Jackie Smith is the director of special operations for Congressman John Rutherford and a longtime resident of Ponte Vedra Beach.
Can you briefly tell us about your background?
I was born in Chicago and grew up in Tampa. Both my husband David and I graduated from Florida State University and headed to Del Rio, Texas, for his flight training with the U.S. Air Force. Our daughter Erin was born there. David’s assignments took us to Arizona and England. Erin and I returned home when David went to Vietnam; our son David was born at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Next, we spent years at Homestead Air Force Base in Homestead, Florida, and then Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, where I began teaching junior high English. Teaching added the final leg of my life’s education that prepared me for everything in the future. David’s work took us to the D.C. area, where I continued to teach English and journalism. I left the classroom and graduated from American University with a master’s degree in public administration and journalism. We covered The Hill, and I loved the energy and the reporting on those trying to find solutions to the nation’s problems. Our kids were grown, and there I was in D.C. with the 1988 presidential campaign just beginning! My second career was about to take off.
What inspired you to embark on a career in politics, and how did your career progress?
I volunteered and then took a position with then Vice President George Bush’s campaign. The political bug grew as I assumed more responsibilities. Organizing and establishing voter coalitions was like designing class lesson plans. Getting others to follow them was leadership born in the classroom. This was in the day when endorsements, letters to the editor and neighborhood walks were vital to a campaign. We took busloads of volunteers to New Hampshire in a massive snowstorm and beat Bob Dole. On to South Carolina, where Bush secured the lead for the nomination. I organized educators and made him the “Education President” on the trail. It was very exciting, and history will remember Bush 41 as one of our best. After serving in the administration as the deputy director of the Women’s Bureau at Labor, I returned to Florida. My sister was involved with a governor’s campaign and “gave” my services to her friend. He lost, but that was my introduction to Ander Crenshaw, who would several year later become my boss. I took a position at the University of South Florida as assistant to the dean of undergraduate studies until called back to politics.
When you reflect on your career, what are you most proud of?
I have been proud to work for the people in the 4th Congressional District for 18-plus years under two extremely bright, dedicated and honorable congressmen — Ander Crenshaw and John Rutherford. My job is to serve the people by helping them with issues relating to the federal government and to be in the community so folks feel a link to their representative. To do that, I have participated in community events and am active in Rotary, both Jacksonville and the St. John County’s chambers of commerce, the USO and various military groups. I try to be the liaison between our D.C. office and the district, making sure that issues of importance here, such as shore protection, remain at the top of the agenda. I was proud of the 16 veteran recognition ceremonies I headed and the work with our extraordinary students on their military academy nominations and the Congressional Youth Medals.
What is most challenging about working in the political arena?
The political climate has become so toxic that it is stressful. Some constituents refuse to have a civil discourse and simply want to yell into the phone and call the congressman names. Because many constituents do not seek news from legitimate sources and simply take the word of political parties or social media outlets as the truth, they try to sway opinion by intimidation instead of utilizing critical thinking skills. I am disappointed in journalists who do not remain neutral and seem to lazily use political party talking points rather than doing research.
What do you enjoy most about living in Ponte Vedra Beach?
We have lived in Ponte Vedra Beach since 1994 and have owned four homes, all of them with views of golf holes or water. My home now has both. The main attractions of Ponte Vedra Beach are golf and water. People move here because of the people, the restaurants, the proximity to health services and other amenities offered by Jacksonville, and the wonderful quality of life. We live on a no-name island with one major road, A1A. Traffic is our one distraction. But, I think it is a small price to pay for living in paradise! I love the PGA TOUR, Atlantic Ocean, Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, Sawgrass Village, Christ Church and our neighbors and friends.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to travel. David and I just returned from visiting Istanbul and then taking three safaris in Kenya. It was amazing. In Kenya, we saw hundreds of animals including Big Tim, the oldest elephant in the Kilimanjaro area. My daughter Erin lives there and has a company, Ocean Sole, that makes animal art from discarded flip-flops. Along with my fellow Rotarians, the USO and our chambers of commerce, I manage to stay busy in the community so often I like to spend time reading, doing crosswords and watching wildlife — ducks, eagles, ospreys, ibis and otters — and golfers – duffers, college kids and club champs — from my back porch. I also enjoy family gatherings with my son David, daughter-in-law Michele and granddaughter Greysen, all of whom live here in Ponte Vedra Beach.