Carteret County lost a consummate politician and an icon of a political ideology that puts public service above party politics with the recent death of former legislator Ronnie Smith, Morehead City.
Smith, former county tax supervisor and five-term member of the NC House of Representatives, 1992 to 2002, was laid to rest this past weekend amid accolades for his pleasant demeanor, generosity and commitment to his community. It is coincidental that his death coincides with one of the most contentious elections in modern history, in which civility and partisan concerns eclipse the sense of public service and public trust.
As the country struggles with incivility that has become a benchmark for this year’s elections, it is worth noting Smith’s political career. His legacy is a lesson that while partisan politics do create opportunities for competitive ideas, the partisanship should not overwhelm the humanity of the effort, resulting in disruptive actions damaging relationships, businesses and even the ultimate goal of public service.
Ronnie Smith was a Democrat- a staunch, unwavering Democrat. But his strong partisan opinions never got in the way of dealing pleasantly and charitably with others no matter their politics. Republicans in the General Assembly sought him out as someone to assist in compromise when issues got close to a vote. Pat McElraft, Emerald Isle, a Republican representing N.C. House District 13, remarking on Smith’s death, noted “Ronnie was a kind man who worked hard for this constituents.”
Joel Hancock, Harker’s Island, provided a fitting tribute and description during Smith’s funeral. He noted that Smith, while working as the county’s tax supervisor, did a masterful job of making a smooth transition for the distribution of contested property in Salter Path that involved a complex and convoluted deed transfer between the Hoffman estate, owners of the land, and the squatters who used the land. Hancock described this as “one of Ronnie’s most enduring contributions to Carteret County and to the people of Salter Path.”
Hancock’s tribute emphasized Smith’s empathy to the needs and expectations of others, providing generous support in the way of assistance and even money from his own pocket when he felt the situation was appropriate. He was also a man of unbridled motion. His son-in-law, Tripp Eure, commented that he had the ability to wear a path in the carpeting if he was stranded in one place for more than ten minutes.
Contrasting Ronnie’s life and political service to current events is a striking comparison. Ronnie served during a time when politicians really did understand that, in the words of the late Congressman Rep. Tip O’Neill, Mass., “all politics is local.” That political trait was obvious with Ronnie. Though he was very partisan he knew that he was ultimately responsible to his community and that in the end his constituents’ needs trumped those of his party. The result was a legislator who garnered votes from both sides of the partisan divide and who returned that support with his service to his community.
Today, as voters await the final announcement for the election outcome, it is time to step back and appreciate those candidates who will seek public office but at the same time to hold them accountable for civility and public decorum. The actions of many politicians and their messages have done little to imbue confidence and more to enhance fear and unrest.
Because of the heightened polarization at every level of politics, the Society for Human Resources, Alexandria Va., noted in a recent report that there is an increase in political volatility in the workplace, almost doubling the conditions of the 2016 election. That volatility is expanding beyond the workplace and is now influencing social circles and even homes. Following the 2016 election families found themselves divided to the point that Thanksgiving gatherings were cancelled and even though it seems extreme, a few divorces resulted. We should be even more concerned with the 2020 election.
The county is fortunate that the current state legislators representing our district continue to maintain the same civic interest and relationship that Smith imbued during his years of service. But sadly that political demeanor is disappearing in other regions of the state as partisanship has become more aggressive. But it is not the politicians that are solely to blame. Responsibility also lies with a demanding public that sees politics as a game of winner take all. That attitude is damaging to both political discourse and compromise
This year’s state election will result in significant changes in political leadership in Raleigh and, due to the decennial census, most likely an increased influence for the piedmont region of the state and a subsequent reduction of influence for the eastern section of the state. The result is that certain areas of the state, particularly rural communities in the east, will face regional as well as political factions within the legislature.
Now more than ever residents east of I-95 will need a receptive and empathetic political environment in the General Assembly and for years to come. It’s times such as this that politicians like Ronnie Smith who are focused first on the needs of their community and are comfortable reaching across the aisle for compromise are at their greatest value for their constituents.