Brian Cabell sits down and talks to Marquette’s 32-year-old, very pregnant mayor Jenna Smith to find out why she became involved with politics…and what have been the happiest and most trying most moments of her life.
BC: Where were you brought up?
JS: I grew up in Harvey with my parents and my brother on a quiet street in Harvey. My dad owned a small business and my mom worked out at the airport. They worked really hard and my brother and I had a great childhood.
BC: What would you say is your fondest memory from your childhood?
JS: Probably biking along the lakeshore all the way from Harvey to Marquette, going to the beach, spending time at the ski hill.
BC: Have you ever lived in a big city?
JS: Well, I lived in Ann Arbor where I went to college and I lived in Boulder, Colorado for five years.
BC: How did Marquette compare to them?
JS: Well, I moved back home (laughs). No, they’re great cities and I loved living there but we decided to move home when we decide to start a family. We got married back in 2013, and when we decided to settle down and start having kids, my husband Lou and I realized we wanted to come back here. He’s from Negaunee and his parents live in Negaunee, and my parents are now in Marquette. We have a lot of grandparents’ support so that’s why we’re here. Family and Lake Superior–those are the two reasons we said we wanted to move back home. I do miss the mountains from time to time but it doesn’t compare to Lake Superior.
BC: Where’d you go to school as a child?
JS: I went to Silver Creek Elementary, Bothwell Middle School, and Marquette Senior High School. And now I’m back working at the high school at MAPS as a human resources manager.
Jenna with her parents at a Bothwell Middle School band concert.
BC: What do you remember from your high school years? It wasn’t all that long ago.
JS: I would say I was pretty normal. I was on the swim team for four years, not super athletically inclined, but I was kind of the “team spirit” person. I did pretty well academically and was able to go to the University of Michigan. I majored in psychology and minored in environment.
BC: Have you followed through with those two interests?
JS: Well, I picked a general major because I always knew I would be moving back home, and it can be tough to find a job here, so I figured it was important to be flexible. If you go into a very specialized field, a lot of times it can be difficult to find a job. And actually politics has worked very well with my psych degree.
BC: And what about the big money that some pursue in bigger cities? Not a major concern?
JS: No. No, not at all. We’ve got enough for ourselves and we donate when we can. It’s not about money at all, it’s about quality of life. Being outside, skiing when I can, although I’m not able to now (she glances at her belly).
BC: Let’s talk about your husband. What is it about Lou that attracted you?
JS: He’s a guy who makes me laugh. We met at the Huron Mountain Club–we worked together up there. He was guiding day trips for kids and I was a nanny, and I could see how well he did with kids, and how great of a dad he would be one day. And he really is a great dad. We have a three year old daughter named Olive, and in mid January we’re going to have another girl (she gives a big smile).
BC: So you got married, had a child, and worked in human resources. How the heck did you get into politics?
JS: You know, a few years ago, I really didn’t like what was going on with national and state politics, and I was starting to meet with a group of young ladies in Marquette to try to figure out ways that we could make an impact. Some of those ladies joined boards and committees to focus on local issues instead of national and state issues because it was getting a little frustrating. And then when Sara Cambensy left the City Commission, leaving a vacancy, I decided to apply. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I’d be appointed but I figured, ‘Well, I’ll get my name out there and learn more about the process.’ No one was more surprised than me when the Commission appointed me.
BC: Why do you suppose they chose you?
JS: With Sara leaving, I know a few of them mentioned they would like to see a woman appointed, and there really weren’t a whole lot of applicants. I don’t want to sell myself short–I think I do well in the position. I guess they saw my qualifications and my experience and my demographics–a young female–and decided to put me on.
BC: Has it been a difficult learning curve for you?
JS: Some of the pieces–learning about public works, utilities, infrastructure–weren’t really difficult. They just required a lot of reading, a lot of research, asking questions. The job’s not really not that hard, it’s just learning and communicating and working with people, and getting people to come together.
BC: You’ve been able to find that time–even with a child, another one on the way, a husband, and a full time job? Seems like you’ve got a pretty busy life.
JS: I get great support from my family, I couldn’t do it without them. My husband, my husband’s parents, and my parents. If I didn’t live back in my hometown with all that support, there’s no way I could have done this.
Jenna and Lou skiing in Colorado.
BC: What did Lou say when you told him you were going to apply for the City Commission job?
JS: He supported me 100%. It’s when I told him I was thinking of maybe being the mayor that he questioned me because I was pregnant at the time (she laughs) but, no, he supported me even then.
BC: You won your last election handily. What’s it like running a campaign here in Marquette? A lot of work?
JS: It’s getting your name out there. Candidates do it differently. There’s social media, there’s friends, there’s signs, websites. I’d say primarily I relied on my network in town, the connections, the friends that I have.
BC: Speeches? Knocking on doors?
JS: No, it was mostly online, and going to events, just talking with folks every chance I could get. I’m a pretty outgoing person so I can just walk into a room and shake some hands and meet people pretty quickly. I don’t have an issue with that. It might be a different strategy than some others have.
BC: And then back in November your fellow commissioners elected you as mayor. Was that a surprise or were you gunning for it?
JS: Yes, there were just some things I was hoping to get some traction on that weren’t happening before I became mayor. And now that I am the mayor, I’m able to get a little more air time and sway. It’s not like magic, I can’t just flip switches now, but I’ve got a little more influence now. I’m better able to move things forward.
BC: Specifically, what are the issues that concern you?
JS: So we have a work session coming up (It happened January 2nd)–something I’ve been asking for for several months–and we’re going to look at the lakeshore from Presque Isle all the way down to South Beach, comprehensively so that we can come up with a long term plan instead of just piecemealing. And I’m also hoping to get a committee started on housing affordability–midrange housing options in Marquette. I’m not saying we’ll be able to solve these problems but we want to put them on the table and give it a whirl.
