Gregory O. Smiley is making history. Smiley, 36, is running U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s re-election campaign. He is the first Black campaign manager for a New York State senator and the first for a sitting U.S. senator.
Accepting the position earlier this month, Smiley is traveling across the state to rally voters to re-elect Gillibrand for another term.
Smiley’s story is one of American success. He has been in public service most of his life and it’s no surprise he is working in politics. A native of Jamaica in the West Indies, he moved to the United States when he was 5 years old to East New York, Brooklyn, with his six brothers and sisters.
“East New York has its challenges like any other community,” he said. “We were fortunate that we had a stable home, but we saw violence and poverty. Growing up in East New York gives you a level of confidence.”
Living in his neighborhood, Smiley said he saw a difference between the haves and the have-nots. He wanted to get a better understanding of who was making the decisions about what was going on.
“If you aren’t on the table, you’re on the menu,” he said. “I wanted to be at the table.”
Smiley first attended Kingsborough Community College before going to City College, where he was active in the school’s NAACP chapter. During his college years, he received mentoring from NAACP State Conference President Hazel Dukes, who gave him his first opportunity to speak at City Hall. While in college he interned at the United Nations and the NYC Media Group.
“I wanted to do a bit more,” he said. “I wanted to do something for the community, so I became an auxiliary police officer while I was in college. The experience lifted my consciousness, not only about policing but about violence.”
Smiley’s entrance into politics happened when he interned for Mount Vernon Assemblyman Gary Pretlow. Soon after he became a lobbyist for the City University of New York living in Albany where he saw the political landscape and inner workings of how government functions.
While working in Albany he met the late Terrene Tolbert, a political operative who was the Nevada state director for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. Smiley moved to Nevada and became Tolbert’s special assistant.
“Nevada was a pivotal state and it was hard work. I helped senior citizens vote, did fundraising events, knocked on doors. It was an amazing experience,” he said.
When he came back to New York, he worked as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s regional representative in Brooklyn. Smiley later became a delegate at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
During Caucus Weekend he met Gillibrand and says there was an instant connection.
“She spoke about her faith, which was a major part of my life,” he said. “I connected with that.”
Smiley started working with Gillibrand in 2014 as her director of intergovernmental affairs where he worked in areas such as Homeland Security and housing.
After working for the senator for four years, the two sat down for a conversation about her re-election campaign. The conversation ended with Gillibrand asking Smiley to be her campaign manager.
His days are spent working with voters, keeping Gillibrand up-to-date on the issues and managing the staff helping her to get re-elected to another term.
“This is an important opportunity, and no two days are the same. The senator and I share the same values. She’s speaking up for those who don’t have a voice and making sure that we speak truth to power so people don’t feel that they are voiceless,” he said.
Along with working in politics, Smiley also gives back. He previously served as treasurer on the board of trustees for the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem.
As Smiley takes on his new position, getting deeper into politics, he said that although running for office isn’t a passion, never say never.
“There are a lot of individuals who are making an impact and they are not elected officials,” he said. “There’s a lot more that I could do, but I don’t see myself as an elected official.”