‘Oddball’ Smuts now city’s problem-solver

Before Rob Smuts ’01 became New Haven’s second-in-command this month, he ran for a top elected office — high school class president.

Touting the slogan “With a name like Smuts, it’s gotta be good,” the high school junior passed out posters with images that spoke for themselves. Dressed in red and white bell-bottoms covered in the Coca-Cola logo, a Mr. Rogers button-down cardigan vest, and parted, wavy Robert Kennedy haircut, Smuts held a lollipop in one hand and money in the other. A rainbow shined behind him. Kermit the Frog sat on one side of the ray of hope, playing the guitar.

Rob Smuts ’01, who became the city’s Chief Administrative Officer this month, has always striven to stand out from the crowd.
Volkan Doda
Rob Smuts ’01, who became the city’s Chief Administrative Officer this month, has always striven to stand out from the crowd.

Don’t ask.

“I have to say he was kind of an oddball in high school,” said his sister Felica Smuts, a senior at Tulane University. “He always stuck out for his fashion in a school where most people went with the mainstream. He, of course, went against it — because he felt like it.”

Needless to say, Smuts lost the election. But since then — through often-sleepless years at Yale during which he worked with the budding Undergraduate Organizing Committee, the ACLU, the Yale College Democrats and, of course, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. — the poker-playing, ever-political Smuts has been on an upward trajectory, inching closer and closer to the top administrative job in the city. Now, he has it.

“Anything that involves coordination between departments, oftentimes I’ll be there just to make sure things are going smoothly,” said Smuts, the newly appointed chief administrative officer of New Haven, recently promoted from his position as deputy chief of staff to the mayor. “There’s a lot to it.”

There might be a lot to the job, which involves overseeing the New Haven Police, Fire, Public Works, Libraries, Parks and Recreation, Engineering and Human Resources departments, but with power comes luxury.

During the day, Smuts has a majestic view of the New Haven Green from an office that fairly could be described as City Hall’s second largest, after the mayor’s. He said it doesn’t make him nostalgic to look out toward Harkness Tower, as he’s “been on the other side of the Green for a long time now.”

But he still waxes nostalgic about Yale, especially his research on former New Haven Mayor Richard C. Lee. Smuts, who hails from Massachusetts but fell in love with the Elm City, has always been deeply fascinated with urban politics — and specifically with the position of New Haven mayor. Lee currently holds the record for the longest-serving New Haven mayor, though DeStefano may surpass Lee if he is re-elected in 2007.

“Both of them have tremendous administrative skill and tremendous skill about figuring out what they want to see happen, and [make] it happen … A lot of elected officials either consciously or subconsciously limit themselves,” Smuts said. “I think both mayors refuse to see many things like that. They have been incredibly effective at impacting their city in ways that other mayors, perhaps, would have not thought of.”

Smuts takes it even further; he says DeStefano is significantly more adaptable to the times, largely because he is more flexible than the legendary Lee. Although DeStefano responded to the comparison with a mere “I’m much taller than Mayor Lee,” he had praise for Smuts as well.

“Rob has worked with the city for six or seven years, and he has grown in every position he’s held,” DeStefano said, adding that what makes Smuts unique is the time he spends outside of City Hall engaging with the city’s neighborhoods. “What Rob brings is a strong, deliberative, informative management style.”

But according to some city officials, Smuts’s appointment came as a surprise. Although all agreed that he is one of the hardest working and smartest City Hall leaders, some aldermen — including Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield — found it interesting that Smuts was appointed chief administrative officer rather than receiving a more politically oriented promotion. Some past officials who have filled the position have come across as less polished and more direct than the Ivy League-educated Smuts, aldermen said.

But city employee Chrissy Bonanno ’01, who has known Smuts ever since they were undergraduates involved in voter registration drives and the Yale College Democrats together, said “absolutely,” without hesitation, when asked whether she could have seen Smuts in the role even back in the 1990s. She noted that he “practically moved into the DeStefano campaign office” during the mayor’s hotly contested 2001 campaign.

“Rob showed a love of the city of New Haven beyond most Yale students and was ready, willing and excited to get involved in real, vocal politics outside of just what the University and students at the University usually get involved with in New Haven,” Bonanno said. “And did you know that Rob’s face is perfectly symmetrical?”

On close inspection, Bonanno’s claim is true, and she said it was confirmed by an eyewear specialist last month.

But perhaps it will take more than new glasses to construct the persona needed to coordinate New Haven in the case of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or political crisis. Smuts might just have to bring back the decisive and stern personality his younger sister witnessed growing up.

The only time Felicia Smuts remembers her brother playing mean was when he sprinkled paprika cheese in her hair and made her eat it.

“I did, and I started to cry, but that was probably the only mean thing he’s ever done,” she said. “He was always the one telling me to eat my carrots and turn off the TV, and to listen to good music instead of the popular music. He would tell me not to swear because it made me sound trashy and uneducated. He would tell me I was wearing too much eye makeup.”

Karen Dubois-Walton, who has served as chief administrative officer and as the mayor’s chief of staff, explained the extensive responsibilities of Smuts’s new job. In addition to facilitating projects in which coordination between agencies is key, the job calls for calm in the face of danger.

Smuts is the right fit, she said. Since taking over, he has already had to grapple with the NHPD corruption scandal, mass flooding and resident complaints over delayed snow removal following a recent storm. In such emergency situations, he must oversee coordination between departments, take calls from the aldermen in the most affected neighborhoods and direct the resources of the city government. The job is primarily a problem-solving one, and it calls for out-of-the-box thinking as well as an attention to details, Smuts said. But it’s also about the big picture.

“How do you improve a really urban school district, how do you make the streets civil, how [do] you contain the cost of government?” Smuts said in listing the “big issues” that have been facing the city for years. “Other challenges include how [to] make this a livable city … The one that all three branches of government face [is] creating opportunities.”

DeStefano has created at least one very big opportunity this month — for Smuts, who is unlikely to stop at chief administrative officer. Between Smuts’s Sunday evening poker parties with the “who’s who of young New Haven,” according to one friend, his fierce bowling game and his love of cars, Smuts’ future is unknown.

But three ingredients are certain in any future career for Smuts — New Haven, politics and leadership. Mayor Bobby Smuts, anyone?

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