Adam Smith, Political Editor for the Tampa Bay Times, has quickly become one of 2018’s leading reporters. Focusing on state and national politics, Smith has successfully weathered the changing nature of political media coverage, having worked in the field for nearly three decades. Smith has been named one of the country’s Top 10 political reporters by the Columbia Journalism Review, previously served as the co-host of Bay News 9’s television show Political Connections, and is the creator of award-winning Florida politics blog, The Buzz.
Smith is fluent in Floridian. When asked about his favorite place to visit, Smith admits to a “love-hate” relationship with the city of Miami, but declares an appreciate for southwest Florida. “I always enjoy Southwest Florida. That seems to be a place, where I sort of take my family a fair amount to go and explore and visit. We’re a Boy Scout family, so we do a lot of camping and whatnot in that area too.”
Unknown to many, Smith is a fan of news and social media platform Twitter. “I love Twitter. I live on Twitter […].” After admitting to his fondness for the application, Smith soon details its underside. “I think for political reporters, the risk is you can get consumed by it and sort of lose track of the big picture and find yourself listening to the same sort of insider group that doesn’t really teach you much.” Smith notes that he plans to make a conscious effort to step back from the “minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour news cycle”.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian Podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders, talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host, Chris Cate, and in this episode, brought to you by SalterMitchellPR, I talk to Adam Smith, Political Editor for the Tampa Bay Times.
In our conversation, we’ll talk about Adam’s path to becoming a political reporter. I’ll also ask him about who have been his favorite elected officials to cover, about how much political media [00:00:30] coverage has changed in the last few years and about how he expects the 2018 election year to play out. You can hear it all right now.
Chris Cate: First of all, how does it feel to be answering questions in a interview, rather than asking them?
Adam Smith: Yeah, we’ll see how I answer. I’ve learned how to evade questions, so we’ll see how I do, if there are any tough questions here.
Chris Cate: Good, well, I’ll definitely try to be friendly. How about we start with how you got [00:01:00] into journalism. Was that something that you always wanted to do, or did inspiration just strike somewhere along the way for you?
Adam Smith: Yeah, for better or worse, I always wanted to do it. I did it in high school, high school paper. I think at one time, I was interested in being a cop. At one time, I was interested in being a lawyer, but from high school through college, it’s just what I did and what I fell into.
Chris Cate: How did you end up in Florida?
Adam Smith: [00:01:30] It’s a little convoluted, but prior to Florida I worked at a New York Times chain paper in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and there I met my wife, who is from Raleigh, North Carolina. When we were getting ready to move, she really didn’t want to leave the South, so we looked around and I basically conned her into thinking Florida qualified as the South, and then we thought we’d stay here for [00:02:00] two or three years and we fell in love with it, so we’re still here.
Chris Cate: Great. Is it safe to say that Florida is the best place to be a political reporter?
Adam Smith: I’ve always wondered about Louisiana giving us a run for the money. The food would be better at Louisiana, when you’re on the trail, but Florida is still much more of a swing state. Yeah. I can’t think of any state that is better than Florida, because it’s always changing. That’s kind of the magic.
Chris Cate: Who have been your [00:02:30] favorite elected officials in Florida to cover over the years?
Adam Smith: Boy, that’s tricky. Who were the favorite ones? I look back on … I think there were some true characters from Janet Reno, who just died couple months ago. I sort of look back in thinking we underestimated her in many ways, even though she didn’t turn out to be the greatest candidate. She was a true Florida character. [00:03:00] I go back to the Buddy MacKay, Jeb Bush race. I think Jeb Bush was the biggest force we’ve seen in Florida in the last several decades, but I caught a little bit of Lawton Chiles and certainly a fair amount of Bob Graham, but Buddy MacKay was a great guy too. Just a hopeless candidate, but I’d say there are too many to name, I think.
Chris Cate: [00:03:30] You brought up Jeb Bush is an interesting person, because he’s had such longevity on the political scene here in Florida, but very much in a different way than this past presidential race. How do you think he evolved as a candidate? Do you have any reflections on what went right and went wrong for him during the presidential elections?
Adam Smith: I think that’s one of the more interesting things we’ve seen is because I think anybody that’s paid attention to Florida politics would [00:04:00] objectively say Jeb Bush was the most transformational person in the last few decades in Florida politics. People who followed Florida remember him as being a true blue conservative. Some would say even radical in some ways, and yet, maybe he was out of office for too long. Maybe he was serving on too many corporate boards and getting cushy speaking gigs for too long. [00:04:30] He was out of touch. He looked like yesterday’s news, and the party has changed so much that he came off as a squish. I think the press really liked him, because, as we learned in Florida, he’s fairly much of a straight shooter. He says what’s on his mind, he’s not that scripted, but the base had zero use for him. I think a lot of us in Florida overestimated him big time as a candidate. Certainly a lot of his supporters in Florida did.
