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Ja'Ron Smith Still Stands By Opportunity Zones, The Platinum Plan And Being A Black Trump Staffer

During his four years at the White House, Republican politico Ja'Ron Smith held a number of staff positions, including director of urban affairs, and was most recently deputy assistant to the president, before decamping for a think tank. For much of that time, he was the highest-ranking Black non-Cabinet official in a one-term administration that has been punctuated by racist statements and dog-whistling from both the president and his advisers, spates of social unrest surrounding social justice and a nation still deeply polarized by questions about race in America.

Just after 5 p.m. on the Friday after Election Day, Smith quietly enacted a long-anticipated move away from the White House to take a leadership position at the Center for Advancing Opportunity, a nonprofit supporting historically Black colleges and universities and other institutions in developing education, criminal justice and other economic policies. The group was born out of a partnership between the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and marquee-name conservative backers at the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries.

Ja'Ron Smith, then-deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of American Innovation, speaks at a roundtable on race relations hosted by President Donald Trump Wednesday, June 10, 2020, with prominent Black leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

Smith's stint in the executive branch also included serving as chief policy strategist for the opportunity zone program created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, a policy he says is working well but isn't without flaws, and which has faced withering criticism for its lack of transparency and reporting requirements about the tax breaks it supplies for wealthy real estate companies that have been actively gentrifying urban areas.

Smith also authored the executive order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities and managed the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council’s $60B set-aside in the Paycheck Protection Program for minority-owned businesses, a sector that has historically had limited access to capital and that was hit disproportionately harder by the coronavirus pandemic than its White counterparts. 

Bisnow caught up with Smith a week after he announced his departure and spoke with him about his political legacy, life in the Trump White House and what drew him to conservatism.

Bisnow: When you went to work at the White House, what did you hope to achieve?

Smith: I hoped to create a better policy framework to help revitalize forgotten communities, through opportunity zones and criminal justice reform and more holistic policies to lift up forgotten communities. For too long, regardless of who was president, they had been left behind, like the one I came from. 

Bisnow: What in your background shaped your political beliefs, that made you open to working for this Republican administration? 

Smith: I grew up in Cleveland, and I grew up a Democrat, and went to college at Howard University. The reason I became a Republican is because I didn't realize at first that some of my views were conservative in essence. For example, at first I didn't really call my mistrust of government "limited government," but that's what it is. 

Also, my worldview on individualism I adopted from studying the Transcendentalists in high school. I'm not a rugged individualist, since I believe in a community of individuals working together. Still, I believe in every individual's ability to be who they are, and not let the system crush their ability to be. I later learned that that was a Republican view. And so I became a Republican when I was 20 years old, after dispelling the myth that all Republicans are racist and rich. 

Bisnow: What did your family think about you going to work for the Trump administration? 

Smith: I've been a Republican for 18 years. So it wasn't a shock, working for a Republican president. We're not ideologically the same, my family and me, but they've always been very supportive of me. 

Bisnow: What's your take on the Platinum Plan that grabbed headlines for the high-profile participation of Black icons like Ice Cube and Lil Wayne in a Republican program? How is it supposed to work and why do you think it would be a good thing for the communities you want to serve? 

Smith: For four years, we aggressively tried to do things to empower forgotten communities, which included the Black community. We did it through opportunities zones and the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council. We did a 60-city tour, and we found that even with opportunity zones, so many communities didn't have that access to capital and access to the markets that most Americans do.

So we needed to do more, which is the emphasis on the Platinum Plan, creating more access to capital for the Black community, coupled with technical assistance and the financial education. It all holistically fits together because, you know, if you create that capital, then you create more small businesses and small businesses create more jobs. We also wanted a specific focus on supply chain manufacturing and advanced manufacturing in low-income areas. 

Bisnow: Do you think some of the program is going to survive into the new administration? 

Smith: Yes. These historic disparities exist, and I think that we have to have a real infrastructure to deal with those problems so that everyone in America has access to the American dream. 

Bisnow: What were some reasons that, in the election, support for the president increased among Black and Latinx communities? 

Smith: The electorate is a lot smarter than people think. They pay attention to the policy more so than the rhetoric. I think that people are watching to see what our leaders are actually doing. Is it actually creating progress in the community? They're going to hold people accountable to that. 

Bisnow: What do you say to someone who says, why should we support a president who didn't disavow racism and white supremacy? 

Smith: Well, he did 36 different times, you know? That wasn't covered. I know Trump's a polarizing figure, but not everything that we did in these communities was covered by mainstream media. The mainstream media didn't talk about how he brought African American bankers into the Oval Office to talk about access to capital. I think that that's the discussion that people want to have now, what have you actually done? 

Bisnow: What would you say to officials who might be skeptical about the opportunity zone program, and who might want to change or kill it?

Smith: It's a positive tool, and it shouldn't be politicized, not as much as it has been. It's a long-term tool, so I'm hopeful that more local and federal leaders will see the promise of the program the longer it exists. I haven't heard that anyone really wants to kill the program. In fact, I've heard the opposite. It's seen as a viable program, it's just that both sides want to consider their own ways to leverage the program to help vulnerable populations. There will be an opportunity for the new Congress to get consensus on what tweaks will be necessary.

