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Ron Smith dies at 71; leading campaign advisor

Working both sides of the aisle as a campaign advisor, Ron Smith was openly gay long before it was widely accepted.

March 20, 2014|By Mark Z. Barabak
  • Ron Smith in 1980. An offer to work in the Nixon White House was withdrawn when a background check revealed that he was gay.
Ron Smith in 1980. An offer to work in the Nixon White House was withdrawn… (Los Angeles Times )

Ron Smith, a rare campaign strategist who worked both sides of the partisan aisle, managing races for some of California's most prominent politicians in a decades-long career, died Tuesday at a hospital in San Francisco. He was 71 and had a blood infection.

Smith, who was openly gay long before it was widely accepted, promoted candidates who shared his philosophy of fiscal conservatism and broad-mindedness on social issues. Most were Republicans, including several from Silicon Valley, among them former Reps. Ed Zschau, Tom Campbell and Pete McCloskey.

But Smith also worked for a handful of Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein in her unsuccessful 1975 race for San Francisco mayor, a contest that proved a pivot point in the city's emergence as one of the nation's liberal bastions.

Smith first worked in politics as a teenager, volunteering for Republican Richard Nixon's unsuccessful 1962 run for governor. But he grew increasingly estranged from the GOP as it turned rightward, leaving the campaign consulting business in 2000 to become a lobbyist for the California hospital industry.

Smith kept his hand in politics, advising a few favored candidates behind the scenes and working on a number of causes, including healthcare access for underserved communities and the push to legalize gay marriage.

In recent years, he became "more of a libertarian," Richard Ritt, Smith's husband, said in an interview Thursday. "He didn't like people to tell him how and how not he could live his life."

Ronald Lee Smith was born Jan. 20, 1943, in Los Angeles. His father worked as an engineer for AT&T while his mother stayed home to raise the couple's two children. Smith graduated from San Marino High School and, after a year at USC, attended Stanford University, where he studied political science and graduated in 1963.

Smith spent years learning from some of the leading California Republican strategists of the era, including Stuart K. Spencer, who helped elect Ronald Reagan governor in 1966. He also worked on Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign and was rewarded with a White House job offer — an offer withdrawn when his sexual orientation was discovered during a background check.

"He often joked that if the job had materialized, he would still be in the slammer from Watergate," Ritt said.

By the early 1980s, Smith had started his own consulting business and was openly gay. In a story Smith relished telling, someone went to one of his clients, the late Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana, hoping to get him fired by mentioning his sexual orientation. Dana's response, as Smith related it: "Everybody needs a gay political consultant. They're so creative."

Dividing his time between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Smith worked in scores of campaigns at various levels — races for mayor, board of supervisors, statewide office as well as numerous ballot initiatives. He prospered, at various points, owning homes in the Hollywood Hills, Palm Springs and San Francisco's exclusive Pacific Heights and indulging his love of Broadway with annual trips to New York City.

For all his success, two of Smith's highest-profile races resulted in achingly close defeats. In the 1975 San Francisco mayor's race, Feinstein was the moderate choice, running against liberal George Moscone and conservative John Barbagelata. Squeezed in the middle, Feinstein barely missing making the runoff, which Moscone went on to win. She became San Francisco mayor when Moscone was assassinated three years later.

In 1986, Smith ran Zschau's campaign against three-term Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, one of the nation's marquee races and a contest Cranston won by fewer than 105,000 votes out of more than 7 million cast.

For years, Smith would relive the two campaigns in conversation, the rare political consultant who blamed himself and not his candidates for their defeat.

Smith's longtime partner, Armin Hoffman, died in 2001. Along with Ritt, survivors include Smith's sister, Shelly Smith Bowman of Oceanside, and numerous nieces and nephews.

A celebration of Smith's life will be held in the next few weeks — "bow ties requested," per Smith's sartorial preference.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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