Smeiles learned lesson from 1986 loss, now seeks sixth term

Brock Harrington

County Commissioner promises to continue philosophy if reelected

When Chris Smeiles ran for Portage County Commissioner in 1986, he was barely in his 30s. Smeiles, a real estate broker, went door to door for support.

When the ballots were counted, Smeiles discovered he lost the election by 32 votes.

Two years later, Smeiles finally became a Portage County Commissioner. He has kept the seat for five terms, and will appear on the ballot this November in an attempt at a sixth.

As he finishes his 20th year as a commissioner, Smeiles said it’s his years in office that sets him apart from his challenger, 64-year old Shalersville Township Trustee Larry Solak.

“The biggest issue currently, I think, is experience, and of course that’s a double-sided sword,” Smeiles said. “I’ve been in the office for 20 years, and we have experience in doing the job, and my opponent has not been a county commissioner.”

The double-edge sword, Smeiles said, is his status as an incumbent, which he said almost always draws some votes away. During the primary, Smeiles faced a tough challenge from 19-year old Brett McClafferty of Streetsboro. Being a incumbent almost guarantees a 60-40 split in the election, Smeiles said.

He won the primary by nearly 60 percent of the vote.

“I think my opponent in the primary was latching on to that ‘change’ issue – the old guard versus new guard,” he said.

The 53-year-old Democrat and Kent resident has promised to continue his philosophy of team work and taking a conservative stand on many issues, which Smeiles said has helped the county become more cohesive since his early years on the board of commissioners.

“Back in the 1980s, when cash was short, there was actually litigation between the sheriff and the commissioners as to who’s going to get what money,” he said. “And rather then having good communication, they went to court and just fought it out in court. I believe the commissioners, along with other elected officials are part of a team. We have 18 elected officials – the judges, the prosecutor, the sheriff, the recorder, the treasurer, the auditor – and the voters expect us to communicate and to cooperate.”

Smeiles’ drive for communication within the political infrastructure has lead other commissioners, such as Chuck Keiper, to strongly support the current Board of Commissioners president.

“He’s a very thoughtful and hard-working guy – he’s very conservative and as tight with the dollar as anyone I’ve ever been around and believes in team almost to a fault,” Keiper said. “I support him 100 percent.”

Keiper has served with Smeiles for 16 years and worked with him on many important issues, such as getting Lake Erie water in Portage County. Keiper said the county is preparing to build a water-line that will provide the county with 5 million gallons a day.

Solak, whose campaign has centered around ending wasteful spending, is running for commissioner for the third time. The commissioner’s job, said Smeiles, manages the “nuts and bolts” of the daily county operations, such as spending and laying people off, which Smeiles said Solak knows little about.

“He’s not managed over a thousand people and a $38 million budget. Experience is the No.1 difference between us,” Smeiles said.

In September, Portage County Commissioners received news from the Moody’s Investors Service who was reviewing the county’s finances. The report said although the growth was slowing and foreclosures were “on the up-tick,” retail developments have helped create a favorable sales tax collections, and that county officials should continue to focus on attracting and retaining business within the county.

“Moody’s, in their report – which is recent, just last month – have stated that the county’s financials are solid, our overall debt is low and they have a good forecast for Portage County as a result,” Smeiles said. “Again, result of good four years of fiscal management.”

As the “Smeiles” signs increase throughout the county, the real estate broker with an office on Main Street is using his experience of losing 22 years ago to his advantage.

“Never take anything for granted,” Smeiles said. “Always, always, always ask for the vote. I lost by 32 votes in 1986, so those 32 votes is only 16 doors, two voters per household, if I had gone to 16 more households and knocked on doors and asked for their vote, it might have made a difference. But I was brand new in 1986, and young and naive, so that taught me to stay at it.”

Contact reporting public affairs reporter Brock Harrington at [email protected].