Chris Cate: [00:05:00] Now that we’ve talked about some of your favorite politicians to cover. Is there an elected official, or two, who made it really challenging for you to cover them or just sucked all the fun out of covering politics for you?
Adam Smith: There are a few real tools that I can think of that were just unpleasant to deal with, but I think I’m gonna be discreet and probably not name names. [00:05:30] Somebody can be a jerk and still be very fun to cover, but that’s not always the case. The least fun are those that just say nothing. In some ways, I think Rick Scott is like that. His background is so interesting, and he’s such a rookie to politics, that it makes it interesting, but he’s such a robot, who really sort of answers by a script. He’s not as fun as some [00:06:00] others, because he’s just talking point, talking point, talking point.
Chris Cate: What does make a candidate enjoyable for you to cover?
Adam Smith: I think it’s give and take. I think somebody who’s real and has interesting ideas and is not just playing it safe at all times. I think people … The people like Newt Gingrich, who I covered, when he was running for president. [00:06:30] He made a lot of hay attacking the press and bashing the press, as Donald Trump does, but in some ways that’s why the press loved him. I think it’s in some weird ways – the press loves Trump, because there’s give and take at least. You never know what’s gonna happen. News is news. It’s what’s unpredictable, and so if you have a candidate that will actually answer your question and give a [00:07:00] thoughtful, unpredictable or unscripted answer, that’s always more interesting than somebody that’s just spewing out what a talking point they’ve been given is.
Chris Cate: The way politics are covered has changed so much in the last ten years with the creation of Twitter and the use of more videos shot on like a phone and your Buzzblog even, but these are just a few examples. What do you feel are the pros and cons of how media can cover the [00:07:30] news today?
Adam Smith: Boy, and depending on and what hour you ask me, I can come up with a lot more cons than pros or pros than cons, but yeah. It’s so fast and there’s so much minutiae now that I think the danger for a lot of reporters is to just get lost in the minutiae. I love Twitter. I live on Twitter, but I think for political reporters, the risk is you can get consumed by it [00:08:00] and sort of lose track of the big picture and find yourself listening to the same sort of insider group that doesn’t really teach you much.
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to try to step back a little bit from the minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour news cycle, and try to do some more substantive things. One can suck up your whole day tweeting little incremental [00:08:30] scooplets that are really meaningless in the long run, and you lose track of the big picture. It’s fast, it’s constant. The workday never really stops in today’s cycle. That applies both to reporters and to politicians, to some extent.
Chris Cate: Looking ahead at the 2018 election, what do you anticipate will be the most heated political issues in Florida between now and [00:09:00] that election?
Adam Smith: I think that Donald Trump is the giant shadow that looms over everything. We’re all getting addicted. Either you love him or you can’t stand him, but everybody’s transfixed by him. I think it’s gonna be very interesting to see how … Especially the republicans, but also the democrats in that whatever it is, 30% of voters out there that [00:09:30] so far loves what he’s doing. I think how republicans deal with him as he veers away from basic conservative principles here and there, or offends people here and there, is gonna be fascinating to watch.
Chris Cate: Do you think the outrage against Donald Trump can last a full term for him? They’re seeing so much power and energy put into kind [00:10:00] of fighting Donald Trump. I almost question how long people can keep up that outrage. Do you think that’s something that’s got a long life or do you think we’ll start to see some of that fade away over six, seven months?
Adam Smith: That’s a great question. I think there’s no question. The activist base is more energized in Florida, and, as far as I know, across the country, than I’ve ever seen it. It really is pretty organic. Some [00:10:30] of these groups that are sprouting up across the state: they’re meeting almost every week. They’re protesting. They’re on Facebook. They’re forming their own groups. They’re almost separate and apart from the parties. I think that could be a powerful thing, but I think it also has the potential to just antagonize that sliver of voters that goes from one party to the other. I don’t know. I really don’t know the answer. I think [00:11:00] there was outrage over Barack Obama that lasted pretty much throughout, but it wasn’t quite at the level we’re seeing at now.
Chris Cate: Coming back to Florida, do you have any guesses about how the 2018 governor race will play out? It seems like we’re hearing a lot of names. Even more names than I kind of expected to hear. Do you have any guesses on how they whole thing’s gonna play out?
Adam Smith: The Democrats for most of the last few decades have been so keen, because they have so little [00:11:30] money. They’ve been so keen on not having primaries and saving money and pushing anybody out that could give a primary challenge. I think it’s very clear there’s gonna be a very tough primary in this democratic primary. I think you could make a good case that that’s very healthy. That we saw sort of with the Bernie Sanders phenomemon: that a lot of people are fed up with sort of the establishment foisting a [00:12:00] safe, centrist 00:12:01] candidate on them. I think it’s probably good for Florida and good for the Democrats to have some excitement and some genuine debate.
