Flying high with the governor
By By Janet Little Cooper
Before 15-year-old political columnist for The Atmore Advance Tray Smith left in early June to intern in the Governor's office in Montgomery, everyone called him by his first name.
Now a week after returning home, the high school sophomore is referred to as Mr. Smith.
Smith, who is well known in town for his political views and opinions, has been writing a political column for the Advance for more than a year now. He has spent countless hours researching the structure of government and governmental policies, but has never seen the day-to-day operation in action until now.
Smith reported to work on June 8 in the communications department of the governor's office where he assisted with media advisories, press releases and other forms of communication in the press office.
"I learned a lot," Smith said. "It changed my whole perspective of the government that I had from the outside looking in. Now I know why things are done a certain way and why. I see a different side now from the inside."
On June 22, one day away from returning home, Smith was able to see government in an entirely different and unexpected way – from the governor's private leer jet flying over Washington, D.C.
The interns were having a going away party when the governor's communication director Jeff Emerson told Smith that the governor wanted to see him.
"I thought the governor wanted to tell me good-bye," Smith said. "I thought, 'now, isn't that nice that he singled me out of all those other interns to say good-bye to.'"
Smith, probably the only teenager his age that eat, sleeps and breathes politics, was excited to say the least.
"Gov. Riley asked me what I was doing that day," Smith said. "I told him nothing other than I was just working in the communications department. The governor looked at me and said 'Well, I'm heading to Washington, do you want to go?' In my head I was thinking well I've got this to do and I've got to be here at such and such time, but I had to contain myself from jumping and screaming as I told him yes. He told me to be back in his office within 15 minutes that we would be leaving."
Smith, bursting with excitement, went to the restroom first and then called his mother on his cell phone. She was staying in Montgomery with Smith during his internship and the two had planned to meet for lunch that particular day.
"I called and said 'Hey, Mom, can't meet you for lunch today. I am going to Washington with the governor. Can't talk we are leaving in a few minutes. I'll call later. Love you, Tray.'"
He did call his mother again moments before his return flight to Montgomery at Reagan International Airport.
Smith rode with the governor in his black Suburban driven by his personal security guard Hal Taylor. The governor told Taylor all about Tray in between phone calls.
"He (Riley) asked his security guard what he was doing during the summer before his tenth grade year of high school and Hal said that he was dreading football practice because of the heat. Then the governor told him about me writing a political column for the newspaper and my interest."
Smith was in for an even bigger surprise once he and the governor arrived at the Montgomery airport. The commissioner of agriculture and industry, Ron Sparks , his deputy commissioner, Ronnie Murphy, the governor's legal advisor, Ken Wallis, the governor's senior policy advisor, Dave Stewart and the governor's personal aide, Bryan Taylor, greeted them.
Smith sat by the governor and his personal aide during the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Washington as the governor was briefed on peanuts for an upcoming meeting.
Just when Smith thought his adrenaline rush was subsiding, he stepped off of the eight-seater airplane to see a tarmac of Air Force Two jets used by cabinet members and staff and then saw a black Escalade and Navigator waiting to take the governor and his political entourage to the Hart Senate Office Building.
"I was so neat riding in a motorcade with the governor," Smith said. "We saw Union Station, the Capitol, Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument. I was excited about seeing all that, but I was even more excited about riding in the governor's motorcade."
The governor had two meetings to attend. The first one took place with all seven of Alabama's congressmen and Senator Shelby. The second meeting the congressmen and a representative from the USDA met to discuss aid for farmers suffering from drought conditions in Alabama.
Smith was not allowed in the first meeting, but was asked to take notes in the second meeting. Congressman Jo Bonner, who had met him, last year greeted him.
Following the meeting the group made the return flight home covering topics from the Iraq War to the presidential election, according to Smith.
"I had a really good time," Smith said. "I would have never thought in a million years that I would be flying to Washington with the governor. He had mentioned that I might be able to travel with him when I met him in Atmore at the Chamber banquet, but I took that to mean riding around Montgomery, certainly not boarding his plane and flying to Washington. I can't thank him enough. I got to witness how hardworking the governor and his staff are."
Smith also had the opportunity to share a few of his ideas about education reform with Education Policy Analyst Mark Dixon.
At Dixon's request, Smith is currently composing a commission paper regarding a statewide scholarship fund.
"He thought it had some political hurdles," Smith said. "But thought it was a good idea. But I think it is a political win-win situation."
Smith plans to be a page in the U.S. House of Representatives next summer and then in the Senate the following summer.