So it was no surprise Thursday that he announced his intention to campaign to continue filling the term of late Mayor Glenn Cunningham, who died suddenly in May. The special election will be held in November.
Smith has also made overtures in recent weeks to affirm his position as the man in charge, whether it's been taking out a full-page ad in the local daily ensuring his commitment as the leader of this city, or meeting with some of the city's Hispanic political leaders at a Saturday morning breakfast at the VIP Diner.
But he can't avoid the specter of state Assemblyman Louis Manzo and City Councilman-At-Large Jerremiah Healy having already announced themselves as candidates. Others are expected to announce between this week and the official filing deadline of Sept. 15.Harvey! Harvey! Harvey!
It was an unbearably hot, humid afternoon, but that did not deter over 200 of Smith's supporters from gathering in front of City Hall to hear his announcement.
There was a cross section of the city's population in attendance - African-Americans, Hispanics, whites, Muslims - holding up "Harvey Smith for Mayor" signs and chanting "Harvey, Harvey, Harvey!"
City Hall employees including Smith's closest associates - Deputy Mayor Ed Cheatam and Chief-of-Staff Roger Jones - and family and friends came to back Smith. However, there were very few major political and religious figures at the announcement.
Among the recognizable faces were Councilwoman Mary Donnelly, County Freeholder Radames Velazquez, and Jersey City minister Rev. George Maize. Also on the steps standing with Smith was his wife of 35 years, Gail.
Several county officials had been at the previous week's announcement by councilman and former Municipal Judge Jerremiah Healy, however, making one wonder which candidate will get the backing of the powerful Hudson County Democratic Organization.
The deputy mayors were sworn in, and Smith's childhood friend and mayoral aide, Rev. Elson Hoffman, introduced him. Smith then stepped up to the microphone.
"I love the people of Jersey City with all my heart," Smith said. "Since beginning my career as an elected official, I have worked hard and long to make life better for everyone here in this city. That's my job, that's my passion, that's my utmost concern."
Smith spoke about his efforts during his 12 years on the City Council and two months as acting mayor to bring about good government to serve the people. He also spoke about working to heal the political wounds that have existed in the city.
"When I assumed the responsibilities of the mayor of our great city, I also began working to unite all of our people and make us whole again," said Smith. "I am reaching out to all of you to work with me to heal the wounds and mend the fences that may exist in our city. That would mean the world to me."
Smith also listed some of his accomplishments as a politician, including initiating the First-Time Homeowners Program that provides up to $50,000 to families purchasing their first homes, getting $1.5 million for hiring 20 new police officers, helping to open the HUB on Martin Luther King Drive, and taking part in the efforts to attract major corporations and businesses to operate in the city.
"Jersey City is a new, world class city, and will make sure that it has a government to match," he said. "And I want to say that I will conduct myself with honesty and integrity -- and love."
From educator to politician
Leonard Harvey Smith, 55, was born in North Carolina but grew up in Jersey City. Smith is a graduate of Public School 15, Snyder High School, and eventually earned his undergraduate degree in health and physical education from Long Island University and his Masters in psychology from New Jersey City University. Smith spent nearly 30 years as an educator in the Jersey City school system, most recently as a crisis intervention teacher at Dickinson High School.
Currently the city council president and acting mayor of the city of Jersey City, Smith first entered politics in 1993 when he was elected as councilman at large on former mayor Bret Schundler's slate. He moved up to the position of City Council president in 2001 after winning a third term in the City Council under the late mayor Glenn D. Cunningham's slate. He has also served on the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency for five years.
During his three terms on the City Council, Smith has been seen as someone who has been a consensus builder, who was been out front on issues from education to tax abatements but has preferred to work in the background on the council. But it is during his term as City Council president that Smith has been at the center of some of the most heated politics in recent city history.
Smith found himself on the opposite side of the political fence with Cunningham by 2002 when the mayor and members of the city council chose different candidates for the Hudson County executive's office.
From that time, both men were opposed on many issues, whether it was the council's tabling the appointment of longtime Jersey City minister Rev. Ralph Brower to the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency or Mayor Cunningham refusing to approve the granting of a lease to the Friends of the Loews volunteer group for the management of the historic Loews Jersey Theater that the council approved.
