This is an interview between myself and Mr. Ja’Ron Smith the Deputy Director for the Office of American Innovation under the authority of President Donald J. Trump. Ja’Ron met with various elected officials, community leaders, stakeholders as well as a reception hosted by Michael Canty and LaVerne Gore and the local Republican Party. The opportunity for me to sit down with someone of his statue and standing as well as a former resident of the Lee-Harvard area where I came from was indeed an honor. I am certainly proud of this young man; this African-American young man standing strong at the pinnacle of even greater accomplishments.
Dale Edwards: Good Morning Mr. Director Ja’Ron Smith.
Ja’Ron Smith: Thank you for having me here.
DE: After speaking with various leaders in the City, what message would you leave with Cleveland? I know that earlier you mentioned the reception; was there a difference between this one and the one prior?
Ja’Ron Smith: Sure, well, since it’s all about building trust, I talked a little bit about that, and I think that many people really knew who I was and or what community I came from. So, the Plain Dealer article helped, I think build trust and understanding, knowing that someone from the Community is actually in a position to help move the needle. It has been shared priorities, really you know, it is always my priority, getting into politics to help build ladders of opportunities. Therefore, it was a priority of the President. Being one of his first hires, under his leadership we have been able to help create infrastructure that can help and really drastically to revitalize some of these communities and so the goal here is to talk about that infrastructure and how the administration can partner with local communities to help empower the residents that live there.
DE: When it comes to gentrification do you believe that this is something that is happening across the country and certainly right here in your hometown?
Ja’Ron Smith: Yes, it is something that has existed prior to the Trump Administration and what the President realizes is that we have to do something about it. We can’t just talk about the problem we have to figure out solutions. Our solution for the problem was bringing in new capital through opportunity zones. There is a lot of mis-education on what opportunity zones are but it is literally a tool to deal with issues like gentrification. For example, I mentioned earlier to a group of people how local leaders have used the tool to create affordable housing. You know, you have zoning requirements. Many people who live in these communities, own their homes and so they are designated an opportunity zone and their property value has gone up. Whereas it is the responsibility of our local leaders not to raise taxes on people who may be on a fixed income, own their homes, and not be forced to sale. Therefore, it is many things, but it is all really pointing back to accountability to our local leadership. However, we are willing, through Dr. Secretary Carson’s leadership to do what we can do to facilitate prosperity.
DE: I know you have been asked this question repeatedly. The revitalization, is this a political journey? Alternatively, is this a venture to really promote urban renewal and demand in these neighborhoods?
Ja’Ron Smith: “It is really a journey to create an opportunity right now. There is nothing political about it. It is non-political. That is why we are agnostic on working with the Republicans or Democrats right now. We are willing to work with anyone who is willing to produce outcomes. Right now, so many of these communities have been given nothing but “lip service,” without real action. Therefore, when you think about it, like USMCA, those are like real jobs. We just do not want to stop and talk about the jobs; we want those ladders, so people will know where to go and get these workforce opportunities.
DE: Now, you and I are both aware of all the negativity that is associated with the President of the United States Donald Trump, especially, in the urban communities, it is unbelievable, you know. What would you say or what would you do as an African-American to encourage our brothers and sisters to get onboard, give him a chance and take advantage of this opportunity, allowing it to work for them?
Ja’Ron Smith: Well, we have never had leadership like President Trump, who has actually focused on, we are talking about three years of policies, and the first two years he focused on policies to help our communities. He got Criminal Justice Reform accomplished, and it is important for people to understand the President got it done because without the Republican leadership, you would not have gotten many Conservatives onboard, you would not have gotten many of the law enforcement agencies to support that legislation and another Democrat leading you would not have gotten a bipartisanship. Therefore, it is important to know that through the President’s leadership we have created an infrastructure that empowers people. Even like, historical HBCU’s, next week the President is going to decide into law $250,000,000 of permanent funding to historical black colleges and minority institutions. A month into his administration he signed an executive order to empower HBCU’s, by the end of that year, when tax reform was passed he had the opportunity zone legislation there. Again, I was one of his first hires, and so leadership is all about being very intentional. The President ran on helping the “forgotten” community, and he did speak and say, “What do you have to lose?” However, one thing that is not being covered right now is what you have to gain from working with someone like the President that is focused on outcomes and creating outcomes for all Americans.
