Gene Smith, St. Pete’s ‘9th council member,’ dies at 68

Gene Smith, a longtime St. Petersburg community activist, was found dead Monday at age 68.
Gene Smith, a longtime St. Petersburg community activist, was found dead Monday at age 68.
Published January 9 2018
Updated January 10 2018

ST. PETERSBURG— They called him the "ninth council member" around city hall. He leaves behind colorful memories that do not face any term limits.

Gene Smith, 68, was found dead in his Fifth Street N apartment on Monday morning, according to St. Petersburg police. His death is still under investigation. However, police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said there was no appearance of foul play.

This week, friends and elected officials remembered Smith for his passion for St. Petersburg and his intense interest in every detail of city politics and policy, two subjects that often intertwined.

Many times he was the only person at City Council committee meetings who wasn’t on staff. Smith could be found on the steps of city hall between meetings, smoking a cigarette, jovially debating the issue of the day, often with a rumbling laugh punctuating a quick wit.

Though Smith never held elected office, his knowledge about the city earned him his nickname as the ninth council member — something the eight elected council members often referenced.

"I don’t know anybody who was more passionate about St. Petersburg and its government than Gene," said Tony Collins, president of the Blake Collins Group, where Smith worked as an independent consultant.

"He worked at it day and night."

As word spread of Smith’s passing on social media, elected officials and activists mourned a man who had been active in the 2010-13 pier fight, development and countless other issues since he left corporate life back in 2002.

Former council member Karl Nurse said he admired Smith’s ability to mediate on hot-button issues.

"He never let emotions override his brain, " Nurse said. "He always brought common sense to the issues."

When he wasn’t at city hall, Smith often held court a five-minute walk away at a table outside the Starbucks at the corner of First Avenue N and Second Street N.

That’s where council member Gina Driscoll knew to find Smith after she filed to run for council last year.

They sat and talked city politics and a friendship was born. In recent weeks, Smith told everyone how proud he was of Driscoll, who won her City Council race in November and was recently sworn in to fill Nurse’s old seat.

"He knew it all," Driscoll said. "I’ll try my best to honor him."

Mario Farias, a consultant who has known Smith for years, said he will be missed by a large group of friends around the city. But Farias and others said that Smith rarely spoke about his personal life.

"Everybody knew him, everybody loved him," Farias said. "He was the most familiar loner I’ve seen."

Smith’s parents died when he was 4-years-old, said his cousin Bill Gramigna, 71, who lives in Franklin, N.C.

Smith came to live with Gramigna’s family, who soon afterward moved from Philadelphia to St. Petersburg. He was raised as a brother to the three Gramigna sons. Their parents wanted Smith to keep his own name to honor his parents, the cousin said.

"He was my brother," Bill Gramigna said. "He lived a good life. He was happy."

The rest of the family eventually relocated to Georgia and North Carolina. But Smith stayed in the city he loved.

"He always used to call me and say ‘This is the in-place to live,’" Bill Gramigna said. "He loved St. Pete. He would never leave."

Smith had been married and divorced three times. He had no children, his cousin said.

A graduate of Boca Ciega High School, Smith served in the Marines in Vietnam as part of a helicopter unit attached to the 1st Marine Division between 1970 and 1971, his cousin said.

Smith later worked in the financial services department for Florida Power Corp. (now Duke Energy Florida), Florida Federal Savings and Goldman Sachs before starting his career as a freelance consultant in 2002, according to a biography provided by the Blake Collins Group.

He was proudest of his efforts to defeat the Lens, the first replacement proposed for the city’s iconic waterfront pier. After a long and contentious battle, voters rejected the idea in 2013. The Pier Park plan was approved in 2014 and construction recently started.

More recently, Smith frequently posted to selfies to Facebook, asking friends: "Where am I now?"

Often it was Fresco’s Waterfront Bistro at the corner of Second Avenue NE and Bayshore Drive NE. Collins said he used to joke with Smith about that: "He was always at the same place."

Mayor Rick Kriseman tweeted his condolences Monday evening:

"Sad to learn about the passing of a City Hall fixture, Gene Smith – often called the 9th council member. He knew the issues well, helped us move forward on our new pier, and was always respectful. He will be missed."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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