Bisnow: Do you support adding requirements for funds to report their impact?

Smith: Yes. That was part of the original legislation that didn't make it to the final version. I believe that understanding the impact will encourage investment in opportunity zones. There have been jobs created by the program, and it would help the program to know as much about that impact as possible.

Many of the distressed census tracts that are part of the program haven't had access to capital for decades. Access to capital is critical for them to design a strategy to revitalize themselves. The program is mutually beneficial to investors and the neighborhoods, and that's why we've had more than 200 funds investing billions in only two years. Improved reporting requirements would help ensure that opportunity zone projects are ones that benefit local communities, that create a social impact.

Bisnow: Without the data, how do you know the program is doing what it is supposed to?

Smith: We're seeing areas that haven't done revitalization work, now do revitalization. Think about how many cities have opportunity zones, and are trying to figure out how to make them work. It's happening more so in middle America than in the major cities, but I think the cities are going to do a lot more work on them under a Biden administration. 

Bisnow: So at this point, there is just anecdotal evidence?

Smith: Treasury is going to do data analytics on the program, it's just that this tax year was the first year for them to collect information. So they're going to produce some data on how projects are doing. Also, the CEA [Council of Economic Advisers] has reported on opportunity zones, how much capital they've attracted and jobs created: $75B invested, half a million jobs created in those areas. But I still think reporting needs to be part of the statute, and I believe there's a consensus in Congress to add that.

Ja'Ron Smith and Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, during the Bisnow webinar Opportunity Zone Update With HUD Secretary Ben Carson on July 9.

Bisnow: Do you think the requirement for the low-income population in an opportunity zone should be revised upward, from 25% currently to, say, 50%?

Smith: I wouldn't be opposed. We want to create ecosystems of opportunity all across the country until we don't have any low-income areas.

Bisnow: Should there be more oversight for the program by the Treasury Department? There have been questionable zones, such as the one in Palm Beach that involved a marina and upscale residential development. 

Smith: The thing is, we didn't want to make this top-heavy, like some of the other place-based programs, such as the New Market Tax Credit, where the federal government makes a lot of the decisions. We can strengthen the program so that low-income census tracks aren't put together with other tracts, or to not count college areas as part of the tracts. Some tweaks could be made in those areas, but I still think we have to have the decision-making on the local level and not on the federal level. 

Bisnow: One of the main criticisms of the program is that it helps wealthy investors, and encourages gentrification.

Smith: That criticism is true where local leaders didn't design their opportunity zones to help make a social impact. We saw, during the first iteration of the legislation, governors designating census tracts that were already gentrifying. In those places, there was more gentrification. We also saw governors whose thinking was more strategic, who helped make good projects in low-income neighborhoods more viable. So the onus is on state and local leadership to use this tool effectively. If governors had known then what they know now about the program, they wouldn't have made some of the decisions that they made, especially in some major metro areas, where they didn't pay attention and didn't listen to the developers who understood their markets.

Smaller states and midlevel cities are getting more out of opportunity zones than big metros. The media tends to cover what's happening in the major metropolitan areas, which were less likely to map out a strategy to make opportunity zones mutually beneficial.

White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council Executive Director Scott Turner, then-Deputy Assistant to the President Ja'Ron Smith and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development John Fleming taking a tour of an OZ project in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland in 2019.

Bisnow: Can you give an example of a smaller place that has benefited from the program?

Smith: Alabama. The state designed its own opportunity zone strategy and created a fund, and Birmingham created the Birmingham Inclusive Growth Partnership, a public-private endeavor. [We've] seen great progress there. Alabama is now competing for hundreds of millions of dollars of capital it didn't have access to before.

Bisnow: Do you support adding a requirement to the OZ program that projects include affordable housing or another community benefit? 

Smith: Yes. It's supposed to be a flexible-enough incentive to encourage affordable housing or job creation or small-business creation. But keep in mind that many of the barriers to affordable housing come from location regulation and high property taxes that push people out of their communities as they make them less affordable. Then there are issues with supply, maybe there are a lot of regulations that keep down the supply of housing in a locality as demand goes up. In concert with local changes to those kinds of policies, opportunity zones could work well to promote affordable housing.

Bisnow: Can you offer a little detail about working in the White House that might be surprising? The narrative is that it is chaos, but what did you experience? 

Smith: What I saw was professionals showing up to the office and doing the work people do every day. Otherwise you don't get the type of results that we delivered, such as renegotiating NAFTA or criminal justice reform or workforce development reform. You don't get these policies without professionals working every day, not running around with their heads caught on fire.

Bisnow: What went into your decision to leave, and what's next for you?

Smith: I'm having twins in January. That was a major part of the decision, to spend more time with them. I took a role as executive director for the Center for Advancing Opportunity, here in Washington. I'm going to continue to work to revitalize fragile communities.

This interview, conducted over two phone calls, has been edited and condensed for clarity.