White House official Ja’Ron Smith grew up in a low-income family in Cleveland, Ohio. His father shoveled snow and paved roads, while his mother worked at a gas station after struggling for years from an opioid addiction.
Now Smith is Deputy Assistant to President Trump. And he sees himself as a voice for the kids he grew up with—kids whose life trajectories turned out very different from his own.
Smith has played a key role in advising President Trump on policies to help low-income communities, including opportunity zones, school choice, criminal justice and police reform, and increasing aid to America’s historically black colleges and universities.
In this episode, we discuss his efforts to help uplift those who have long been neglected.
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Ja’Ron Smith, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Ja’Ron Smith: Thanks for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Ja’Ron, I had a really interesting time watching you during the RNC [Republican National Convention] when you gave your speech and you said something that reminded me of something in my own life, which was, I think you said that you broke your leg and that gave you a moment to think about life and so forth. I popped my ACL ligament in my knee and in a similar situation, I really had a chance to think about my life. What happened then?
Mr. Smith: It was a lot of different things. Going into my 10th grade year of high school, I had almost failed out of school the prior year even though I was probably an excellent athlete, I went to a private high school, and my father was really stern on me, like “You need to really focus on your grades. You need to have a backup plan; always be prepared. You need to use your mind and focus on school,” and so on.
When I actually broke my leg and broke my femur in a freak accident on the last day of two-a-days, it just really struck me at my core, like that there’s a possibility that I may not play football again, and what would I do after that? I remember coming home from the hospital, I was in a wheelchair for about a week, and I had to finish my summer reading.
I hadn’t touched it the whole summer. But I was stuck in the bed, so I didn’t have anything to do, and so for the first time I read a book in a day, and I realized I could read a book so quickly if I just focused on it. After that, I got a lot more curious and one thing led to another—after reading one book, you read another one—and I ended up finishing high school with a 3.0 and that’s what got me into Howard University.
Now, that’s remarkable what those moments of self reflection can give you. You also said something that I didn’t really fully understand. I want you to tell me a little bit about it. You said that the media don’t ever really show people, when they’re talking about people seeking opportunities, they don’t show people like you or your parents. What did you mean by that exactly?
Mr. Smith: Mostly when they talk about President Trump and the blue collar voters who helped elected him, they’re normally talking about rural white voters and not individuals who are African American or Hispanic Americans that live in the rust belt, and have been terribly impacted by bad trade deals or a system full of drugs and lack of access of education. That’s what I grew up around.
I was lucky enough, but my parents had to scheme the system to send me to a Catholic school. What I mean by that, my parents weren’t together, and I was raised by my father who was a blue collar worker, but my mother, she still lived on public assistance. So I had to use my mother’s financial records to afford to go to a Catholic school. My mother’s social assistance allowed for my education costs for Catholic school to be reduced and that made it affordable for my dad to pay for.
But I grew up in a neighborhood where there were a lot of young boys just like me who had talent, who were smart, but they were forced to go to a failing school, and as a result of it, I was the only one to go to college. Another friend went to the military, and that saved his life. But so many young boys with plenty of talent could be easily in my position if given the right opportunity to education.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s incredible. You obviously put a lot of importance on this issue of school choice which I know the administration has been championing, given what you’ve just told me.
Ja’Ron Smith: That’s exactly right. I think we have an education system on the higher ed level where you can go to any higher educational institution of your choice. I think we should just afford that to every parent because the current system gives lack of choice for a lot of parents who have to send their kids to failing schools.
If they had the resources, they would choose the best school for their kid, or rather if it’s private, public, or if they wanted to homeschool. We notice now, especially during this pandemic, where so many schools, so many children, were forced to learn at home and didn’t have resources to do so. So more than ever, we need to invest in that disparity because as I mentioned in the speeches, to create equalizers for the people to get access to education.
Mr. Jekielek: After you went to a private school in Cleveland, you ended up at Howard?
Mr. Smith: Correct.
Mr. Jekielek: So how is that?
Howard was great. I really, really enjoyed the friendships that I made at Howard and the stuff that you learn that you don’t learn in the classroom. The culture there set up an atmosphere where a guy who comes from a blue collar city like Cleveland became a Republican. I became a Republican in college.
Mr. Smith: I got to really find myself and my voice. I think that’s a unique aspect of historically black colleges [and universities] in general for the African American experience, and the reason why is that there’s no social pressure not to be yourself. Sometimes, in certain environments, we get put in a box, like if you’re black, this is how you should act, this is how you should believe.
I feel my experience at HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] allowed for me to have my own individuality. I learned that African American people are very diverse. Even if you just look at what part of the country they come from, just diverse all over the place. Most of my best friends are from Howard. I have a huge network from Howard and definitely a life-changing experience, so much so, I went back there for grad school.
