“He grew up in an area that was dominated by Democratic politics and yet still had many of the socioeconomic issues that you see in other urban centers,” Mr. Andrews said. “He’s said, ‘I asked myself why does this exist, and if what we’ve been doing isn’t working, then why not try something different?’”
Starting with Mr. Watts and later working for Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, the future vice president, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Mr. Smith made a name for himself on Capitol Hill for his ambition, his drive and his willingness to work with Democrats, according to over a dozen friends, colleagues and White House officials who spoke for this article. He was offered a job in the Trump White House as an urban affairs policy adviser in 2017.
“A lot of people didn’t want to subject themselves to the criticism and the scrutiny,” said Darrell Scott, a minister and informal Trump adviser, recalling the backlash that he and other Black people, including the musician Kanye West, have received for expressing interest in working with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Smith was not deterred.
Until recently, Mr. Smith largely flew under the radar, while Omarosa Manigault-Newman, a White House aide, and Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, became known as the most prominent Black officials in the overwhelmingly white upper reaches of the Trump administration.
Ms. Manigault-Newman left the White House after less than a year and wrote a tell-all book calling the president a racist. Mr. Carson has maintained a relatively low profile, though nothing compared to Mr. Smith.
In a 2018 television appearance, Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, did not appear to know Mr. Smith’s last name when asked to list high-ranking Black administration officials. “We have Ja’Ron,” she said.