Weekend open thread: Neal Smith memories edition

What's on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

The Polk County Democrats' spring awards dinner on Friday night exceeded all expectations. Hordes of journalists showed up to cover speeches by former U.S. Senator Jim Webb and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. I enjoyed both speeches and have posts in progress on their messages. C-SPAN put up video of both speeches here.

You had to be there to experience the evening's other high points. Beautiful videos honored the memories of veterans who died overseas and three legendary local Democratic supporters who passed away during the past year (including Paulee Lipsman). Tireless Urbandale volunteer and letter-to-the-editor writer Rick Smith was recognized for his activism. Before Webb and O'Malley spoke, Iowa Democrats honored Representative Neal Smith, who represented Polk County in Congress from 1959 to 1985. Unfortunately, Smith couldn't be present, having suffered a minor injury last week. He sent a letter to be read on his behalf, while former Senator Tom Harkin shared memories by videotape and Representative Leonard Boswell told the crowd a few of his favorite stories about Smith. After the jump I've listed six new things I learned on Friday about the longest-serving member of the U.S. House in Iowa history.

In 2012, Smith sat down with Polk County Democratic Party Chair Tom Henderson to reflect on his life and long political career. Those videos are well worth your time: part 1 and part 2.  

Smith ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1956 before winning the first of his 18 elections to the U.S. House in 1958.

He lost the 1956 Democratic primary but won the nomination in 1958 at a district convention, because no candidate received 35 percent of the vote in the primary. Harkin said that convention was an important lesson for him in organizational strength.

Harkin volunteered for Smith's 1958 Congressional campaigns as a Dowling High School student. It was his first experience going door to door for a candidate.

According to Harkin, Smith holds the record for the member of Congress with the most former staffers who won seats in Congress: Bert Bandstra, who won in 1964; Ed Mezvinsky, first elected in 1972; and Harkin himself, who lost his first bid for Congress in 1972 but won in 1974.

Smith has voted in 38 straight general elections, and he was on the ballot in 22 of those elections. In his letter, he challenged anyone to match that record. I doubt any Iowan dead or alive could do so. Keep in mind that when Smith was young, the voting age was 21; if it had been 18 as it is now, he could also have voted in the 1938 and 1940 general elections.

In the 1950s, Smith was the national president of the Young Democratic Clubs of America. Governor O'Malley told the audience that his mother Barbara became acquainted with Smith at that time; she was active in a Young Democrats group from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Boswell shared a wonderful story about Smith's integrity. During the farm crisis of the mid-1980s, Boswell was a new member of the Iowa Senate. He and several colleagues went to Washington to ask for Smith's help in passing legislation that would help Iowa farmers and rural banks. Smith said right away, "I can't do that." The delegation was taken aback, but Smith explained that although their idea was good, he knew what was possible and what wasn't possible. He could tell them right now, what they wanted wasn't something he could deliver, so he was going to keep spending his time on things he could accomplish for Iowans.

Most elected officials (regardless of political party) would listen and say something non-committal: that's a good idea, I'll see what we can do to help, etc.  

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