DE: I hear about all the capital and private equity that is available because there is less legislature than the traditional avenues to obtain business loans. How would small businesses in our area “tap into” or take advantage of this opportunity?
Ja’Ron Smith: Sure, well there is education, you know we, right now are internally working on partnerships with some non-profits, as well as SBA and Minority Business Development Agencies to help, you know the young and local entrepreneurs learn how to market themselves for Equity Investments. It is a paradigm shift but it is an important one. You do not always have to use a debt instrument, or you can have a blend of the two, because access to capital is extremely important. Most of the conversations I have had here today, I have met with some very successful African-American business owners. I have also met with people who are like my sister who has a small business, and just had her ability to contract with the government. In addition, we are trying to figure out a way to try to scale businesses like that because that is how you really get some jobs into the communities. I think it is also great for people in these communities to see people who look like them own businesses too. There is a lot of work to be done in that area. In the next six months, our administration is and will apply a huge focus in that area. About two months ago, we hired Ashley Bell, first African-American man Regional Director of SBA, who grew up in the southeast. He is advising the White House on entrepreneurship and innovations. We are looking to build or to have more of an infrastructure federally and partner with state and local leaders so that people who want that path towards entrepreneurship can get the access to capital and know how to navigate it. Also connect on mentoring and mentors, you know like the Presidents Council and these are people that locally are willing to cultivate that equal system.
DE: Let me ask this question: “What credentials do you have? So for those readers that say he is an African-American, a (face) to use for the administration, what do I say to those readers that ask what are your credentials. Talking to you, you are genuine “I get that feeling from you.” “You know I really did not know what to expect.” “I was aware of what people had told me about you, I said well, “I’m going to wait and see.” “After talking to you, you sound very educated and well spoken, so for me, I know that is not the case,” (you are not just the face for the administration) however for the readers, what are your credentials?” “Can you give me that information?”
Ja’Ron Smith: I worked on Capitol Hill for ten years, I was an Economic Advisor to Senator, Tim Scott, I worked on the Senate Banking Committee, the Senate House Financial Services Committee, and I worked on Senate Finance. When I served in the White House, I was the Chief Liaison to the Ways and Means Committee, so I worked on things, such as the Farm Bill, as well as I negotiated the Criminal Justice Reform Bill. I wrote over seven executive orders on behalf of the President, with the Domestic Policy Council. So my background is in Public Policy, I have a BBA in Finance, I spent time in Financial Advisor, I had my Series 7 and Series 66, I ran my own small business here in Cleveland, and so I understand markets, I understand economics, but more importantly I understand the community. I understand only because I spent time, working in the Church, working in re-entry and working on mentoring programs. I started Community Service when I was in High School, I had an organization that was called “Qudos and Zenos,” it was a high school fraternity service organization; we would visit orphanages and doing things like visiting the elderly during the holiday seasons. We did a lot of cool things, and I have always tried to balance the two worlds with Public Policy and actually doing things.
DE: “Finally, what primary goal do you want to leave with Cleveland as you go back to Washington?”
Ja’Ron Smith: I think, One, finding local leaders that are willing to partner with us. Second goal, is to figure out a strategy for some of these communities. I was, it was hurtful to hear communities like Lee and Harvard were not designated as opportunity zone and East Cleveland that was not designated as an opportunity zone and so what we want to do is to create a strategy for communities like that. In addition, to make sure that those zones that are designated, when they are revitalized that the people in those communities benefit from it.
DE: THANK YOU