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April 7, 2014 at 6:14 AM

Meet Erik Smith, the newest Seattle Times editorial board member

They say everything happens for a reason, but back in 2005 I would have had a hard time seeing it. I was spending my days trudging back and forth across the blacktop at a used-car lot in Spokane, shoving my hands deep in my pockets to ward off the chill, watching like an army sentry for any sign of movement at the perimeter. You never knew when a customer might come along.

Erik Smith

Erik Smith

But mostly, when I allowed myself to think about it, I spent my time wondering what on earth I was doing there. Like many a newspaper reporter I found myself in the cold during the downturn of a few years back. I can look back on it now, though, and realize that what I went through probably was one of the most valuable experiences of my life – albeit a rather painful one. And it’s that experience I bring to The Seattle Times editorial board as I take my seat as its newest member.

I guess you could say I stepped into the cold of my own volition. My wife at the time and I sort of hit the jackpot in L.A., as did everyone with the great foresight and intelligence to buy a house when the market was at its lowest point. We sold near the top and plowed the proceeds into a couple of small businesses in our hometown of Spokane, a pair of Curves for Women franchises, and we bought an apartment building to boot. We were going to take that L.A. money and live like kings. And then those small businesses tanked, like pretty much all family-owned small businesses do. That was the end of that. When I went knocking on the door of the local newspaper, I was told they were probably never going to be hiring anyone ever again – rather a common problem in those days. So I walked into the nearest Chevy showroom and explained that it was my lifelong ambition to sell great big gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks.

Here I was, a guy who once had senators and congressmen and captains of industry clamoring to return his phone calls, or at least pretending to be happy about it. Now I was starting my days by tying helium balloons to windshield wipers. Oh, the shame of it all.

I got over that pretty fast, once I started selling Chevies and Caddies hand over fist and I began making more money than I ever had in newspapers. And I realize now what an opportunity it really was – a chance to be part of the world. It is something you really don’t understand when you spend your career playing the observer. I had to get to know complete strangers; I would convince them to tell me of their innermost desires, and then I would help them to make the right decision, nearly always involving the purchase of a General Motors product. I did battle every day with my fellow salespeople and the deskmen. And even during those desperate times on those failed business ventures, when I was managing a staff of 12 and keeping a happy smile on my face while I tried frantically to keep the doors open – I was living an essential part of the American experience, yet something only a small percentage of news folk ever see.

At the very least, I am one of the few in this line who has paid unemployment insurance premiums and workers’ compensation taxes, and who knows what it is like trying to keep the state Department of Revenue at bay.

Most of my life, of course, I’ve been a reporter and writer. I’ve been in the biz since I joined the school-newspaper staff in ninth grade and started writing the weekly column about the “Far-Out Frosh.” I was the editor of my campus newspaper at the University of Washington, the Daily, and I spent so much time in the newsroom I have trouble remembering whether I ever attended any classes. There were internships at The Columbian in Vancouver and The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, and I spent a decade covering the Legislature for the Tri-City Herald and writing a snarky column about it all. For a few years I worked at a newspaper in Southern California, the Riverside Press-Enterprise, but the whole L.A. thing never took, and I always thought of Washington as home.

I guess I always have had a bit of that entrepreneurial bug. About five years ago, when I realized the only way off the car lot was to invent a job for myself, I joined with a number of people to launch a first-of-its-kind Internet news site in Olympia. As lead writer and pretty much everything else for Washington State Wire, I covered the Legislature with a business focus. And now, as I join the editorial board of The Seattle Times, an institution I greatly respect because of the role it has always played in building Seattle and the region, I hope I can bring a bit of that spirit to these offices. If it wasn’t for dummies like me who take a risk and fail, and for the small percentage of entrepreneurs who actually succeed, I’m not sure how our country would survive. It is the sort of spark that needs to be nurtured and encouraged, and I hope in my own small way, from this desk in downtown Seattle, I might be able to contribute to that.

You can trust me when I say that. I’ve dealt in journalism, politics and used cars. What better credentials could you ask?

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