If you call 12-year incumbent Joe E. Smith a career politician for seeking his fourth term as St. Lucie County Clerk of the Circuit Court, he’d probably thank you, then ask for your vote.
To Smith, a Democrat who faces Republican Michelle Miller in the Nov. 3 election, it means since 2008 county voters have found him deserving of their support, and he intends to prove he still is.
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“What makes me a public service professional at this point in my career is that voters — they’ve looked at me and they’ve looked at my opponents — and they’ve found me worthy of their vote,” said Smith, 43. “I don’t look at that as a negative. So, if someone wants to call me a career politician, then that’s only because the voters have chosen to make me one and I am so grateful and thankful to them for giving me that trust.”
Smith served as a county commissioner from 2004 until 2008, when he ran for the clerk’s office and beat incumbent Ed Fry.
The four-year term oversees an estimated $9 million budget, and a staff of 150 employees in four offices. The position pays $142,703 a year and includes serving as court clerk and comptroller for the board of county commissioners.
Smith touted a range of technology and online services implemented over the past few years that help residents file documents, pay fees and conduct business without visiting in-person.
Early in his tenure, he said, he realized people needed someone to “help navigate their experience” using the court system, which can be anxiety-inducing for some.
“We have worked really hard to find new processes, to make their lives easier, to give them amazing customer service, and to be financially accountable,” Smith said. “I lead an amazing team, we work really well together and I’m excited to be here.”
Miller, though, an Army veteran and term limit believer campaigning to bring a new perspective to the clerk’s office, sees things differently.
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In her position with the St. County Sheriff’s Office detention investigations unit, Miller, 54, said she regularly talks to Smith’s staff, state prosecutors and other professionals who agree with her that after a dozen years of Smith’s leadership, it’s time for a change.
And with a 25-year business background that includes owning an insurance business and operating two flight schools, she’s qualified to bring it about, she said.
“I have so many different experiences, life skills and leadership qualities that I could bring to this position and really bring about changes in employee morale, public trust and really restore some integrity to that office,” Miller said.
Before joining the Sheriff’s Office, Miller served as vice president of admissions and operations at Aviator College of Aeronautical Science and Technology in St. Lucie County. For 16 years she owned Miller Insurance LLC.
A St. Lucie County native, Miller characterized Smith as an absent leader from the main clerk’s office in downtown Fort Pierce who can’t be found to make decisions.
“Here’s my issue: Joe is rarely ever in the office and he doesn’t know what’s going on day-to-day except for what he’s basically told,” she said. “There is a huge divide on what is actually happening and what he’s being told, I think.”
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Even before the coronavirus pandemic in March forced many people to work remotely, Miller claimed Smith was regularly missing in action.
“He does the bare minimum,” she insisted. “When there’s something that’s new, he does it a little bit here and a little bit there and he touts it as something big and wonderful.”
Miller, though, acknowledged her information about Smith’s work routine came to her second-hand — she’s never confronted him on the issue, she said.
“His employees have told me he’s not there,” she said. “It’s been a constant issue.”
The no-show accusation, Smith countered, is the same criticism trotted out each election season.
“Voters of this community did not elect a clerk to sit behind a desk,” he said. “I don’t know what she’s looking for by ‘he’s never there in the office,’ but everyone says it and at this point, let the facts be the guide.
“If what we have accomplished over the last 12 years is viewed by some as the bare minimum, well goodness, I don’t know how to respond to that.”
Streamlined services enacted to boost public access include:
- Created central cashiering for customers to conveniently pay any criminal payments in one location
- Centralized scanning to ensure all documents are scanned the same day they are filed
- Launched a new free service designed to protect property owners from property fraud
- Launched online tax deeds and foreclosure sales
Smith also noted he’s currently the chair of the court operations committee for the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers organization and is a past president.
In 2016, he won a bitter primary reelection campaign against Martha Hornsby, whose job in the clerk’s office Smith eliminated in 2013. He then won the general election in a landslide against a write-in candidate who was the mother of an attorney with the clerk’s office.
Smith said he always campaigns “as if I’m three points down,” regardless of the candidate.
“I owe it to the voters to provide a contrast,” he said. “Look at my body of work … they know who I am, they know what I do, they know I produce results.”
With a cash haul of $35,390 from 55 donors, election records show Smith has decidedly outraised Miller. But with $8,852 left in his account, he’s currently trailing in cash on hand.
Miller has $19,249 left after collecting $23,358 from 67 donors, according to finance reports.
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This is Miller’s second run at elected office.
In 2012, she ran unopposed in the GOP primary for the then-newly created state House District 84 seat, in St. Lucie County. She lost the general election to Democrat state Rep. Larry Lee Jr.
Now, Miller hopes voters will value her “significant” business experience over returning a veteran politician.
“My skill set would not have any problem managing that type of an office,” she said. “You need that fresh blood; you need fresh ideas and that cooperative spirit.”
Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCpalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is writer and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast. For in-depth, exclusive and breaking legal affairs coverage be sure to subscribe.