Guest op-ed from Josh Smith, a law student at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
I drove over 2,000 miles to work for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in the summer of 2018. And more significant than that, in Montana’s 129 years of statehood, I am likely the first and only African-American to intern in the Montana governor’s office. This historic milestone happened right in the heart of Trump country.
My former boss is now the last governor remaining in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. If there’s one thing I want the American people to know about Steve Bullock after my long road trip to work for him, it’s this: he listens.
The governor is the only candidate in the Democratic primary who won in a Trump state at the same time his state went for Donald Trump by 20 points. That means 20-30% of Trump voters also voted to re-elect Gov. Bullock in 2016.
Steve didn’t win because these voters think the president and the governor have a lot in common. Trust me, they’re very different. Showing up and listening is Bullock’s default campaign strategy.
You govern how you campaign. This strategy helped Gov. Bullock expand Medicaid for 100,000 Montanans with a Republican dominated Legislature. Steve delayed his presidential bid to ensure thousands of Montanans had health care coverage. No matter what happens with his presidential bid, the governor did more than talk or release a plan. He got it done.
I don’t need to tell Democrats that we need to win Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and North Carolina [Go Heels!], if we want to get our country working for everyone. Unfortunately, this election won’t be a national contest. Only a handful of states will decide 2020. Having someone at the top of the ticket who can win in Trump country can give us the best chance.
Here’s an abbreviated version of my story and why this election matters so much to people like me.
I am a young, black male, who was raised by a single mother in a Northwest Atlanta community called “The Bluff.” My mom struggled just to get by. The fact that I’m currently a third-year law student at a tier-one law school — the University of North Carolina School of Law — is truly humbling and improbable.
Steve understands that every American deserves a fair shot, and that for some Americans like myself, that fair shot never existed in the first instance.
When I started my Toyota engine and set my GPS to Helena, Montana, I was nervous. I was nervous because I was going to a part of the country that doesn’t have many African-Americans and I had never been to the Mountain West.
While I was generally welcomed by the people of Montana, some glared at me like I was from Area 51. I immediately recognized that look. I know that look all too well. I am a black man living in America — it’s the look I get when I’m in a predominately white space and someone is questioning why I am in the room.
I had an unprecedented level of access as an intern to the governor of Montana. This provided an opportunity for me to personally share my racial experiences with Steve. And he did what he does best, listen.
One day I was running from my residence in Helena along a route that passes the Montana governor’s residence. I stopped to rest next to a Montana Highway Patrol car parked in front of the mansion. An older white lady rode by on her bike and gave me a piercing glare. I immediately knew something potentially bad was about to happen. She turns around on her bike and stops right in front of me and asks, “Is everything OK?” I said, “Yes, why wouldn’t it be?” Her reply to me was, “I figured something was wrong because I saw you here.”
After that startling exchange I told myself: Josh, you may work for the most powerful politician in the state and may even be more educated than the average American, but you will always be a black man living in America.
I told the governor this story and he listened. I believe he understands I will sometimes get treated differently than his kids. But I also believe Steve will use the information I shared with him to break down institutional barriers that keep so many Americans from living up to their God given potential.
Another time, some of the governor’s staff invited me to a baseball park to watch them play. I looked around and realized I was the only African-American at that Helena park. I explored the playground and a little white girl approached me innocently and asked, “Have you been to jail before?” Silence fell upon the playground area as the other white kids stopped playing and looked to me for my answer.
I don’t know who that young girl was or if I’ll ever see her again or if she will remember what she said to me when she grows older. But that jarring experience will always be etched in my memory until I die.
These experiences are taxing on the soul. I would not support Steve Bullock for president if I thought he couldn’t help communities of color.
Let me be clear: the next president of the United States must be a healer. The presidency has a ministerial role to it that transcends any policy position. And you can’t heal if you won’t listen. Steve Bullock listens.
Our country is divided, but it can be brought together. It’s called hope.
Hope is what took a young black male from inner-city Atlanta to America’s first public university. Hope is what motivated me to drive from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Helena, Montana. Hope helps me rebound mentally from racist experiences. Hope tells me that racism can be stopped. Hope can bring our elected officials together to do the people’s business.
America, I know Steve Bullock is ready on day one to start healing our country. All I ask is that you give the governor fair consideration.
By Josh Smith, a law student at the University of North Carolina School of Law