|Smith: “Five hundred years ago, I would have wanted to be a knight. But in the modern world, disputes are settled with pens and words and rules and ideas. So I wanted to be a lawyer.”|
The lawyer’s last name is Smith, but that is one of the few things about him not out of the ordinary.
His first name is Jefferson, he once worked as a cowhand in Hermiston, he finished law school magna cum laude from Harvard, and his first law job after clerking in federal court was with one of the nation’s highest-paying corporate firms.
Not wanting to defend tobacco companies, he quickly left that potentially $200,000-plus first-year position at Wachtell Lipton in New York, and after returning to his native Oregon, spent only one and a half years at Stoel Rives before going to work full time in a nonprofit he founded.
Jefferson Smith, just in his early 30s, already is making an impact on Oregon’s political landscape. Inspired by early 20th century progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt, Smith founded the Oregon Bus Project in 2002, which he describes as "a combination voter mobilizer and political school." It is an effort to turn around the apathy represented by a 30 percent voter participation rate among those under age 35.
Last year, the Bus Project sent 200 volunteers across 1,100 Oregon miles. They knocked on 3,500 doors and talked with 1,500 voters. The project sponsored: a nonpartisan costumed Halloween canvass to remind people to vote; Building Blocks, a nonpartisan voter registration project in the most youth-dense districts in Oregon; and a 2-Minute Voter Guide on major ballot measures.
Bus PAC backed candidates it considered supporters of what Smith dubs "the six E’s": election reform, education, equal rights, environment, economics and "‘ealth care."
In the last year, the Bus Project launched PolitiCorps, a 10-week political immersion training program for a core group of college students and graduates; and this year, the project sponsored a Rebooting Democracy Conference, which brought together over 300 up-and-coming leaders from around the state for training, networking and discussion about policy and ballot measures.
Smith also (along with District Court Judge Anne Aiken and Attorney General Hardy Myers) gave the keynote address at the University of Oregon Public Interest Law Conference; spoke at the University of Washington Law School on how to study and prepare in law school; and gave the summer 2005 UO commencement speech on political science.
Smith’s father, R.P. Joe Smith, is a Portland lawyer and former Umatilla County district attorney. The family lived in Pendleton until just before Jefferson was born in Portland. After graduating from Portland’s Grant High School, Jefferson Smith worked on a ranch in Hermiston before graduating from UO.
"My early heroes included Thomas Jefferson (his namesake) and Abraham Lincoln (Smith’s older brother is named Lincoln), and both were lawyers," Smith explains. He sees the practice of law as "a nobler way of settling disputes than beating on one another with sticks and clubs. Five hundred years ago, I would have wanted to be a knight. But in the modern world, disputes are settled with pens and words and rules and ideas. So I wanted to be a lawyer."
Plus, he agreed with the elder Smith, and the Greeks, that the highest calling for a citizen is to be active in the forum, seeking the public good. "For me," says Jefferson Smith, "trying to make things better — better for me, for my loved ones, for my community — is over time the most satisfyingly and challenging thing a person can do."
While at Harvard, his summer internships were at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles; Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C.; and Wilson Sonsini in Palo Alto, Calif. Each firm offered him a position following graduation, he says. Smith clerked for a federal judge, then "took a job with the highest bidder," the Wall Street firm Wachtell Lipton. "It became clear that the growing share of their litigation work was defending Big Tobacco," he says. "Even though to me it was all the money in the world ... it wasn’t a good fit. So I came home to Portland."
He started at Stoel Rives, doing commercial litigation, and at almost the same time helped launch the Oregon Bus Project. "At the time, I still planned on being a lawyer, with anything else as avocation," Smith says. But after the project grew, and he found himself "trying to do two more-than-full-time gigs," he decided that the Bus Project would allow him to make the biggest "positive difference." So he left the firm in 2003 and went full time.
Smith found building an organization — managing people, working with stakeholders, operating budgets — an education in itself, as well as time-consuming. In January, he went to "inactive" status with the Oregon State Bar to spend 80-hour weeks building the Bus Project and focusing on this election year.
"I love the law, so it was sort of a hard thing for me to do, but I know I can still go back to the law," he says. "For now, I want to work to build something to last."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer..
© 2006 Cliff Collins