“I want the catfish,” Craig Smith told the waiter, having given the menu scarcely a glance. “Yeah, the catfish. Gimme the catfish.” To his tablemates: “I can’t get catfish where I live now.”
That would be Florida, Miami, where seafood is plentiful but catfish, evidently, scarce. You can take the boy out of Arkansas but — so, blowing into town for barely a day before heading out again on behalf of Hillary Clinton, Smith digs into a dish almost as satisfying as would be another tour of duty in the White House.
Smith was there before, from the first days of the Bill Clinton tenure through its farewell; he had signed on with the Man from Hope a decade ago, in the latter’s gubernatorial days, and helped direct the 1992 campaign that gave the nation its first president from Arkansas.
Now, back in Arkansas, Smith was representing Ready for Hillary, the organization of boosters created to create a network, tactical and strategic, that would be in place should the former first lady of Arkansas and the U.S. — who is also a former U.S. senator from New York and a former U.S. secretary of state — decide to try for the presidency again. A big fundraiser was scheduled that evening. Smith already had met with representatives of the traditional Clinton coalition in Arkansas — the African-American clergy and labor, and other activists of the state’s center, center-left and left. FOBs — Friends of Bill. Most would be FOHs.
Smith has not spoken with Hillary “in over a year. It’s better not to.” The distance is the product of federal election law, specifically the codes dealing with political expenditures, which forbid any coordination — direct coordination, as these things are smilingly defined — between a candidate, prospective or announced, and “independent” organizations. Ready for Hillary, Smith wants it known, is staunchly independent of Hillary. Not even a phone call.
The week had begun for Smith in San Francisco, a blue city in a more often than not blue state, then saw him journey onto less politically hospitable terrain: Oklahoma and Texas, red and red. But even in the reddest states there remain Democrats, blue (as in despondent) yet willing to write checks: “We raised $50,000 in Tulsa,” Smith nodded, seemingly gratified.
Independent groups can accept contributions in any amount and in recent election cycles mega-wealthy individuals, almost all of them Republicans, have poured scores of millions of dollars into political action groups they created or favor. Smith’s group imposed a $25,000 per-individual cap, at once a grass roots gesture and a recognition that ridicule would result if big spenders decided to bide their time. At the moment its representative was biting into his home state catfish
Ready for Hillary had raised $5 million from 50,000 donors, 98 percent of them donating $100 or less.
“I’m more interested in the number of contributors than the amounts,” Smith said.
The fiscal dynamics of American politics demand that Smith (and Hillary, if she enters the race) pay attention to both. Barack Obama spent $986 million to win the White House last year; Mitt Romney spent $992 million in falling short. Those sums are in direct candidate or party spending; independent groups coughed up hundreds of millions more. But Smith’s point is noted: the two million Hillary supporters enrolled in “Ready” could be the antidote to what ailed her 2008 campaign — a weak ground game, too few boots on the ground, especially in those states that chose nominating delegates in caucuses rather than in primaries.
So, what’s the schedule? Smith shrugged.
“I don’t think you’re going to see her do anything between now and the end of the year,” he said. Her memoir of her days as secretary of state is due at mid-year and the obligatory book tour will follow. But – some signal, surely?
Smith thought about it. For a moment. “Is she gonna work for candidates this year?” he asked rhetorically. “But even (if she does) I don’t know if you can read too much into that.”
If Smith and Co. are ready, is Hillary? It would be as brutal, as ugly, a campaign as any of the previous century, someone at the table volunteers. The first salvos, already fired, have been comparatively tame. The heavy stuff would come later.
“The attacks gen up folks Hillary and Democrats don’t have a chance of winning anyway,” Smith replied. Among independent voters, he theorized, a reverse “Clinton fatigue” could be at work, a backlash against the “constant barrage” of attacks.
So much in politics is theory waiting to be tested.
“Boy,” said Craig Smith, “this catfish is great.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.