Every couple of years, the name of state Sen. Ada L. Smith appears in the newspaper, and not for her good deeds. Last week, the Jamaica Democrat and veteran legislator was again tabloid fodder, this time for allegedly dousing a staffer with hot coffee. Whether or not the accusations prove to be true, the senator had better wake up and smell the coffee—and start discharging her duties with the appropriate dignity or find another job.
Smith’s inventory of rambunctious and unprofessional performances include an accusation that she threatened an aide with a meat cleaver in 1996, a 1998 altercation with Brooklyn police that led to her being maced because she allegedly berated and bit a police officer, and a 2003 incident in which she drove her car through a security checkpoint in Albany—nearly running over a state trooper in the process. She paid a fine for that one.
As with each of her previous brushes with the law, Smith has denied any wrongdoing in the coffee-throwing incident. Senate Minority Leader David Paterson, however, deemed it serious enough to form an investigative committee to look into the senator’s “clear pattern of inappropriate and unprofessional conduct” this week.
We know that politics is a bare-knuckles business and an abrasive style can help get things done. Smith effectively channeled her constituents’ anger once by publicly confronting Mayor Michael Bloomberg, slamming down a packet of facts on homelessness to make a point about an unwanted homeless shelter in her district.
But the current allegations go way beyond theatrics. Smith’s rocky relationship with the media, fellow legislators, community leaders and even her own staff harms more than her reputation. Smith’s constituents lose out, too, since her volatility hampers her ability to forge the alliances necessary to get work done for Southeast Queens.
Smith’s erratic behavior recalls another politician from the area, City Councilman Allan Jennings, whose four years were marred by accusations of sexual harassment and incompetence. Few of us can forget Jennings comparing himself to Jesus crucified on the cross, or the time he threw a metal object at a reporter filming outside his home. The crucial difference is that Smith knows better than to anger the party leaders who Jennings crossed too many times.
In a perfect world, Smith’s colleagues in the Queens delegation would denounce her action publicly. Unfortunately, the only criticism to date has come from Paterson and one of Smith’s electoral challengers. For this reason, we are skeptical that the Senate will give Smith more than a slap on the wrist for her antics.
It’s auspicious timing that Smith faces a serious challenge in the Democratic primary, for the first time in many years. Liz Bishop-Goldsmith, an anti-gun advocate, and Joseph Marthone, a community activist, have already entered the race. Rumors persist that other higher-profile candidates may also enter the fray. A lively debate leading up to the September primary would be welcome in a district where Smith often runs virtually unopposed.
If Smith needs to enter anger management counseling to get her temper under control, she should do so. In the meantime, voters in Lindenwood, South Ozone Park, Richmond Hill and Jamaica should demand that their representative not embarrass them again. The 10th Senate District deserves more than to be the punch line of a joke.