Recently, we had the opportunity to learn more about Senator William (Will) C. Smith, Democrat, District 20, Montgomery County and Chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. He discussed what sparked his interest in public service, his legal career, and his goals for the upcoming 2021 Session.
Tell us a little about your family and your upbringing.
I grew up in Silver Spring. Both of my parents were raised in segregated communities, went to segregated schools, and were young adults during the height of the civil rights movement. Having experienced the many indignities of segregation, my parents sought to provide their children with the type of opportunities they could dream of – so they moved to Maryland. My father was a cab driver and my mother worked for the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C. While neither of them had the opportunity to attend college, they ensured my siblings and I remained keenly focused on the importance of education and I became a first-generation college graduate when I graduated from the College of William and Mary. My sister is a proud graduate of Vassar College and my brother attended the University of North Carolina. Although I had two brothers and one sister, I am 20 years younger than my closest sibling – some people call me the “accidental baby,” I say I was the “miracle baby.” Although we are separated by 20 years, we have grown extremely close over time.
I think it’s quite natural for us to reflect upon our own childhood experiences as we grow older. Having just started a family, that reflection has given me a deeper appreciation for the opportunities my mother and father gave me. Access to fantastic educational opportunities and the privilege of growing up in a fantastically diverse and accepting community were luxuries they simply didn’t have but ensured I did. Silver Spring’s diversity and the proximity to Washington, D.C. gave me a sense of the importance of public service at an extremely early age. That close proximity also gave me the opportunity to pursue internships on Capitol Hill and work on political campaigns, all of which fueled and developed my passion for politics.
Including your family, and others close to you, what early influences shaped your views on public service?
My parents were undoubtedly the most influential people in shaping my views on public service. I have vivid memories of my father’s penchant for pulling me aside to discuss an article he’d read in the Washington Post. They were mostly articles about African American accomplishments in business, the law, or politics. Once we discussed the article, he would cut it out of the paper and post it on a bulletin board he had in his room. Over time, the articles piled up and over the course of years, the articles papered the entire bulletin board and were layered three or four articles deep. When he passed away in 2006, I remember going back into that room and seeing that bulletin board and thinking how so many of those conversations shaped my views today.
The other major influence was and is my mother. My mother is a superwoman. She was the primary breadwinner, my primary caretaker, and has always been there to guide me through tough times. A single mother with my brother at 16, my mother’s example proves that hard work and persistence can pay off. Her example gives me strength and inspires me every day.
Other early influences include Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and Thurgood Marshall, all of whom overcame tremendous odds and dedicated their lives to the service of others. They are, in my estimation, the three greatest Marylanders our state has produced.
At what point did you seriously begin to consider the law as a profession, and why?
Although I had wanted to become an attorney since sixth grade, I began to seriously consider a career in the law as a college student. While in college, I convinced the financial aid department to allow me to work in the law library in satisfaction of my work-study scholarship. I used my time in that job to get to know the students and the faculty. Perhaps most importantly I used my time to learn about how a legal education could arm me with the tools necessary to become an effective advocate and public servant.
How did your legal studies pave the professional path you chose, in terms of practice and public service?
I was particularly attracted to the College of William and Mary Law School because of the school’s emphasis on preparing Citizen-Lawyers – stellar legal professionals and advocates prepared to lead. The education I received and the students I studied with at William and Mary played an instrumental role in my decision to pursue a career in civil rights law and politics. I was also a law student when I met then Professor Jamie Raskin at a moot court tournament at American University. Congressman Raskin has been a mentor and great friend ever since. These relationships and experiences solidified my interest in pursuing a career in politics and as a civil rights attorney.
Tell us a bit about your Military experience, and how that has influenced your commitment to public service.
I was a sophomore in college on September 11, 2001. In the weeks that followed I struggled with the idea of enlisting in the Navy. That idea was quickly quashed by my mother who stressed the importance of completing my degree, especially as a first-generation college student. So, I waited until I was a 3L in law school to apply for a direct commission to become a Naval Intelligence Officer in the Navy Reserves.
In March of 2019, I deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, serving in Kabul, Afghanistan until October of 2019. In Afghanistan, I served as the Branch Chief for the Governance and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) divisions within the Combined Joint Intelligence Operations Center- Afghanistan (CJIOC-A).
My experience in Afghanistan taught me the importance of holding our government to the standards and ideals expressed in our founding documents. Time overseas in defense of our American values forces one to evaluate the circumstances here in our own country. In other words, you are forced to reckon with the fact that in so many ways we have failed to live up to the values of our country’s stated credo. The legislature is a fantastic place to work on so many of the challenges facing our society and my service in the military has given me a renewed sense of pride in that work.
Tell us about your law practice history and how that has influenced you as a lawmaker, first in the House, and now in the Senate.
My first job out of law school was at a civil rights law firm in Washington, DC, and today I am honored to work with an extremely talented group of civil rights attorneys at Solomon Law Firm, PLLC. My practice focuses on a range of employment discrimination and national security matters. Most of my practice is in the area of security clearance defense, administrative investigations, disciplinary action defense, and employment matters relating to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERRA). Prior to joining Solomon, I served as a White House appointee at the Department of Homeland Security and worked as an attorney in private practice at a different civil rights law firm in Washington, D.C.
The nine months a year I spend practicing law outside of the legislature play a critical role in informing my view on a number of critical issues in the Judicial Proceedings Committee. As attorneys, we become intimately familiar with the possibilities and limitations of the law. My work as a civil rights attorney, in particular, has given me a window into how we can improve the law here in Maryland to better protect those who have been discriminated against and those who are oftentimes left without recourse or representation. The practice of law has been instrumental for my work in the legislature.
As Chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, tell us how you balance your role in Senate Leadership, with Committee meetings, managing your bill portfolio, and constituent service during a 90-day session.
The 90-day session is an intense period of time for every legislator. Between committee hearings, floor sessions, meetings with interest groups and constituents, and working on policy there is barely enough time to do much of anything else. The key to surviving session is to plan and prepare for as much as you can. My motto during session has always been: “control what you can during session because there is so much you can’t.”
Tell us a bit about your legislative priorities for the 2021 General Assembly session.
I have always been committed to a legislative agenda that expands opportunity for Marylanders and protects the vulnerable. The specifics of that legislative package changes from session to session depending on societal circumstances and what we’ve been able to accomplish in the past. This year, amidst a national conversation over racial reckoning and the often-strained relationship between our police and the communities they serve, police reform is at the top of that agenda. This summer I took the rare step and called for interim hearings to discuss several proposals on police accountability that are likely to come before the legislature’s next session. After having spent hours meeting with academics, experts, stakeholders, and, most importantly, impacted families, I am fully committed to ensuring we enact meaningful reform. I am also keenly focused on several issues relating to housing discrimination, immigrants’ rights, and criminal justice reform. I feel optimistic about the opportunities we have next session to changes lives.