign issue in the past,” said Ingrid Reed, Director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project.
Reed said that Smith has a reputation for having excellent constituent services, which may be why that issue has never proved deadly for him in campaigns past.
“He’s open that he does have his major residence in the D.C.-area and that’s the way he’s chosen to represent his people,” she said. “It falls apart if he’s challenged on it and his constituents, or the voters, demand or find that they want a different mode of their congressman operating. But as you know, by the way he’s been re-elected, apparently he’s effective as far as the voters are concerned.”
But Smith’s current opponent, Josh Zeitz, does think that Smith’s residence is a relevant issue.
“There’s no substitute for a Congressman living in his district, end of story,” he said. “I’ve traveled this district extensively over the last eight months, and everywhere I go people make it clear they have not seen him in a very long time.”
Zeitz, who himself only recently moved from outside of the district to Bordentown, where he grew up, said that he most often hears complaints about an affordability crisis in the state. While he admits that Smith has a laudable record on human rights, he hasn’t paid enough attention to the issues the issues that are most affecting his constituents.
“He doesn’t know there’s an affordability crisis, because he’s not here on the ground and doesn’t share in the burdens of living in New Jersey,” he said.
Zeitz bristled that Smith Campaign Manager Martin Gillespie recently pointed out to a Trenton Times reporter that Zeitz had lived outside of the district until recently and voted in New York.
“It is ironic that someone who has been voting in New York … would make such a charge against Chris Smith, who is known here and has a reputation for working and fighting hard for the people of his district,” Gillespie told the paper.
Zeitz moved from the district for college and graduate school, and spent time living in New York and Cambridge, England, where he taught history.
“I’m in my early 30s, and like a lot of people who were born and raised in central Jersey, I traveled out of state for college and grad school to see something of the world,” said Zeitz. “My getting an education and my Congressman moving to Virginia are two completely incomparable things.”
Residency issues are often brought up to criticize politicians.
Democratic incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s critics often claim that he spends most of his non-Washington time at his wife’s Manhattan apartment, pointing to a lost wallet in the back of a New York taxi as evidence. And the revelation that former Republican Senate candidate Andy Unanue did not own or rent a residence in New Jersey didn’t help his short-lived candidacy.
Smith said that, during his first reelection campaign in 1982, he was asked where he would go if then Senate President Joe Merlino, who was challenging him, won the election.
“I said I’d live in New Jersey,” said Smith, and he hasn’t wavered on that.
If and when Smith retires, he’ll spend his days in his native state, he said.
“I love New Jersey. I love the shore,” Smith said. “I miss the weeks as a kid that I spent in Belmar where my grandmother had a trailer. I had a paper route in Iselin.”