Mr. Jekielek: There are so many vantage points to follow up here. One of them is there seems to be a lot of pressure right now for a lot of Americans to conform to, let’s call it, the Black Lives Matter narrative. What are your thoughts about this?
Mr. Smith: This is interesting. I think the notion that black lives matter, is correct. I believe that.
Mr. Jekielek: Who could argue?
Mr. Smith: I think a lot of people believe that. But then there’s also a movement that has Marxist leanings and that’s certainly something I don’t support just because I think the American system provides infrastructure so that anyone can get access to opportunity. That hasn’t always been so for African Americans.
This is why the president, at least a modern president, for my experience, has actually done things to try to contribute to disparities, from our investment in institutions like Howard and other HBCUs, to correcting unjust criminal justice system where mandatory minimums were enacted and people sent to prison for multiple decades for first time offense, like Alice Johnson, or even investing into opportunity zones which gives economic development dollars from the private sector to create jobs and to low income areas.
We’re working on a lot of different things to deal with health disparities and access to capital. These are real solutions to make sure that all Americans get access to the American dream. That hasn’t always been true, so I can understand the frustration from a lot of communities, even like the community I came from.
But the reality is, in order to get solutions, we need local leadership as well. It can’t just be all federal. What you’re seeing in many of the cities with the civil unrest is lack of leadership that has fallen short for decades, and not really being honest with the people on why things are working or why things are not working, and I think people are fed up with it.
You’ve been an advocate for peaceful protests from everything I could see. I think there was a report that talked about only 7 percent of the protests were violent. I think it was something like 500 of them. Then we saw one of those in front of the White House, actually, I think when you were here and Senator Rand Paul—it was that camera footage. How do you distinguish here between the peaceful protesting and the violent protesting? Is it all the same? Is it different?
Mr. Jekielek: I certainly have been involved in a couple peaceful protests. I was involved in Trayvon Martin. Organized Trayvon Martin “Hoodies on the Hill” peaceful protests with congressional Hill staffers. Also organized “I Can’t Breathe” peaceful protests on the Hill. It made news and it really started us having this conversation on what reform looks like.
Mr. Smith: However, if you’re burning buildings and looting, or attacking police officers, that’s not peaceful protests. I often think about Martin Luther King. Most of his protests were during the day, not at night. In fact, if there was any association with violent protesters, they left. So I think we want to protect that First Amendment right, but we also want community safety.
The evidence has shown that many of these peaceful protests have been hijacked by individuals who were coming from out of the city or out of town and leveraging this peaceful protest to cause anarchy, and so I think these cities just can’t afford to take steps back.
I’m from Cleveland, as I mentioned, and most of the community that I’m familiar with has looked a certain type of way from remnants of the riots from the late 60s, early 70s. It was only up until now that they started to rebuild those sections of town, and so for us to reverse—this is the saddest thing to go to a place like Kenosha and see boarded up buildings. These are businesses; this is people’s livelihood. And after any protests, we need to get the justice but return back to being civil and provide for our families. It’s hard to do so if people tear our localities and our cities apart.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the pushes of some of these protests at least is defunding the police, and you actually played a pretty significant role. It’s the Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities. I guess I wanted to find out, one, there’s a huge juxtaposition there. How has that gone, implementing that executive order?
Mr. Smith: We’re really close to finalizing some of the results of that executive order. Key aspects of it include creating accreditation standards in each state. I think we’re going to find out soon; there’s going to be a number of different states, maybe a little more than 30 states that create these accreditation bodies. That will standardize police force on use of force, de-escalation training, how to create better police and community relationships.
Prior to our executive order, only 1000 police departments across the country were accredited, out of 18,000, so it’s a major push to bring our policing into the 21st century. But that’s always really been a focus of this administration, even before we signed an executive order. At the end of last year, we signed another executive order that created a police commission. And so police have wanted to modernize their police and update their standards.
But what we’ve seen in many of the places where they have social unrest, they have a lack of standards. Like if you look at Minneapolis, they hadn’t updated their standards in over 30 years, and that goes along with chokeholds and training related to de-escalation, and so you saw officers that weren’t trained. We had bad cops that probably, likely should have been fired years ago, still on the beat.
Our executive order covers all the different aspects of that. In fact, through the president’s leadership, we’re able to leverage not only the police opinion on reform, but also individuals who represented some of the families who lost loved ones due to a police interaction.
That’s the way that we fix some of the problems: we bring people together and figure out solutions, but we need the police. There’s so many different communities that have been [experiencing] violence and having individuals who don’t feel safe. So to go the opposite way by defunding them puts a lot of lives at stake.
