Joe Wilson's stepson vs. insurance mogul's son-in-law in South Carolina runoff

SQUARING OFF: Leighton Lord and Alan Wilson debate on a radio talk show. Wilson earned 39 percent of the vote in the primary to Lord's 37, necessitating the runoff.
SQUARING OFF: Leighton Lord and Alan Wilson debate on a radio talk show. Wilson earned 39 percent of the vote in the primary to Lord's 37, necessitating the runoff. (Brett Flashnick For The Washington Post)

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Future historians may well be tempted to dub the past year the Age of Lunacy in Palmetto State politics.

Young campaign aides roll across South Carolina in the back of oversize SUVs, reading the memoirs of their two-timed first lady, Jenny Sanford, while her soon-to-be-ex-hubby occupies the governor's office and pines for his "soul mate" in Buenos Aires. One year -- almost to the day -- since GOP Gov. Mark Sanford confessed his marital sins, the political discourse once again swirls with talk of "inappropriate relationships," alleged and denied. The florid vocabulary of the election season has descended to "ragheads" and "elephant dung." You can look it up, as they say.

So, a South Carolina contest with no allegations of marital infidelities or phantom candidates bears close scrutiny. Just who in tarnation do these guys think they are? Alan Wilson and Leighton Lord, facing each other in Tuesday's Republican runoff for the attorney general nomination, are derelict in their duty to produce tabloid fodder.

The Wilson-Lord race, though, is richer than it seems from afar. It delivers almost perfectly constructed and ancient archetypes: the stepson vs. the son-in-law, the candidate schooled in the ways of the annual Okra Strut vs. the candidate schooled in the ways of Capitol Hill.

Alan Wilson is the stepson of Addison Graves Wilson Sr., better known as Joe, the South Carolina congressman who bellowed, "You lie!" at President Obama. Joe Wilson has been crisscrossing South Carolina for the better part of four decades sowing Republican seeds, but he didn't become a household name until his outburst during Obama's health-care address to a joint session of Congress last year.

Alan -- an Army National Guard veteran in Iraq and former prosecutor -- announced his candidacy for attorney general the day before the interruption-heard-round-the-world, which the scion simply calls "The Incident." The stepfather rose to folk hero status; the stepson got lots of airtime as the family's next-generation spinner.

Alan Wilson, who flunked the bar exam on his first try and is now in private practice, remembers other sorts of interruptions while he was growing up. His stepfather would shut off Saturday morning cartoons when he was a child to pack up the family for political appearances at country festivals like the Chitlin' Strut in Salley, S.C., which celebrates the virtues of fried pork viscera.

The younger Wilson's biological father was an Army captain named Michael McCrory, who was killed in a helicopter crash at Fort Bragg. Joe Wilson was acquainted with McCrory's widow, Roxanne -- he'd been a counselor when she attended a Republican-themed camp as a teenager -- and had visited the couple when Alan was only a few months old.

He later married Roxanne and adopted Alan when the boy was 3. Alan once hyphenated his name but now has switched to just Wilson. Congressman Wilson keeps a photo of McCrory in his Washington office. "We do revere his dad," Joe Wilson, 62, says in a telephone interview one afternoon.

Lord is the son-in-law of Gayle Averyt, the retired chairman of Colonial Life Insurance, a company co-founded by Averyt's father that has grown sufficiently enormous to have the University of South Carolina's basketball arena named after it. Gayle Averyt was also a leader in the redevelopment of South Carolina's Republican Party.

Averyt, 76, says Lord's wife, Caroline, and her two unmarried sisters have selected Lord to be "family leader" and oversee his trust after his death. Lord, who calls himself a "military brat," was born in Hawaii, and got his start in politics sleuthing mobsters for the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for four years under then-Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware, the state where Lord grew up. "My only use in Washington was to stay in government or become a lobbyist," Lord says. "I wanted to get out -- be a real lawyer." But he became more a corporate attorney than an Atticus Finch.

Politeness and politics

In campaign appearances, Lord and Wilson fall all over themselves to be polite to each other in that gracious Southern way -- they are the well-mannered stepson and son-in-law. They differ only a little politically: Each would continue a lawsuit against Obamacare. What passes for a clash is Wilson's emphasis on using the attorney general's office for criminal prosecution and Lord's contention that the office should support local criminal prosecutions, rather than lead them. Wilson tells the audience at a courthouse rally in Lexington, S.C., that Lord is "a very nice person." Lord tells the audience during a radio debate that Wilson is "a gentleman."


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