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Jefferson Smith

On buses, tweeting dogs and being the black sheep of Mormon royalty

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Jefferson Smith is a pistol. Over a pre-dawn rapid-fire conversation with Boise Weekly, the Portland-based political activist had both barrels blazing.

After graduating from law school, Smith took a job at a New York City law firm, but when they asked him to defend Big Tobacco, he quit and returned to Oregon to enter the political arena.

The 40-year-old Smith, still considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, is a veteran of political victory and defeat: He ran a successful 2008 campaign for the Oregon House of Representatives but lost a 2012 race for mayor of Portland.

Smith is also the founder of the so-called "Bus Project," a volunteer-driven political action movement designed to engage more young people in progressive politics. The project's buses transport volunteers into neighborhoods where they urge citizens under 30 years of age to register, vote and get educated on the issues of the day.

During a recent visit to Boise, Smith talked to BW about recruiting more young people to get "on the bus," the future of the Democratic Party and his Mormon lineage.

I'm presuming that you grew up in a politically engaged environment.

I'm named after Thomas Jefferson. My brother is named Lincoln. Dad was a lawyer and chaired the local Democratic Party.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask about your bloodlines to LDS patriarch Joseph Smith.

I'm the great-great-great-grandnephew of Joseph Smith.

Wow, that's a conversation starter.

But I have nothing else to say about it. It was my dad's side of the family. I guess we're Mormon royalty, but I grew up Presbyterian. Whether I'm the black sheep or the white sheep of the family is a matter of perspective.

I understand that even your dog is a political animal.

His name is George Bailey and he has his own Twitter feed: @georgebaileydog. For a while, he was tweeting political chatter with Michele Bachmann.

On a scale of one to 10, how do you think President Barack Obama is doing?

Seven. But in the context of the current U.S. Congress, I don't know if anything better than a seven is possible. We might have to go back to FDR to see a Congress that was more hostile to the needs of the American people. That's one of the reasons that we have to appreciate independently owned media like Boise Weekly. And, if I may pander for a moment, Boise Weekly has to tell it straight. For instance, if there are those who burn down the earth, discriminate [against] people based on sexuality and keep people away from the ballot box, you've got to report that that type of behavior is no way to run a country.

Is it possible that our government's dysfunction is so embedded that we really don't know where to begin in order to effect true change?

The story of this nation has always been to overcome that sense of helplessness. Remember, we were run by a king before, yet we sowed the seeds of greatness. And in the 1950s through the 1970s, our country built the greatest and strongest middle class on Earth.

But how does our nation return to that?

We know that if we can make health care a little more rational, that's a pretty good place to start. We know that if we can give more people access to the ballot box, that's better. We know that if college is more affordable and that early education is important, then that's better still. There are a lot of places to start.

I'm presuming that the Bus Project has grown far beyond Oregon.

There are operations in Colorado, Washington, Montana, Illinois and Texas. But the coolest thing for me is in Liberia. I just came back from West Africa, where they're just beginning their own Bus Project. Believe me, getting a bus to Liberia is not an easy thing.

Why aren't you running for office, say a seat in Congress in 2014?

Because I got my tail kicked in my last election, when I ran for Portland mayor.

But the biggest political game changers of our times have all lost elections.

I really don't know. If you're in Congress, maybe you can shake things up on morning TV talk shows. But it seems pretty clear to me, at least for now, that making change doesn't always mean you should be running for office.