BC: Tough issues to deal with. Both probably requiring a lot of money.
JS: You just have to start the conversation, you get a plan of your wishes and dreams, and see what we can do. But if we don’t have a plan, it’s tough to even get started.
BC: You have two newly elected commissioners who’ve just joined you, and they’re as young or younger than you. Is that a good thing?
JS: That’s what Marquette wanted, right? They voted them in. I think they bring some fresh ideas to the table. They’re learning the ropes but they’re doing a nice job. We’ll have to have a few more meetings until we get a feel about how the new commission is going to operate.
BC: Some people were disappointed that we’re now back to having only two women on the Commission. Are you?
JS: No, I think we’ve got two great new commissioners, and if more women are willing to run in the future, I would absolutely support them and hope that would happen. Ultimately, it’s up to Marquette and who they want representing them. Of course, I’d like to see more women, but to me it’s not a numbers game. It’s really about having the right people at the table.
BC: And you? Do you see yourself as having a lengthy political career?
JS: I don’t know. I’ll be honest, at this point I don’t want to live anywhere other than Marquette. I’ve got a young daughter and another one on the way, I love my job at MAPS–I plan to retire there as long as they’ll have me, so I’m planning to stay local. I know at some point, I’ll be term-limited on the Commission but I haven’t planned beyond that.
BC: Let’s talk more generally about Marquette. Do you have concerns that the town could lose its identity, its charm in the years ahead with bigger buildings and more people?
JS: I have heard that concern from some residents but I don’t share that concern. I think some of the improvements we’ve had have really helped. I understand that development along the lakeshore is a big concern–some of the decisions made by prior commissions regarding One Marquette Place, and soon Two Marquette Place, people have trouble with. But that’s not something this Commission had something to vote on or discuss. I think the next opportunity when we’ll have to discuss those concerns is with the potential sale of the Cliffs-Dow property. So those concerns I’m hearing loud and clear. But otherwise I think Marquette has retained its character, and I think in the last five to ten years, we’ve really gained a reputation for being an outdoor mecca that’s giving us credibility in the grant world to get more grants for Lakeshore Bolevard and things that we need. I actually see a lot of positives at this point.
BC: Could Marquette become a town of 30-35,000 people, do you think?
JS: I struggle to see how that would work. I guess it’s possible but I don’t think at this point with the housing options that we have that that could happen.
BC: Let’s get back to you personally. What are the most important personal values to you?
JS: Family. Optimism. Helping people.
BC: Do you ever get pessimistic?
JS: Oh sometimes! (she laughs) Who doesn’t?
BC: What makes you happiest? What’s a perfect day for you?
Christmas Eve 2019, waiting for the baby to arrive.
JS: I’d say, seeing my family makes me happiest. And this year, being elected mayor, being in the Christmas parade and being able to ride in the fire truck. And then my daughter and my husband got to join me in lighting the town Christmas tree. I had the biggest smile on my face because I got to see all the smiling faces. Just being out there in a really positive way was really nice.
BC: Is there anything going on in Marquette these days that is discouraging to you? Something that you might be able to help with?
JS: I think homelessness is something that we need to address. I don’t have all the answers but we have a task force starting on that. And some of the opioid addiction issues are really concerning to me.
BC: But generally you seem to feel very good about Marquette and where it’s going. What is it about Marquette that makes it special?
JS: I think it’s the community, it’s the people and what they choose to do with their time compared to other places where I’ve lived. They’re here because they want to be here. They’re not here because they have to. You know, they have a job but they have a lot of things to do to get through the winter that are fun–snowhoeing, skiing, hiking. There’s just such a good attitude here. They say Hi to you when you walk down the street.
BC: Let’s get a little more serious. The most difficult thing you’ve had to deal with in life.
JS: (She pauses) In 2018 my husband and I had a miscarriage, and it was painful physically and emotionally. And prior to that, before I had my daughter, we struggled with infertility for a long time, so we’ve really run the gamut on fertility issues but now I’m pregnant again, and it’s a thrill to be carrying baby to full term at this point. But it’s bittersweet thinking back to those memories.
BC: You’re 32, going on 33. You’ve got to be proud of yourself–a mayor of an up-and-coming city.
JS: Yeah, I’m pretty proud of myself. I didn’t do it for notoriety reasons. It’s funny, I tell people that I’m the mayor, and they don’t believe me at first.
Marquette’s mayor with Michigan Governor Christine Whitmer.
BC: Was this ever a goal of yours when you were younger?
JS: It’s funny, I remember saying I was going to be President one day. Not a goal of mine anymore.
BC: What else do you and your daughter and husband do besides your jobs?
JS: We’ve been doing a lot of sledding, although I’m not doing any sledding at this point. We go to the beach in the summer, get outside, go visit my husband’s family in Negaunee, take a sauna, go to the ski hill, and get French fries for my daughter, and watch the skiers.
BC: What’s most important thing you can teach your daughters?
JS: To be respectful of others, to work hard, and to know that they can do anything if they put their minds to it.
BC: Final question. Do you have spiritual beliefs?
JS: I was raised Catholic, I do believe in God, I’m not the best Catholic in the world, I go to church a few times a year. My mom would like me to go to church a little more often. I could make time for it but it just hasn’t been priority for me, but it’s something that’s always there, and I could go back to it at some point. I find God more in the wilderness and the forest than in church at this time in my life and that probably makes me a bad Catholic. I’d say I’m more spiritual than religious at this point in my life, but that’s always subject to change.
BC: Thank you, Jenna.