Mr. Jekielek: Just recently, the whole Rochester police department, that might be an exaggeration, but including the police chief have basically retired and stepped out. What do you make of this sort of a situation?
Mr. Smith: That’s exactly what you don’t want. Let me give you an example: Just driving in the city in Washington D.C., my pregnant wife—the way people drive has changed; people are driving a little crazy—saw like two accidents back to back. People do things when they know that no one’s watching, so imagine if a whole city didn’t have police.
We wish we lived in a world where everyone was a good person, but you have some people who are bad guys—people who commit heinous crimes such as rape and murder or stealing of one’s property. So having a police force is a pillar to have any type of civil community because it allows for those who can’t protect themselves to have proper protection from people who have that type of ill will.
Mr. Jekielek: I just thought of this, but there’s a book that is becoming popular. It’s titled, “In Defense of Looting,” giving a pass to the people involved in that.
Mr. Smith: I’ve heard that from some people. We don’t want to create a situation to get change in our country, [that] we have to do things like burn down people’s property. If we set that as a marker, we’re setting up anarchy. We’re a civil society of laws. We’ve seen leadership like Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights leaders do peaceful protests and change our country.
Violent protests haven’t had that same effect. I think though, what people want is results, actual outcomes, from their elected leaders, and that’s how reform used to happen. If individuals do not like their standard of living or don’t like the way things are in their localities, their ability to vote, and they advocate for change and put accountability on those leaders, that is important more than ever. Unfortunately, many of these blue collar cities or major cities have been failed by many of their local elected leaders.
We’re even going to push for accountability from the president. He’s going to make sure everyone’s accountable. Even before we had the social unrest, I spent time in a number of different cities working on safe communities, working on economic development, working on entrepreneurship and educational workforce.
We’ve had many mayors not want to work with us just because we were the Trump administration. When it comes to certain issues with getting people access and fixing the disparities, it shouldn’t be about politics. It has to be about outcomes because those are the things we agree upon. I’m not a big fan of Bill Clinton, but he worked with Newt Gingrich and balanced the budget because it was about the people. They also worked with each other to reform the welfare system or tax reform in the 80s with Ronald Reagan and the Democratic congress of that time. That’s real leadership and we need to return back to that, especially now when people want opportunity and want access to the American dream.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about some of those results. You were important in at least two areas that I’m thinking about. One was the First Step Act, of course, the criminal justice reform. I think the most bipartisan thing that has happened over the last however many years, at least to my eye. The other one is, of course, the [Opportunity and] Revitalization Council and Opportunity Zones. But let’s talk about the impact of the First Step Act. There’s a lot of fanfare initially, a number of people that shouldn’t have been in prison were let out of prison. Where are we at now in terms of the seeds of that?
Mr. Smith: It’s beautiful to see our country mature. We started out 30 years ago, when you were talking about criminal justice reform, you thought about, like heinous villains and things like that. Now we’re talking about nonviolent offenders, and the face of it is Alice Johnson, Alice Marie Johnson. It shows that we’ve moved from this whole mindset of a Willie Horton to Alice Johnson. We want to keep Willie Horton types in prison if they’re going to be violent offenders, but there are individuals who are deserving of a second chance like Alice Johnson.
So what President Trump helped usher in—which is what we learned from some states like Texas and Georgia, which is being smart on crime—is that we can invest in our prisons in a way that allows for individuals who really want to change their lives and be productive citizens, individuals who’ve made mistakes, to be able to leave prison after serving their time and become productive citizens by investing in education, mental health, drug rehabilitation, or even reconnecting with their families.
We know where the next criminal has come from. It’s usually from the person who’s already in prison. So if we can drastically reduce the recidivism rates, reduce the amount of people who are leaving prison and coming back, that’s going to contribute to public safety, and that’s what the First Step Act did. The federal reentry recidivism rates were at 30 percent. Under the First Step Act, they’re at 11, because we’ve made that investment.
You have 7000 individuals, nonviolent offenders, released because of all the general revisions of the First Step Act. Then another 7000 who are serving time in home confinement. So that’s radically reducing or changing the way we do prison because it’s focused on individual accountability and helping them be successful on the outside.
There’s more work to be done, of course, because most people who are in the prison system are in the state prisons and so we’re going to continue to work with the states to create that type of paradigm. That’s the right way to go. There is a wrong way to go. You can’t just blanketly let anyone out. We’ve seen that happen in certain states and localities, and that leads to increased crime.
Some leftists mayors have gone a little further than they should on those types of reform efforts. What we want to focus on is public safety and fairness, and unfortunately, because of the crime bill of 1994 [Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act], it had a blanket approach towards criminal justice reform that created these mandatory minimums and it locked up a lot of African Americans.
What we did is unravel that and so more African American fathers are home with their families, more mothers are home with their families. But not just home, but prepared to actually make a lasting impact by getting the tools they need to be successful on outside.
