USD professor's prior career kept her in contact with senator by David Lias University of South Dakota political science professor Elizabeth Smith knew early this week that she likely would keep her television tuned to broadcasts of the Democratic National Convention.
It's not just her natural interest in politics that had her paying special attention to the happenings in Los Angeles in recent days.
Smith at one time worked in Connecticut, in capacities in which she constantly was in contact with the staff of Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
Smith knew Lieberman, in fact, before he became a national figure in the U.S. Senate and was recently tapped by Al Gore to be his running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket.
"He (Lieberman) really came out of nowhere to run for Connecticut's state senate, also known as the general assembly," Smith said. "He attracted some really interesting supporters, among whom was Bill Clinton."
From 1982 to 1988, Lieberman served as Connecticut's attorney general.
In 1988, Lieberman won the biggest upset victory in the country by beating incumbent Lowell Weicker to win election to the U.S. Senate by just 10,000 votes.
"It was an interesting contest, because he was running against Weicker, a Republican U.S. senator who had represented Connecticut for 18 years at the time," Smith said. "People were not entirely sure that anybody had a shot at Weicker. He was quite a popular senator. He was kind of a renegade Republican and voted on the liberal side of the party and therefore was attractive to both Democrats and Republicans in Connecticut."
Lieberman, in contrast, presented himself as a conservative Democrat. "He appeals to cultural conservatives very deeply, and he did very well in that race, and I think Weicker was a bit surprised, as were many people," Smith said.
Six years later, he made history by winning the biggest landslide victory ever in a Connecticut race for a Senate seat, with a margin of more than 67 percent of the vote.
Lieberman has a strong appeal to conservatives of both the Republican and Democratic parties, she added. "In that sense, I think selecting Lieberman was an incredibly wise choice on Gore's part. In looking at the field of candidates, I think what Lieberman does is bring him (Gore) a little bit closer to the center."
Smith lived in a suburb of New Haven, CT when Lieberman first ran for the general assembly. He eventually rose to the ranks of the assembly's majority leader.
"He really was not your typical kind of (political) party person," she said. "What was interesting, too, about the way that he ran the state senate is that under his leadership, it was far more collegial than it is today. In other words, he really behaved in bipartisan ways that were impressive to me at the time, and he really has a drive to bring people together instead of split them apart."
Smith's own career path in Connecticut politics often crossed the trail Lieberman was blazing.
Smith served as district director of former Connecticut Congressman Bruce A. Morrison's congressional office and also served as the chief administrative officer of Hamden, CT, a city of 52,000.
As director of public information for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, Smith acted as spokesperson for that agency.
Earlier, she was a VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) assigned to the Connecticut Department of Correction where she developed community volunteer programs in correctional institutions and justice awareness programs in the communities surrounding them.
"Lieberman has this ability to get people talking and at least approaching agreement," Smith said. "He is, as far as I could tell, unflappable. He really listened to both sides, and I have to tell you that Connecticut politics today does not run that way.
"I think that's the state's loss," she added. "The legislature is far more fractured than it once was."
Lieberman, Smith said, has a way of approaching conflict that de-escalates anger and increases people's deliberative nature.
Smith joined the USD faculty in August 1999 and holds a joint appointment to the political science department and the Farber Center for Civic Leadership.
Prior to joining USD, she was a visiting assistant professor in the Master of Public Affairs program at the University of Connecticut and spent two years teaching American government and politics at Clark University. Smith received her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Connecticut in 1998.
While working for Morrison, it wasn't unusual for Smith to be in regular contact with Lieberman's office.
"The director of his office and I used to talked regularly, because you coordinate schedules and so forth," Smith said, "and I think Joe Lieberman and Bruce Morrison were good friends and certainly political allies."
Smith said she wasn't surprised that Gore selected Lieberman as his running mate.
"I was delighted. I'm an unabashed fan," Smith said. "The strengths that Joe brings, besides his conservatism, is that he is a genuinely decent human being.
Over the years, with every politician, there are rumors that fly around, there are accusations," she added. "I have never seen that in the many, many years I have been a Lieberman watcher. I can tell you that in his home town, he is even more popular than he is elsewhere. People just know him as a good- hearted person, and that's not always true with politicians."
Smith remembers that Lieberman's Senate staff loved to work for him.
"I never, never heard a negative word, and as a insider I would have been a natural person that someone could speak freely to," she said. "He doesn't have temper tantrums, unlike a lot of other politicians we have heard of. He is a very level-headed, kind, thoughtful individual, and that's extremely unusual in politics."
The vice presidency is often noted as an office that has no real mandate. Should Gore and Lieberman be elected in November, however, Smith believes the Connecticut senator will adapt to his new role well.
"I watched him as a state senator, and he never behaved like an ambitious character who wanted to hold the next highest office," she said. "I have watched him go about doing his job in a very methodical way over the years, and I expect he'll approach the vice presidency in exactly the same way."
The vice presidency, Smith noted, is a job without much substance. "It is whatever the vice president makes of it, and I suspect that Lieberman will do when he gets that job is what he has always done, which is to figure out what good is there to be done, and what is a useful agenda for this job. I don't see him as being a do-nothing vice president."
Smith admits that today's political conventions, scripted in detail in advance for the media, lack the excitement of conventions in years past.
"The entire convention is crafted for television, and nothing of significance will happen," she said. "If folks want to understand the kind of insider detail, they have to go on the World Wide Web. The best place to go, of course, are the two party sites where you can read the platforms of the two parties."
Smith said the scripted format of the conventions have discouraged her from viewing them on television.
"I watch the convention because I'm always interested in the speeches that the keynoters make," she said. Smith admits she was surprised by some of the comments made by speakers at the Republican convention, such as Colin Powell speaking out for affirmative action in a direction opposite that of Bush.
"It was really signalling that there is a level of diversity permissible in the Republican Party that I'm sure four years ago that folks would have been upset about," she said.
Smith also predicts that the Gore/Lieberman ticket will enjoy a bounce in the polls following the convention. Gore has been trailing Bush in polls for much of the summer.
"In May, political scientists in New England got together to try to predict what will happen," she said.
Their conclusions point to an election outcome in November that may be too close to call.