Eddie Smith wants to work for a sustainable 94th Ohio House district, but he is quick to clarify that this doesn’t just mean green jobs and green energy, though it does mean that, too.
“Sustainability is not just about environmental protection, although that is a fundamental component of it,” Smith said during an interview at the Catalyst Café on West Union Street Monday. “Another part of sustainability is equity. You can’t have sustainability if large portions of your human resources are being exploited. You have to take care of the human resources that are going into whatever your company is producing or whatever services government is providing.”
Smith, the president of OU’s Graduate Student Senate, is one of two Democratic Primary candidates vying for the party’s nomination to replace term-limited state Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, in the 94th House District.
The district includes all of Meigs County, all of Athens County except Trimble Township, and parts of Vinton and Washington counties. In the primary, Smith faces local businesswoman Sarah Grace (featured in a separate story in this issue). The winner will go on to face Republican Jay Edwards, of Nelsonville, in the Nov. 8, 2016 general election.
Smith grew up one of eight children in the Ohio River community of Martins Ferry in Belmont County. His father was a Presbyterian minister until he lost his job when Smith was in fourth grade. After that time, Smith said, he grew up in poverty on the outskirts of Martins Ferry in Section 8 housing, keenly aware of the trouble that poverty brings, from access to transportation to the ability to obtain affordable, healthy food.
In 2009, Smith came to Ohio University to enroll in the School of Film, intending to make documentaries about poverty. He later decided to go into sociology instead, in order to learn more about the causes, impacts and solutions to poverty from that direction.
His senior year in college, Smith said, his father died, and that changed his life. He determined to go in a new direction, dropping in weight from over 360 pounds to 208 at his lowest. He entered OU’s graduate sociology program, for which he is currently finishing his thesis while having since also enrolled in the OU Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. He began his leadership role in Graduate Student Senate advocating for concerns in the Sociology Department, he said.
“The first year I served on the Minority Affairs Commission and the LGBT Commission,” he said. “As a result of the LGBT Affairs Commission, we ended up pushing out a ‘preferred-pronoun’ policy that has since actually been adopted by the university.”
Since then, Smith has gotten into scraps with the university president and his administration on issues including university budgeting and general fees for graduate students. At one point, in an email to an Athens NEWS reporter, he charged that President Roderick McDavis was “acting like a coward,” though he later apologized.
He said as GSS president he has gotten a voice and a seat on university committees that contain senior university leadership and make direct recommendations to the OU Board of Trustees. He talked about serving on the university’s Budget Planning Council.
“You learn so much about the allocation of resources. You learn how our $440 million budget is being allocated. Why it makes sense that certain programs are being funded; why the benefits don’t outweigh the costs in other areas,” he said, acknowledging difficulty along the way.
A lot of times, Smith said, he’s had conflicts between his graduate student constituents, and what they want and what they depend on him to represent, and what the senior administration wants, citing the fight against general fees.
“This has been challenging but rewarding trying to fight (against general fees) with senior administration year after year,” he said. “It’s taught me day after day, week after week, you’ve got a set of constituents who voted for you. They wanted you to be their leader. They’re depending on you in that room to be their voice.”
During his time at OU, Smith attended a Sustainability Film Series that inspired him to become heavily involved in the local food and sustainable energy movements. He started working for Shagbark Seed & Mill after a chance meeting in Kroger, and has since been appointed by Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel to work on the UpGrade Athens County Georgetown energy prize effort and the county’s energy taskforce.
Smith bemoaned the state Legislature’s freezing of Ohio’s green energy portfolio, the unfreezing of which is expected to be a hot topic over the next year or two.
“From 2007 to 2014, from the start of the renewable energy standards to the freeze, over $1 billion in private investment came to Ohio and it created thousands of green-energy jobs,” Smith said. “It was not just a success environmentally. It was a success economically.”
Senate Bill 310, freezing those standards, was a huge setback. Smith wants to go to the Statehouse to not only unfreeze the standards, but strengthen them. And this goes back to his holistic idea of sustainability.
“We’ve got huge opportunities to bring those jobs here,” he said. “The way I’ve always looked at it, from the economic side, is that when people make a decision, they choose the option that is most appealing to them. The challenge then is, how do we make the best option the economic option, the option that also takes care of people and the planet, the option that is equitable and environmentally friendly? That’s sustainability to me. How do we shape economies in such a way that they take care of people and the environment?”