In a legislature dominated by conservative, dark-suited lawyers, the newest power broker and the toast of the Inaugural Ball is a short, rumpled Tastee Freez entrepreneur who quit school after the 12th grade, doesn't chair a major committee and still regularly confuses his syntax when he speaks.
Alson Howard Smith, a genial, 54-year-old Democratic state delegate from Winchester, has risen in the past year from an unremarkable place on the back row of the House to be a confidant to the governor and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Democratic legislators with aspirations to higher office now line up for approval outside his door.
Smith's sudden elevation is due in part to his likeable personality, his reputation for hard work, his role as peacemaker and, of course, the fact that the candidate he backed last fall was elected governor.
All this would earn Smith little more than respect if he didn't have another, particularly golden skill.
Al Smith, say his political friends and foes, can raise more money, in a shorter period of time, than an army of tax assessors. As chief fund-raiser for Gov. Charles S. Robb's campaign last year, Smith pulled together more than $2.5 million, much of it from groups that in the past decade had backed Republicans exclusively.
Such credentials have brought Smith a lot of admirers. "When you help your colleagues, your colleagues tend to be grateful," says Del. Warren Stambaugh (D-Arlington).
Smith, who owns a chain of Tastee Freez fast food outlets that stretches from Maryland to North Carolina, claims to be as mystified by his success at raising money as are his political opponents, who have suffered because of it. There is nothing slick about his method or style, says Smith, who wears clothes that look as if they were handed down from an over-sized uncle and will lift up his feet to show a visitor holes in the soles of his scuffed, wing tip-shoes.
"Chuck Robb once told me if I ever figured out what my secret was, I probably wouldn't have it anymore," said Smith, sitting in his office beside a stack of phone messages from lobbyists and legislative leaders. Outside his door, State Sen. Edward Holland, an Arlington Democrat, was waiting to seek his advice and support for a possible U.S. Senate bid.
The limelight is all the brighter for Smith because of his background. He was a Depression baby, born in Virginia's apple country of Frederick County, around Winchester. His father died when he was 7. His mother worked packing apples. Until he moved in with an uncle in Winchester to attend high school, Smith never had a home with plumbing or electricity.
He worked his way through high school, delivering groceries, pumping gas and trimming the apple trees of Harry F. Byrd, the patriarch of a Democratic political organization that dominated Virginia politics for half a century. When he wasn't working or running track (Smith held state high school track records in the 1940s) he was running for school office or stuffing envelopes for someone's political campaign.
"My hero was Franklin Roosevelt," says Smith, removing tortoise-shell glasses from dark blue eyes. "And I grew up in the Byrd organization."
In 1953, after a stint in the Army, Smith began his climb. The following year he persuaded a partner to put up the money to buy a Tastee Freez franchise. Sixty-eight days later, says Smith, they opened their 11th store.
In the years that followed, Smith assumed leadership roles in every civic organization short of the League of Women Voters. He was a member of the Rotary Club, the Ruritan Club and the Lewis M. Allen Riding Club. He is a past president of the Winchester Jaycees and the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival. In 1973, the year he was first elected to the House, he received the Shenandoah Valley Bowl for outstanding service.
"Al started with nothing and built his own business," says Kenneth Stiles, a Republican member of the Frederick County Board of Supervisors who was trounced by Smith in the 1979 House race. "Everybody around here, including Republicans, has got to have a lot of respect for Al."
Smith earned as much gratitude as respect by raising money for civic and political causes, a skill he demonstrated on a statewide level in 1977 when he helped former state attorney general Andrew P. Miller raise a record $1 million for his unsuccessful gubernatorial primary against Henry E. Howell.
Six years later, in the coal mining country of southwest Virginia, Smith raised $250,000 in one night from mine operators who for the previous 12 years had successfully supported Republican candidates for governor.
"One thing I learned over the years," said Smith at Robb's Inaugural Ball, where the new governor called him to the podium before 10,000 screaming Democrats, "You don't raise $2 million 10 bucks at a time."