Sen. Robert Smith (D-Middlesex)
Title: Chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee
Why he matters: The chairman of the always active Senate Environment and Energy Committee, Smith oversees development of most of the legislature’s most pressing initiatives on these two issues. Typically, his work ends up pitting public interest groups against New Jersey’s business lobbyists. While he usually winds up on the side of environmentalists, he’s been known to take up causes crucial to business groups. For instance, he supported efforts to privatize cleanup of toxic waste sites against vocal opposition from conservationists. In just a half a year, his committee has played a key role in promoting cleaner energy sources by passing major bills dealing with solar and offshore wind power.
How he got there: Smith was on route to an earning a PhD in environmental science, having already earned a masters at Rutgers, when he heard a lawyer slip a Latin phrase into conversation and suddenly take charge of the debate. Soon after, he decided to become a lawyer, graduating from Seton Hall University. After a stint in local politics in Piscataway, including a term as mayor, he was elected to the legislature in 1986.
Proudest achievement: Sponsoring and steering legislation protecting the New Jersey Highlands into law in 2004, a bill that limits development in the 1,343-square mile region of woodlands, forests and rivers and streams that provides drinking water to 5 million residents.
Role model: Former Assemblywoman Maureen Ogden, a longtime legislator who sponsored laws protecting New Jersey wetlands and open spaces. “She had great integrity. Her environmental ethic was outstanding. She makes a good role model for anybody”
Biggest frustration: Being in the minority in the legislature. “When you are in the minority, you just can’t get things done.’’
*Bet you didn’t know: Likes to play poker: Texas Hold ‘Em with a $1 or $2 limit.
Hometown: Piscataway, where he lives with his wife Ellen. Father of two daughters and seven grandchildren.