Tom Smith: From farm to coal mine to Senate?

Republican Tom Smith, on his farm, says he's running because "government has become so big, so dysfunctional, so suffocating."
Republican Tom Smith, on his farm, says he's running because "government has become so big, so dysfunctional, so suffocating." (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 26, 2012

SHELOCTA, Pa. - He has never worked in the corporate world. He has never been in education or law, in nonprofits or the military.

Tom Smith was known only in his corner of rural Pennsylvania when he decided last winter to spend much of the fortune he had amassed in coal mining to mount a campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Now, thanks to $15 million in TV ads, he may stand in position to mount a real challenge to Democratic Senate incumbent Bob Casey, one of the most well-known figures in Pennsylvania politics and winner of four previous elections for statewide offices.

"I'm just an old farm boy that got misplaced in the coal mines and started my own business," he says. "But I grew up in an America where a farm boy that knew how to work could follow his dream and achieve success."

With no political record to stand on - the only office he's ever held was as a supervisor in a township so small no one answers the phone on most days - his life story is the basis of his campaign.

Here's a man with a high school education who didn't get into business until he was past 40, made a fortune and now finds himself as a major-party nominee for what has been called America's most exclusive club: the Senate.

The people who know Smith include his neighbors in rural Shelocta, a crossroads on Route 422 nine miles over rolling hills from Indiana, Pa., west of Altoona The cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant rise above the tree line.

This is the part of Pennsylvania where President Obama said in 2008 that people cling to their guns and religion. Smith himself is a hunter, and active in his church.

"He's very good to the community," said Allen Yount, an area resident having dinner one day at Tina's Log Cabin restaurant.

"Every year, he puts on fireworks for the Fourth of July," said Yount's wife, Sandy.

Marcia Hartman, at Elderton Country Market, spoke of Smith's generosity in letting the whole town use the basketball court, running track, and kitchen at a sports facility he built at his home.

"He took some of the money from the coal mines and built a place where kids could play and the community could have meetings," Hartman said. "He felt it was the least he could do."

Whenever reporters seek to get to know him, he invites them to his home. A red arrow at a fork points the way.

The house, in traditional country-style, wasn't big to start. As Smith grew in affluence, he built three additions. The sports complex is connected by a walkway.

A man with strong hands who has spent his life out of doors, he looks younger than his 65 years. "Mrs. Smith," as he calls his wife, Saundy, comes from the kitchen to say hello.

Smith says he's running for the Senate because he feels "government has become so big, so dysfunctional, so suffocating, that I'm afraid the dream I was able to live here in Pennsylvania, and in this country, is not going to be available."

"President Obama and my opponent, Bob Casey - neither one of them has ever been in the private sector," he says. "Maybe they don't know how to create jobs."

Smith owns 1,200 acres, acquired in pieces over years. The house sits on his 400-acre farm, planted in corn, wheat, barley, and hay.

With his two brothers and two sisters, Smith had farm chores as a boy. Ray Smith, the eldest, recalls, "Every morning, you had to get up and milk the cows."

Smith was hardly out of high school when their father, Miles, died in 1967. He ended having to take over the farm.

"I always thought he would have gone on to college," says Ray Smith, who has a master's degree in economics. "But that's just the way it was."

Smith was 20 when he married Saundy, now a retired teacher. They have seven children, including four from Texas whom they adopted.

To supplement farm income, Smith worked as a coal miner. In his late 40s, Smith decided to go into the coal business mining on his own.

He needed $800,000 in start-up cash, he says. No bank would lend the money. However, a Caterpillar dealer in Murrysville was willing to lease him a bulldozer.

"He didn't have two nickels to rub together," says Rob Boyer, former sales manager for Beckwith Machinery.

Boyer recalls that Smith fell behind in his payments one time.

"He initially struggled," Boyer said. "He came to see us and promised he would dig himself out, and we took him at his word. As the years went by, he became more and more successful. He is, without a doubt, the most honest man I have ever met."

