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“My life pretty much changed overnight.”
That's how native Arkansan Princella Smith describes speaking at the 2004 Republican National Convention at the age of 20.
She got to the stage by winning a speech contest sponsored by MTV called “Stand Up and Holla,” and soon found herself thrust into the national spotlight as a rising star of the GOP.
Looking at her record, it's no surprise that Smith has climbed the Republican ranks so quickly. Between her junior and senior year at Wynne High School, Smith was elected governor of Girls State, a summer leadership program sponsored by the American Legion. She then took on internships with then-Gov. Mike Huckabee and then-Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller. She worked as the e-campaign director in Maryland Republican Michael Steele's bid for the Senate in 2006, and now works as the chief spokesperson for American Solutions in Washington, D.C., an organization started by Newt Gingrich.
Like Steele, Smith is both African-American and Republican, an unusual combination. Since most African-Americans are Democrats, Smith said she is constantly asked why she's a Republican — a question she's sick of.
“I'm very tired of it, but I always answer it, anyway,” Smith said. “What a lot of people don't understand is when they ask me that question it's actually kind of racist. I mean, you look at me, and you immediately think that I think a certain way, but they don't know anything about my background.”
But Smith, a minister's daughter who grew up in rural Arkansas, did answer the question: “I'm a firm believer in individualism and small government. I believe that people should be able to choose what kind of schools they put their kids in. I think people should be able to invest in private accounts for Social Security. I believe that taxes should be low, and that national security should be a top priority.”
As the face and voice of American Solutions, Smith found herself back at the national conventions this year, fielding questions from network and cable news programs, National Public Radio, and others.
“Seeing her on television every day is something else,” said John Smith, Princella Smith's father and minister of the Christian Fellowship Church in Wynne. He said his daughter (he calls her “Prince”) has always been interested in politics.
“She's always had a strong personality, loved to talk, and had an inquisitive mind,” he said. “As a young lady, she read all the time, and I was a news buff, so I was always watching C-Span, or the news, and she would crawl up on my stomach and watch it with me. She'd always ask me ‘Well, Daddy, why's this?' and “Daddy, why's that?' ”
Peggy Carter taught Smith in kindergarten and third grade. She said Smith showed leadership skills even at a very early age.
“She was the first one to speak up, the first one to come up with an idea. I never had to try to get her engaged in a lesson. She was always very interested and attentive,” Carter said.
After graduating from Ouachita Baptist University in 2006, Smith had offers from various departments within the Bush administration (including State, Labor and Education), but decided to work in Steele's ultimately unsuccessful campaign.
Smith said the Republican Party has always reached out to her and acknowledged her race probably played a part in that.
“I was treated very well, as if they were excited to have a young person there,” she said. “Let's not be crazy though, being an African-American female and from northeast Arkansas had an additional appeal, but you don't get somewhere just for that. There are a lot of black Republicans; they just aren't on TV.”
John Smith said his daughter's political views are out of line with most of the extended family, which he said can be fun at family reunions. He and his wife are more conservative, but he said they've always encouraged their children to think independently.
“Before she voted for the first time she asked me who I wanted her to vote for. I told her I wasn't going to answer that and she needed to look at the candidates and their platforms. And I've been proud of her for making her own decisions,” he said.
Although the 2008 election did not turn out the way she had hoped, Smith believes Barack Obama's presidency will have a positive effect on young minorities, especially those in small-town Arkansas.
“There are a lot of young ladies and young men who don't see well-educated black role models in their community. But now they can see on the TV that there is a black president,” and that's important, Smith said.
“People underestimate the power of visibility. Kids today are made to understand that if they're going to get out of the 'hood they have to be a rapper or a ball-player and now there is absolute evidence that you do not have to do that.”
When asked about a political future in Arkansas, Smith doesn't dodge the question.
“My heart is always in Arkansas. So naturally, if I had the opportunity to come back and run, or do anything of a public service nature to help Arkansas, then that would be an honor and I would love to do it,” she said. “I would even go so far as to say that I would love to be a representative from the First District one day, and possibly a governor.” Given her record thus far, she'll probably follow through.