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Republican politico Princella Smith gains policy chops in Israel



What follows is your typical story of a 6-foot-tall black female Republican who starts off in Wynne, Arkansas, and ends up in Israel, writing for a Zionist newspaper and studying counter-terrorism.

Princella Smith has always been a wild card. A high school and college basketball star who interned for then-Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller and in John Boozman's congressional office, she first drew major attention on the political scene in 2004. As a 20-year-old Ouachita Baptist University student, she won MTV's "Stand up and Holla" essay contest, earning her a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention. Her speech was fiery and fun, and led many to proclaim her as a rising political star.

After college, she bounced around a few political gigs, working for Maryland Republican Michael Steele's unsuccessful Senate campaign and as a communications flack for Newt Gingrich and his PAC. In 2010, she ran for Arkansas's 1st District congressional seat after the retirement of Blue Dog Democrat Marion Berry. Despite the endorsements of her former mentor Gingrich and the Democrat-Gazette, the run was a dud — she fell to Rick Crawford in the Republican primary by a 78-22 margin.

This fall, Smith decided that she wanted to take a break from politics and focus on policy. She had always been interested in the Middle East and Israel, and started searching for programs with a focus in issues surrounding terrorism. Turns out, it's possible to get a graduate degree in counter-terrorism (they really need to get the word out — surely they'd have been overloaded with applicants with a little product placement on "Homeland"). Smith found one of the few schools in the world offering such a program, and was accepted into the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy in Herzliya, Israel, where she is now pursuing a master's degree in counter-terrorism and homeland security studies.

Smith grew up a minister's kid and had always been interested in Israel, but she was also drawn to the program by an earnest desire to gain some serious foreign-policy chops. "Most people when they think of me, they're thinking of campaigns and stuff," she says. "I know that at some point in my life I want to be able to make a serious impact on the world and make some kind of imprint on the globe. I'm not a person that can sit back and watch things happen in the world and not try to make it better. I think you have to equip yourself. A large part of equipping yourself is educating yourself and in this particular instance, you go to a place like Israel — going to a place like this is the best place to learn. If you're going to learn counter-terrorism, go learn it in a place where they're doing it."

What does a master's in counter-terrorism entail? In addition to general poli-sci courses, Smith has been taking classes and writing policy papers on various aspects of terrorism, from the role of the media to the roots of Islamic ideology. Packed into one year, the master's program covers the "essence of counter-terrorism," Smith says. "Knowing how to combat terrorism, knowing terrorism finance, knowing about the root, like — where are these terrorists getting their money from? What's the root cause? What makes a person want to be a suicide bomber? What's the essence of this conflict?"

In addition to her coursework, Smith is also writing for Israel Hayom, the most widely circulated newspaper in Israel. Gingrich helped connect her with the paper; Israel Hayom is run by Sheldon Adelson, the single biggest financial backer of Gingrich's run for president. (Smith said she has only met Adelson once but is a friend of his wife Miriam, an Israeli physician.)

Israel Hayom (which translates to "Israel Today") is handed out free along public transportation routes. Critics in Israel complain that Adelson has used this strategy and low advertising rates to put other papers out of business. The harshest criticism about the paper, though, has to do with its content. Echoing criticism of Fox News during the Bush years in the U.S., many Israelis believe that the paper is essentially a mouthpiece for conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Whatever the paper is doing, it's working — it controls about 40 percent of the market.

"The paper is a Zionist newspaper, they're not shying away from being Zionist, but I would not call this a Netanyahu paper," Smith said, adding that the editorial staff operates independently. "I think they give a good perspective. That's one reason why it's the most widely read. ... I think it's a pretty brilliant business model. It's a free newspaper, they're giving it out on every street corner."

Smith writes mostly about the American political scene for the English-language version of the paper, with articles like "Guns are not the problem" and "Americans heart Israel." She's also involved in the marketing end, attempting to try to expand the audience for the English-language version of the website in America.

Smith also occasionally writes about Israeli politics. Her own perspective on the Middle East seems to fall about where you'd expect, anchored in the mainstream of the U.S. Republican Party.

"Israel is a haven of democracy in the Middle East and coming over here it reminds you that it really is," she said. "It's free — you can feel the difference."

"Being in a place, you just immerse yourself in it," she said. "Getting away from the U.S. is good for someone my age. It's good to get a serious life education. There are things I get from being here in Israel that I would never get from studying in another university."

Of course, there's still been a little bit of culture shock, as she gets used to kosher food and tries (not always successfully) to stay off Facebook and Twitter on shabbat. "My friends laugh at me because I'm going crazy," she said. "I'm like, 'man, the weekend is when I run all my errands.' Y'all want me to pack school and work and errands and everything into my week."

The most difficult adjustment has been living in a place that remains under threat of violence. Last November a bus bombing in Tel Aviv injured 27. Smith takes the bus to work in Tel Aviv, and for several weeks she was too scared to ride.

"The people of Israel are resilient, they say 'this is our land, we're not moving, we're not going to be afraid, we're not going to be scared off our territory.' I just could not live like this on a permanent basis. They're brave and I say God bless them."

What's next for Smith? Once she graduates this summer, she's hoping to be able to use her degree in a government policy role in the U.S. But serving as an elected official back home in Arkansas remains a dream.

"I would love to run," she said. "The thing is, it's just timing, you gotta figure out — is it the right time, is it the right position?"

If Smith clearly has the political bug, it also seems that part of her interest in going back to school is rooted in a desire for more substance in the political arena.

"I've become quite annoyed with D.C. politics," she says. "I spent about four years there. I love politics, I love the competition, I'm a conservative Republican and I've never tried to hide or shy away from it. I love that. But I get annoyed when people are holding up pieces of legislation on foolishness or when people are spouting talking points from their different political parties that aren't substantial, that don't even make any sense. I'm like, 'do any of y'all even know what you're talking about?' You wanna ask them."

For political journalists, the return of Smith would certainly provide great copy. She remains almost too quotable for her own good, popping out gems like, "like Newt Gingrich told me, Republicans really need to start knowing things." Her Twitter account is always entertaining, whether she's talking politics (on Dustin McDaniel: "No way he could survive an affair and a dead body") or current events (on Manti Te'o: "Can't love online only").

For now, she's keeping her toes in the water of Arkansas politics. Earlier this year she helped craft a response for Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Bigelow) in the wake of a scandal (when an old video surfaced of Rapert saying "we're not going to allow minorities to run roughshod over what you people believe in."). She is serving on the exploratory committee for Dennis Milligan's run for state treasurer and will play a consulting role in Ken Yang's bid for state auditor as well. 

As for striking out on her own, Smith said, "It's not a secret; I think most people know I want to run for something. I just don't know when."

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