By Diane Rey
For Maryland Reporter
State Sen. William “Will” C. Smith Jr. fondly recalls talking politics with his dad. But he didn’t always appreciate those conversations as a teenager.
Back then, he was often more interested in borrowing $20 to take a girl to the movies, he said. But his father, a cab and, later, a limo driver, wanted him to sit down and discuss the latest item he’d clipped from the newspaper, often about rising African Americans politicians like Doug Wilder, first black governor of Virginia.
His father would tack those news clips on his bulletin board, and they grew to be 15 years’ deep.
William C. Smith Sr. died of a heart attack in 2006 on his son’s first day of law school. He never got to see him become a practicing attorney, get voted into office, or join the United States Navy Reserve, but his influence is still strong.
When Smith deploys to Afghanistan at the end of the month, he’ll take a photo of his father along with him.
“He believed people could do anything,” he said.
Smith, 37, is adopting his late father’s optimistic attitude as he works to finish his legislative agenda before his March 29 deployment, 10 days before Maryland’s legislative session ends April 8.
Sponsoring 40 bills
It’s an ambitious agenda – he’s the primary sponsor for 40 bills and is a co-sponsor of 117 others.
“Honestly, it’s too much,” Smith said in an early morning interview Tuesday before racing to the Senate building for hearings of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, where he serves as vice chair. A Democrat whose district includes Silver Spring and Takoma Park, Smith is also Senate chair of the Maryland Veteran’s Caucus.
Married, and with an 11-month old baby, he lives in Silver Spring where he grew up.
After graduating from the Barrie School in 2000, Smith received a B.A. in government from the College of William and Mary in 2004 and a master’s degree in government from Johns Hopkins University in 2006. He received a law degree at William and Mary in 2009, the year he enlisted in the Navy Reserve.
His political career has had a swift trajectory in District 20, one of the most liberal districts in the state. In a field of nine Democrats in 2014, he came in third in the primary, winning the last of three slots, and went on to win election to the House where he served on the Judiciary Committee. While serving in the House, he was the primary sponsor of HB1009, the Good Samaritan Law, that ensured those who report drug and alcohol emergencies to police wouldn’t be prosecuted.
Just two years later, he was appointed to the Senate, filling the seat of Sen. Jamie Raskin who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
After Smith easily won election with 91% of the vote last year, in January, he was appointed vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, marking the more progressive shift of the Senate.
Drawn to military service
Like others, Smith was drawn to military service following 9/11, he said. A lieutenant and intelligence officer, he found intelligence work to be a good fit. “It gives me a perspective on the fragility of government,” he said.
In Afghanistan, he’ll be supporting Operation Resolute Support, helping stabilize the fledgling Afghan government to stand up against extremists. The NATO-led effort began in 2015 and includes some 13,000 troops.
“I’m nervous and excited. I really do believe in the mission,” Smith said.
While still in the Senate, he’s on a mission to pass SB311, the End-of-Life Option Act, before leaving for Afghanistan. The companion bill narrowly passed the House last week by a vote of 74-66. It would allow doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to adults who are terminally ill.
Smith called it his “most significant bill” this session. By his count, he’s gotten 35 bills passed over the last four years that have helped veterans, parents, employees and others.
As an attorney for the young Solomon Law Firm in D.C., he specializes in employment discrimination and national security law.
Public service is the driving force in his life.
“If you’re able to be a good husband, a good father and in a profession to do good work, you can enhance the lives of those around you,” he said.
The support of his wife, Camille Fesche, an attorney and lobbyist, helps when he thinks about the months ahead. He knows he’ll miss some of their daughter’s milestones. At 11 months old, baby Jacqueline is about ready to walk. He won’t be back to see that until he returns in November.
Other legislators in the reserves
Some of Smith’s colleagues know how he feels.
Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford, a member of the Air National Guard, was called up for flight training in Georgia in February 2011, before the session’s halfway mark.
“When the military says it’s time to go, you go,” he said.
Although technology enabled him to keep track of legislation and connect with staff, it’s not the same as being on the floor, he said.
“You feel guilty that you’re not here to represent your constituents, but in the same breath, this is a citizen legislature,” he said.
Del. Andrew Cassilly, R-Cecil and Harford, spent six years in the Army National Guard in the 1980s, but was never deployed. His brother, Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, was deployed to Iraq three times between 2006 and 2010, once as a reservist and twice as a civilian employee of the State Department.
Del. Cassilly said active duty isn’t an easy transition.
“He’s going to go through such a dramatic change, leaving the civilian world and jumping into the military world. They’re polar opposites,” he said.
“To me, if you love your country that much that you’re willing to put your entire life on hold to serve your country, I can think of no greater honor,” he said.
Smith’s Senate office will remain operational during his absence and his staff will handle constituent matters in District 20.
His colleagues are holding a send-off event for him March 20 at Harry Browne’s restaurant in Annapolis. His District 20 delegates are hosting another send-off Saturday, March 23, at Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring.
Reach Diane at Reywriting@gmail.com.