Fred Smith runs for reelection, redemption with Arkansas Democrats

Fred Smith runs for reelection, redemption with Arkansas Democrats
Arkansas state Rep. Fred Smith hopes to win reelection as a Democrat after a scandal pushed him out of the party. (Alana Semuels / Los Angeles Times)

The man who once held the record for world's highest dunk, at 11 feet 11 inches, stands in front of the class of giggling children in the balcony of the Arkansas Statehouse.

They want him to keep spinning a basketball on his finger. He wants to give them life advice, on how they, too, can escape the poverty of Arkansas and end up something like him, traveling the world as a Harlem Globetrotter and then serving in the state Legislature. Get an education and mind your parents, he tells them.


"And you know, the third thing is that you got to stay out of trouble," says Fred Smith.

It's something that Smith has learned all too well in the four years he's been in politics. He's sparred with his own party, the Democrats, left them to join the Green Party, and battled charges of criminal behavior that at one point forced him from office.

Now Smith, 42, is facing a tough Democratic primary on Tuesday; he says his reelection would be redemption. His may be one of the strangest stories of primary season, from a state that has no shortage of political scandals.

"I don't feel like I got justice," said Smith, a lanky 6 foot 5, whose nickname as a player was "the Preacher." "It's like the story of Job."

Smith grew up in the tiny town of Crawfordsville, Ark., near the Tennessee state line. He played basketball for Oral Roberts University, then in Europe and later for the Harlem Globetrotters. When he returned to Arkansas after retiring from basketball in 2004, he started a nonprofit, Save Our Kids, that tutored children after school.

Smith was elected to the Arkansas Legislature in 2010 on the Democratic ballot. But soon the trouble started.

Smith's nonprofit had received a double payment from a school district and he cashed both checks, he says mistakenly; he thought his lawyer was dealing with the problem until a colleague told him he'd heard he was convicted of a felony.

Court documents show that in January 2011, Smith was found guilty of theft of property delivered by mistake. But under Arkansas law, the judge was allowed to defer the judgment if Smith repaid the money and served probation. In 2012, the judge dismissed the case "as if it had not occurred."

But by then Smith had resigned his seat under pressure from Democrats, just a few weeks after he'd taken office in 2011.

His friend and fellow legislator Reginald Murdock remembered trying to convince party leaders that they were wrong about Smith.

"I asked them to please listen, but they would not acknowledge it," said Murdock, who has served in the Arkansas House since 2011. "It was totally unjust."

Smith decided to run again in 2012, but the state Democratic Party sued to keep him off the ballot because his judgment had not yet been voided. It surprised some in the state, who weren't used to seeing such public efforts to keep someone off the ballot, especially since the party had initially accepted Smith's filing fee, said Nic Horton, editor of the Arkansas Project, a blog about state politics.

"The whole thing was a pretty strange display," he said.

The state Democratic Party said it was merely following the law, and that Smith was not allowed to be on the ballot because his record had not been expunged by the time he filed to run.

"At the time, he had a criminal record," said Candace Martin, executive director of the state party. "Arkansas law is pretty clear on the qualifications that a candidate has to meet in order to run for office, and at the time he ran for office, he was not eligible."

A few months later, his record expunged, the Green Party nominated Smith to run on their ticket.

Smith got into the spirit of the Green Party. He even bought a green suit, and thought about painting his house green.

He was elected with 100% of the vote — ironically, because his Democratic opponent, Hudson Hallum, was found guilty just before the election of conspiracy to commit voter fraud. A judge ordered that none of Hallum's votes be counted.

Smith voted with Democrats most of the time in the most recent Arkansas session. But he says he still feels bitter, and wonders if the party's past opposition to him had racial undertones.

"I don't really want to go there, but I think it does have a little bit to do with me being black," he said. "But we don't say those things in Arkansas. We don't want to say people discriminate."

Some friends and colleagues say that while there is racism in Arkansas, this isn't an example of it. There are now more than a dozen African American legislators representing the Democratic Party, Horton said, adding that it was Smith's record, not his race, that made the party want to stay away.

Still, for Smith the upcoming election has taken on the semblance of a potential rebirth. Sure, he won as a Green Party candidate, but at heart he's a Democrat. If he can win his Democratic primary, he said, he'll have finally cleared his name — and, it seems, regained some level of the adoration he received as a Globetrotter.

Back with the school class in the Arkansas Capitol, Smith has turned from talking about politics to showing the kids how he can spin a basketball on a pencil, on a clipboard, on his finger. The kids clap and giggle, and Smith seems sad to bring the session to an end.

"One more," a small boy cries out, and Smith looks momentarily energized.

"This is a hard one," he says, taking his suit jacket off. Then, he spins the ball on his finger, and brings it, still spinning, under his leg, eventually rolling it to a finger on his other hand.

The kids are amazed. A few even give him a standing ovation. They all stop to get an autograph on their way out of the building.