Of course the big question there is with just John Morgan aside, they’ve got some very strong candidates. I would argue that all of them that are mentioned at this point are probably underestimated to some extent, but I think the big questions are John Morgan, who can wait. He’s got [00:12:30] the money to wait a year or so. Does he do it? Or, does he not do it? Now we’ve got this Jeff Green. A billionaire that is sniffing around. He could obviously wait until the last minute and make a big difference. The republican side is a little more unpredictable.
Chris Cate: Really? Would you not say that maybe Adam Putnam was a clear favorite if things changed a little bit with Richard Corcoran putting himself out there quite a bit more.
Adam Smith: I do think Adam Putnam … Yes. I shouldn’t have said it’s more [00:13:00] unpredictable, but I think there’s a very good chance some outsider that is not on our radar screen still gets in. I think Adam Putnam is also a fascinating guy. He’s a lot like Jeb Bush in a way, which I mean both negatively and positively. He’s wonky, he’s personable, he really knows Florida. He is a product of Florida, but I don’t know how much he excites people. He [00:13:30] actually could give a barn burner of a red meat speech, but I think there’s a perception among a lot of people that the time has passed for career politicians and Putnam is sort of the embodiment of a career politician. He’s been in elective office I think since he was 14 months old, as best I can tell.
Chris Cate: Is there an issue bubbling under the surface right now? It’s not really an Adam Putnam related question. It’s just kind of [00:14:00] for all politics in Florida, but is there an issue bubbling under the surface right now that you think we’ll be hearing a lot more about between now and the election?
Adam Smith: I think one that is starting to bubble more and more and I think we should be … we should hear more about is both infrastructure and traffic and growth. That embodies both traffic congestion and roads and water supply and that sort of thing. I think we’re [00:14:30] sort of at a tipping point in some regions, maybe passed the tipping point, where quality of life is really starting to be impacted by the amount of time people are spent on roads, and the water supply is, I think, starting to percolate beyond water quality and water supply beyond just politicians here and there. I think a lot of rank and file voters are paying close attention, so I think that is really one that I think we [00:15:00] may be hearing more about this cycle than we have in many, many years.
Chris Cate: I want to transition now to some questions that have nothing to do with politics. They’re gonna be our final four questions. Hopefully, they’ll be fun for you to answer. Number one: who was a Florida leader, who inspires you? It can be a historic figure or a current leader. It doesn’t have to be someone in politics, if you don’t want it to be, but who is a Florida leader that inspires you?
Adam Smith: Who is a Florida leader that inspires [00:15:30] me? Everybody says Leroy Collins, so I’ll leave him out of it. I’ll throw out two names. Maybe I’m overstating it, but I think Jeb Bush is just by being bold and taking risks … I think there’s a lot to admire there, and the one that strikes me as we speak now — this may be a little dated by the time this airs — is [00:16:00] I give a lot of credit to a virtually unnoticed member of congress. Gus Bilirakis, who keeps showing up for these town hall meetings, getting his rear end kicked and screamed at by people about the Affordable Care Act. To his credit, he keeps doing it. Whether he’s listening to them closely, we’ll see, but at least he’s putting himself out there, and he’s paying attention. I think [00:16:30] those are all good examples of what we should hope for in our elected officials.
Chris Cate: Number two in this final four. Where is your favorite place in Florida to visit?
Adam Smith: My favorite place in Florida to visit. I have a love-hate relationship with Miami, but I always enjoy Jacksonville. I think Jacksonville is maybe arguably the [00:17:00] best news area of the state. I love that. I don’t spend enough time in the Panhandle, ’cause our Tallahassee bureau usually covers stuff there. I always enjoy Southwest Florida. That seems to be a place, where I sort of take my family a fair amount to go and explore and visit. We’re a Boy Scout family, so we do a lot of camping and whatnot in that area too.
Chris Cate: Do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
Adam Smith: [00:17:30] Gotta be the Rays.
Chris Cate: Finally in this final four: what Florida person, place, or thing deserves more attention than it currently gets?
Adam Smith: I will repeat the old traffic congestion. Maybe it’s just me, who’s been spending too many days in traffic, but I think that is a thing that in almost every part of the state deserves more attention. We’re not keeping [00:18:00] up, and if you’ve ever been to Atlanta … The hell of that is like driving around there. I think there are many parts of the state that are we’re heading in that direction. I think that’s an issue that I hope growth and infrastructure that we should pay more attention to.
Chris Cate: Great. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions and for being on the show.
Adam Smith: Thanks a lot Chris. I appreciate it.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian [00:18:30] podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you’ll look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app like Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review, that would be great too. Thanks to my team at SalterMitchellPR for making this podcast possible. If you need help telling your Florida story, we’ve got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. We also have our own in house creative and research teams. [00:19:00] Look us up at SalterMitchellPR.com for more information. You can also find more information about the Fluent in Floridian podcast at FluentinFloridian.com. Have a great day.