Then, Smith was appointed to fill the seat of state senator for the 31st District in November 2003 when Joseph Charles vacated his seat to take a position as a Superior Court judge before he finished his term. This was after Cunningham won the seat.
The race was marred by constant personal attacks. Smith was branded an "Uncle Tom" or "Uncle Harvey" by the Urban Times News, a newspaper published by longtime Cunningham supporters Joseph Cardwell and Bobby Jackson.
Smith's political fortunes changed when he was thrust into the position of acting mayor (by virtue of being the City Council president) after Cunningham suffered a massive heart attack and died the evening of May 25.
'I am a full time mayor'
Smith, the day after Cunningham's passing, met with staffers and administrators to ensure them that there would be no turnover in City Hall and that there would be stability. But it had already been rumored that a number of employees would lose their jobs once Smith had come into office.
As it turned out, several Cunningham hires left, including deputy mayors Eugene Drayton and Anthony Cruz, chief of staff Bill Ayala, and several department directors including the controversial head of the Housing, Economic Development and Commerce Department Mark Munley and Law Department head Karen DeSoto.
Smith would hire back Anthony Cruz in early July as a special consultant for housing issues.
Smith had also asked for the resignations of other department directors but ultimately retained many of those directors, including the Director of the Public Works Department Betty Outlaw and the Chief of Police Ron Buonocore.
Buonocore, along with DeSoto and Munley, all took legal action against Smith, saying that as acting mayor he did not have the legal authority to ask them resign or terminate them from their contracts. Buonocore dropped his suit the day before his complaint would be heard in State Superior Court in Jersey City, but the court ruled against Munley and DeSoto upholding Smith's authority as an acting mayor to terminate their contracts.
After the speech
When Smith finished his announcement, there were inquiries by the media about his campaign and especially trying to get the backing of the top power broker in Hudson County politics -- Congressman Robert Menendez, who is in charge of the HCDO.
Smith said that he would make efforts to meet with Congressman Menendez in the next couple of weeks to ask for his support.
Roger Jones, spokesman for the acting mayor, confirmed that Smith would be traveling to Boston to attend the Democratic National Convention taking place this week (July 26-29), where Menendez will speak on the first day of the convention. There, Smith is to have a meeting with Menendez, depending on the congressman's schedule. Political observers have noted that Smith would need to receive Menendez's support in order for the HCDO (of which Smith is a member) to back Smith in the November election. But the HCDO have not come out and given their support for Smith, and there is speculation the organization may back Healy.
But Jones emphasized that Smith's campaign will be geared towards not being beholden to any political organization. Smith also said after the announcement that he will be looking at a few candidates for campaign manager, one of whom is believed to be Tony Bawidamann, who had managed Smith's campaign for State Senate in 2003.
Supporters' reactions were mostly positive to the announcement.
"He is the best man for the job and the most energetic. And he will give Latinos a place at the table," said Sonia Araujo, assistant director of the Jersey City Public Library.
Araujo, along with mayoral aide Noemi Velazquez, mayoral consultant Anthony Cruz and other prominent Latino leaders, have been organizing events at the VIP Diner in Journal Square and the Riverside Assembly of God Church in Downtown Jersey City in the past two weeks, where Smith has met with Latino voters, considered a vital voting bloc in this upcoming election.
Idris Karliff came out to support a man he's known for 20 years, a man Karliff says conducts himself with integrity. "He does not surround himself with the questionable people like the other administration was surrounded by questionable people," said Karliff, referring to the Cunningham administration.
But Pat O' Melia, host of the radio show "Hudson County's Talking" on WNSR 1430, was not overly impressed with Smith's performance.
"Did he mention what exactly he was going to do if he became mayor?" said O' Melia, who is backing Louis Manzo for mayor. O' Melia said that in the two months that Smith has been mayor he has not distinguished himself enough to get the attention of the voters.
"What Harvey needs to do is fill as many potholes as possible," O'Melia said. "The public see activity in improving the city, and that's going to get him elected."