Stan Berdell, of Kittanning, who labored with Smith in mines, said he was "real easy to work with." But Berdell said he'd heard Smith was a demanding boss later on.

"I never saw this, but some of the guys who worked for him said, 'Man, he's a tough guy to work for,' " Berdell said. ". . . He's got his own way of doing things, and that is the way he likes to do them.

On Aug. 18, 2005, at Smith No. 1 Mine, a 50-year-old pit foreman was fatally injured when his bulldozer tumbled over an embankment.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Smith's company for two safety violations, including the operator's not wearing a seat belt. The belt "was found under the seat and appeared not to have been used for some time," a report said.

The previous year, the agency said, the mine recorded double the national rate for work days lost to injuries.

David Hankey, whose brother Donny was killed in the accident, was the only witness. Contacted for this story, he said by phone: "I can't talk about it."

Said Smith: "Don Hankey had worked for me for 16 years. He was, I think, the third employee I ever hired. . . . Mining is a dangerous business. There was a mistake there. It was made. You never get over that."

When he sold his mines in 2010, Smith said, he had 52 surface mines and seven deep mines. He was producing 100 tons of coal a month and employing 130 people.

He still owns a small trucking company and several coin-operated car washes.

His 2010 income tax return, released to The Inquirer, showed he made $22 million in 2010. His income last year was $265,0000.

Smith declined to give an estimate of his net worth. "I won't tell you," he said.

The tea party movement, which sprang up in 2009 to protest Obama's economic stimulus plan and health-care overhaul, attracted Smith.

His family had been Democrats, and as late as 2010 he was elected as a Democratic Party committeeman.

But, increasingly, he was too far right for the party.

"We tried to make him feel welcome, because he was elected, but it was a hard thing to do," recalls Rich Fink, a Democratic commissioner in Armstrong County.

In August 2009, Smith had written to the Indiana Gazette that global warming was "the biggest hoax the American people have had rammed down their throats in my lifetime." He suggested government was out to "obtain control over every American."

Smith says today that Social Security and Medicare "are going to go bankrupt" and that the nation needs "to have an adult discussion" about solutions, which could include privatizing accounts for younger workers. This has opened him to the Casey charge that he would "end Medicare as we know it."

Smith proposes a flat income tax rate on workers, but no tax on investment income.

"To sum me up, what I am is God-fearing - husband, father, grandfather, farmer, business owner, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, founder and chairman of . . . the tea party group out in Indiana and Armstrong Counties," he said in April in Philadelphia.

That was when he was running against conservatives for the GOP nomination. In the general election, he has dropped references to his tea party associations.

The Casey camp says these mark Smith as a right-winger. It has run a TV ad featuring a clinking cup and calling him "Tea Party Tom Smith."

Smith, in turn, has called Casey "Senator Zero," saying he has not passed a single bill under his name, has voted to raise the national debt seven times, and has "voted 95 percent of the time with Obama."

(The Casey camp says that 95 percent is "probably" high. In any case, it says, most votes were procedural and did not reflect Casey's differences with Obama on some issues, including China trade.)

"I'm not running away from [the tea party] at all," Smith says. ". . . I'd just rather talk about Bob Casey's record."

He promises to be an independent voice if elected.

"I don't have allegiances to parties; I am a citizen candidate," he says. "I'll work with Republicans and Democrats. We've all got to pull together here."


Tom Smith

Party: Republican.

Age: 65.

Residence: Plumcreek Township, Armstrong County.

Education: Elderton High School, Elderton.

Occupation: Owns a trucking company and several car washes; former coal-mine owner. Government experience: Member, Plumcreek Township board of supervisors, 1974-81.

Family: Wife, Saundy; seven adult children: Malinda, Allison, Jessica, Lupita, Daisy, Kimberly, Domingo.


The GOP candidate discusses the economy, Social Security, and more at www.philly.com/tomsmith


Contact Tom Infield

at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @tinfield.

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