Mr. Jekielek: Alice Marie Johnson, she’s been a guest on the show, and actually, Jon Ponder, talking about recidivism rates going down. He started this interesting program in Las Vegas and recently was pardoned, of course. I was calling him the other day telling him congratulations. What do you think of this particular program, and is this something that’s being looked [at] to expand?
Mr. Smith: Yes. Hope for Prisoners is amazing. The president spoke at their graduation, I think it was at the beginning of this year. It’s funny, so much has happened in 2020. It was at the beginning of this year, and it’s a shining example of what’s possible. You have local police, local sheriffs, working with those who are formerly incarcerated and helping them be successful by helping them as mentors, and their recidivism rates are extremely low.
We want to scale that around the country because policing is about one core aspect of community. We want the police to look more like that community. We want to recruit young boys and girls who live in a certain neighborhood to protect their community. We want those types of interactions to go well. Jon Ponder, what he’s done with Hope For Prisoners is a model of what we can do if we all work together.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s switch gears a little bit. Before we finish up, I wanted to talk about the impact of the work of the [Opportunity and] Revitalization Council and the development of these Opportunity Zones. If you could give us a picture again of where we are today?
Mr. Smith: Opportunity Zones is a tax incentive that came about through the president’s tax cut and JOBS [Jumpstart Our Business Startups] Act. What it allowed for was for governors to designate 25 percent of their low income census tracts as opportunity zones. So governors around the country designated those areas, and it allows for those areas to have investors rollover capital gains and not have to pay capital gains in those areas if they invest in longer term projects and they got additional incentives for how long they kept that investment.
The goal is threefold. One, to create access to capital into low income areas for small businesses and development projects. Two, to create an ecosystem for long term investment into those areas. And then three, to give more flexibility back to localities to help them figure out what local solution or what local problems they’re trying to solve.
It’s very unique to any other investment center that we ever had. Since we’ve done that, in the two years, we have about $75 billion worth of new capital invested into these low income census tracts. There are 3800 zones throughout the country that’s created over a half million new jobs into those communities, and CEA [Council of Economic Advisers] estimates that it will lift over a million people out of poverty.
What we’ve seen though, is the localities, the cities, the local jurisdictions that have devised the Opportunity Zone plan have been the ones that have shown the most success. The localities that haven’t [used the Opportunity Zone plan] haven’t seen the amount of success that they could have.
We created the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council to show the federal government’s commitment to making sure that the tools around these zones were available to those localities so that they can be successful. But it also was to encourage those localities to also leverage their tools.
In the places that you’re seeing, great success, you have the federal tools working in concert with the state tools, working in concert with the city tools, and then you have the private sector money, and so it’s creating a five-way partnership between the federal; state; local government; the private sector which includes businesses, individuals, churches, and nonprofits; and the most important stakeholders, the individuals who get access to affordable housing, will get a new job, the small business owner that’s trying to expand on their business. That’s how you create change and that’s what the [House Opportunity and] Revitalization Council is really focused on.
Unfortunately, again, it goes back to local leadership. I may have mentioned earlier that some localities refused not to work with us, and that’s where you’re seeing the most difficulties in some of the major cities. Chicago is one of them, New York, a lot of the major metropolitan [areas] the New York Times may have written about.
But if you see areas like Erie, Pennsylvania and Birmingham, or South Central, L.A., they have a number of different projects that we’re seeing [bear] a lot of different fruits. You can find all of this on opportunyzones.gov which gives the best practices, but the best part of it is about long term investment. We’re only three years into Opportunity Zones and so we have about eight more years left of the incentive, and so I think over the long term, it’s really going to do what it was intended to do.
Mr. Jekielek: Cleveland, I think, is also one of the beneficiaries, right?
Mr. Smith: Yes, it is. It is.
Mr. Jekielek: Coming full circle here.
Mr. Smith: Very much so. Cleveland, Canton, we’ve spent some time in both localities to figure out how to help them be successful. I wish in Cleveland, certain areas were designated like East Cleveland or even the neighborhood I came from. There’s a lot of low income areas that need this help, and hopefully we can work with Congress and create the furtherance of more zones.
Mr. Jekielek: So any final words before we finish up?
Mr. Smith: What I would like to say is that most of this work is going to take a long term commitment. One thing I’ve learned with working with this president is he’s committed to helping create those outcomes and he’s willing to do all he can within his power to create those partnerships. So it’s important to know that without any type of partnership or leadership on a local level, we can’t solve some of these issues. America is a big country and people have to understand that in order to solve these big problems that we have, we have to work together and get a united strategy.
Mr. Jekielek: Ja’Ron Smith, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Smith: Thanks so much.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.