YOU GOTTA BE IN IT TO WIN IT: This year Charles Ulysses Smith is embarking on his seventh campaign for political office. | Image by Frank Klein
in the post office on Fayette Street, Charles Ulysses Smith doesn't look like a politician. His thick bifocals magnify his eyes, and the four huge silver rings on his left hand--all from time served in Vietnam--look like brass knuckles. But when the glasses come off, the eyes are sharp and he talks like someone who's relieved to finally have the opportunity to speak after years of being shelved on the political sidelines.
Smith, 57, is running as a Democrat for City Council President this election season. Readers may not be terribly familiar with Smith, but this is his seventh political campaign and his name has been gracing ballot cards in the city for the better part of a decade. He's run for city comptroller (1998), U.S. House of Representatives (1999, '02), mayor (2004), U.S. Senate (2006 primary) and governor (write-in candidate in the 2006 general election). He has a small constituency, which peaked at 12,159 votes during his race for comptroller; in elections since then, he's generally earned less than 1 percent of the vote. He knows that winning this, his latest race, will be an uphill struggle. But that's OK with him.
"It's not just about winning," he says. "If I do win, it'll be sweet, but if I don't--and I'm not saying I'm going to win--at least I'm going to say what I have to. A lot of people where I'm living aren't saying enough."
"It's like the Wild West out there," he says of his East Baltimore apartment at Harford Road and Lanvale Street. Two nights before, he says, there was a gun battle just outside his door. "I could hear it--pop, pop, pop, pop, pop! Each one of them must have taken 10-15 shots. Someone called an ambulance, so someone probably got shot in the leg or something. Imagine if that had been the afternoon."
Smith has lived most of his life in Baltimore's inner city. His father worked at Bethlehem Steel until he was laid off after strikes in 1958. Smith attended Booker T. Washington Middle School and lived in the area around Pennsylvania Avenue ("right near the Royal Theatre") as a teenager. When asked if things have gotten worse in Baltimore in recent years, he nods.
"I mean, we had gangs back then, but it wasn't drug-related," he says. "We might have had fistfights now and then. The big difference now is that guns are a weapon of first resort. They're all defending their territories, shooting one another."
Smith does not advocate banning handguns, however. Instead, he supports Project Exile, a federal initiative that imposes five-year mandatory jail sentences on felons found illegally possessing guns. "Maybe about half those kids," he says, "if they know they're going to jail when they're caught with a gun, [they're] going to think real hard."
Other than that, it's not easy to pinpoint the rest of Smith's platform. His political allegiances have shifted over the years, and he's run on both Republican and Democratic tickets. He says he's been a Republican since the mid-1980s, when he worked on Alan Keyes' campaign for Maryland's U.S. Senate seat, but there is nothing ideological in his views. He says he chose to run as a Republican when he sought the city's office of comptroller in 1999 "because the Democrats told me, `If you want a space on the ballot, you might want to try that out.'" While he's not loyal to any particular political party, his general tilt is pro-business.
Smith claims strong spiritual and grass-roots ties at the community level (he has been an ordained minister with the Good Shepherd Alliance since 1972, and he's worked with the Baltimore Unemployment Council and Clergy United for Renewal in East Baltimore, among other neighborhood coalitions), and his activism has a strong streak of Reagan Republicanism running through it. (He says he was a "close personal friend of Reagan," when the former president was alive.) Smith's grass-roots experience, he says, has taught him to mistrust government initiatives on any level. Locally, he wonders about the motives of the city's new administration, and he calls a recent inclusionary housing bill supported by Mayor Sheila Dixon "grandstanding." He says the city should make affordable housing and education its top priorities.
"[Dixon] wants the headlines," he says. "Why didn't she try to get this passed two years ago? . . . I don't care whether she's Democratic or what. I've got nothing against her. She hasn't shown me that she's going to be a good leader."
Before entering politics, Smith was in the military. He joined the Army at 17, after dropping out of school in 10th grade, and he found himself on a short list headed to Vietnam, where he served as a sniper in the bomb-disposal unit for the 39th Engineer Battalion. He was sent into combat with his battalion near Cambodia on a major supply route near the China Sea, where he was wounded in action. The story he tells may sound familiar to those who've read dispatches from Iraq.
"Sergeant told me to get out of there with my bayonet and check for mines," Smith says. "I got out there and put the helmet on the ground. There was a cow right in front of me and a little girl by the side of the road."
A helicopter flew over him. He points to a Coke machine. "I was about this far away from the mine," he says, and though he isn't certain, he thinks that radio waves from the helicopter's altimeter detonated the mine.
"The cow blew up, and about half of it went flying and hit someone," he says. "The little girl--I don't know what happened to her." Smith was hit by a flying rock, and he suffered temporary hearing loss and temporary blindness.
As a sniper, he "shot a lot of Charlies," but refused to kill civilians--a move that he says got him charged with insubordination. Smith was court-martialed and sent to "LBJ" (the notorious Long Binh Jail) for 30 days. After serving 19, he says he was released and that the arrest was later wiped from his record in light of a medal he received for meritorious action in combat. Smith recalls that, when he was in the jail, it was segregated. The prisoners in his section were mostly black and Hispanic, he says, "and the guards, they were all Southern boys." Racial tensions among soldiers in Vietnam were high. "They had a plane coming back from LBJ to Leavenworth [Kansas]. The first half of the plane was filled with prisoners. The second half was filled with coffins, and a lot of them had been beaten to death [in the jail]. It was a war zone, so who knew?"
He says he returned to the United States in the early '70s, to find that his mother--then living in Towson--had been visited by the FBI, who had erroneously accused her son of dodging the draft. He attended Towson University, he says, where he studied psychology. For more than 10 years Smith lived in the Poe House Projects in West Baltimore, until he moved to Harford Road in 1999. Smith remained in the National Guard from 1976 to 1987, then finally retired. Since then, he says he has been involved in a tortuous struggle for back pay he has been denied by the U.S. government. Currently, Smith is on 100 percent medical disability due to combat wounds and an Agent Orange-related illness.
"I don't know if it's going the way you want it with this interview," he says. "I'm just telling the whole story. I don't have any bones to pick. I think the story should be told."
And perhaps in that regard his story does deserve to be told. And maybe that's what his perennial candidacy is actually about. After years of being ignored, Smith is looking for a way to get people to pay attention and listen to what he has to say. Exiting the revolving door of the post office onto the steaming midday afternoon on Fayette Street, he breaks into a rare smile.
"You know, you ask for a lot, you may get something," he says. "You don't ask for anything, you won't get nothing."