A needed voice falls silent

It’s such a cliche to say only the good die young. And yet, consider some of Nevada’s stellar legislators, all women, who most certainly have died far too young while serving in legislative office—Jan Evans, Peggy Pierce, and now, Sen. Debbie Smith.

Assemblymember Evans was a mentor to Smith when she was an up-and-coming community leader and PTA president. They lived on the same street in Sparks and shared the same values of creating a better community, especially for children. When Evans died in 2000, Smith took over the representation of District 30 in the Assembly. Two formidable, hard-working, no-nonsense women, whose lives were cut short by a disease that doesn’t recognize greatness.

Smith was just 60 when she died on Feb. 20. She leaves a large, loving family who supported her many endeavors, husband Greg and children Olivia, Ian, and Erin and their families. She was more proud of her extended family than all the legislative success and honors she received. That’s the kind of person she was.

Smith worked as a fringe benefits representative for the Operating Engineers and always kept the concerns of the working person front and center. She could explain the intricacies of prevailing wage law so clearly and concisely that anyone could see why it mattered.

The education of Nevada’s children was her greatest concern. She was just 22 when she was elected to a rural Nevada school board, using that experience to jumpstart her service as president of the Nevada Parent Teacher Association, a member of the National PTA Board, and chair of Nevada’s Council to Establish Academic Standards.

Like Evans, Smith understood intuitively that making an impact in education would take a commitment of financial resources and she worked hard to rise through the ranks of the Legislature, completing every assignment without complaint, logging long hours behind the scenes to secure what was needed. Term limits were kind to her, opening up leadership positions that seniority had closely guarded, propelling her to become the first woman in Nevada history to chair the Ways and Means Committee in 2011.

She managed the committee with skill, studying dozens of budget briefings each night to prepare for the next day. She was in her element, juggling competing interests and using her power to ensure the needs of children and families were addressed.

Smith was gregarious, a natural extrovert, happiest when surrounded by friends, old and new. She enjoyed attending the endless dinners and public activities demanded of a citizen legislator. She didn’t go out of a sense of duty; she actually liked them. After she retired, she had more time to devote to national leadership roles, becoming the president of the National Council of State Legislators in 2015. Even with the terrible diagnosis of brain cancer, she led the organization with grace.

During my legislative service with Smith, I remember one moment in particular, not easily viewed from the outside. I saw her stand up to a state senator who pursued her into the Assembly chambers, towering above her as he unleashed his frustration and fury over a position she wouldn’t back away from. He was escorted from the chamber and she emerged from the confrontation trembling with emotion but determined not to give in to intimidation or threats. We were all so proud of her that night, applauding her tenacity, her courage, and her commitment to doing what was right for Nevada’s children.

The day after her death, I went to the legislative website to check on a detail and found her Senate seat listed as vacant. I was filled with a tremendous sadness for her constituents and for our state, having lost a champion in a time when her voice is desperately needed.