In the Political Soup In South Carolina
By Michael Powell
COLUMBIA, S.C. He's so handsome, that young governor up there on the flatbed at the Lexington stables. He's got an arm around his pretty and very pregnant wife, and he's waving and grinning as everyone chews on chopped barbecue under a periwinkle sky in God's own patch of South Carolina.
"Thanks to all of y'all." The governor emotes charm at a fabulous rate. "We appreciate your love and election support. God bless you and God bless South Carolina."
The audience whispers are audible: Such a niiiice man. Such a cuuuute wife. So down-home.
What a shame he's been accused of sleeping with his press secretary, lying to fellow Republicans and besmirching the Confederate flag, which in South Carolina is a bit like spitting at the pope. He's angered the Bubba vote, the black vote, the gambling vote and the anti-gambling vote and all that in just in the past few months.
Shoot, even the governor admits it's left him with a Democratic contender hot on his heels.
"You bet I'm in trouble and I'm very, very surprised, too," Gov. David Beasley says later, voice hiking high at the mention of his predicament. "I never nevuh expected to find myself in this kind of trouble. And it's all because everyone is spreading the most terrible lies about me."
Beasley's Rise and (possible) Fall is one of the curiouser tales of this election year, a political story replete with baroque Southern twists. Just a year ago, he was dashing David, a boyish 41-year-old governor who rode into office with the blessing of a Christian Coalition that was intent on shouldering its way into the political mainstream. He was chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a guy who could joke with the bigfoot national reporters and turn a quotable quote with good-ol'-boy panache. South Carolina's economy was plump as a fattened pig. And prominent supporters had taken to stage-whispering Beasley's name as a vice presidential candidate.
Life was so righteous.
Then the man regarded as the Prince Hal of South Carolina's Republican Right started behaving most strangely. Beasley went on ABC's "Nightline" two years back and announced that God had instructed him to take down the Confederate flag that flies over the state capitol dome.
"A flag should be a symbol that unites all those standing below it," Beasley said to the surprise of some of his own staffers. "One that every South Carolinian can look up to with respect and admiration."
Unfortunately God didn't pass the word to Beasley's fellow Republicans, who united as one and crushed the proposal. Asked if God wants him to try again, Beasley winced and offered a more secular take on the question.
"There's no education," he noted, "in the second kick of a mule."
There was more.
Beasley campaigned as a zealous opponent of abortion but let money slip into the state budget for Planned Parenthood. He styled himself a Gospel-driven Christian; then he put on a black leather jacket and a red bandanna and drove a Harley-Davidson to the opening of a strip club in Charleston, a city the Christian Right regards as a suburb of Hades.
And all the while his Republican Party gnawed at itself. The newly empowered right-wing Evangelicals no sooner put Beasley in office than they set to warring with the suburban "country club" gentry for control of Republican county organizations. The tasseled-loafer types in the Midlands, as central South Carolina is known, began defecting to the Democrats.
"There's a lot of get-even stuff going on," says Bob Taylor, a politically astute dean at Bob Jones University, a center of conservative evangelism in South Carolina's Up-Country. "The country club types can't stand that we're the reason the Republicans have gone from minority to majority status in South Carolina."
Finally, Beasley's fervent opposition to a state lottery and video poker his evangelical supporters regard both as Satan's handmaidens ignited one of the stranger firestorms in national politics. Many so-called Bubba voters are much enamored of the video poker machines that are found in every hamlet of the state. When Beasley tried to outlaw the machines, the working-class vote and the organized gambling industry turned on him.
They poured more than a million dollars into the coffers of the Democratic candidate for governor, Jim Hodges, a hitherto little-known state representative who slams Beasley and champions a lottery as the salvation for the struggling public schools.
One prominent businessman, deep in the throes of lottery lust, even placed a billboard on Interstate 95, poking fun at the governor:
"Gov. David Beeslay welkums you too south Carolina. We be gots de wurstest skools in de United State."
It's all left the young governor rather shellshocked. Just a year ago, 67 percent of voters gave him a favorable rating. Today just 40 percent speak well of him.
The political crowd is morbidly impressed. It's quite difficult, they note, for a young, incumbent Republican in South Carolina to lose his seat to a Democrat.
"Beasley's managed quite skillfully to [tick] off every element of his constituency," says Glen Broach, a political science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. "He has a lot of natural strengths to draw on and he's handled nearly every one ineptly."
Then there's The Jingle.
Ask Sheriff Jimmy Metts about it and his lower lip starts to quiver. He cops a quick plea.
"I did it, I did it. I made a mistake. Dumb, dumb, dumb. I was used by Democrats."
If David Beasley is Prince Hal, then the older, rounder Metts is his Falstaff. They're friends 'cept when they're feuding. After a recent falling-out, Metts, who is sheriff of the largest Republican county in the state, declared his independent candidacy for governor and released a parody of a Cyndi Lauper song, titled "David Just Wants to Have Fun."
It implied strongly that Beasley had carnal relations with a former press secretary. Beasley, his wife, the former press secretary and her husband held a news conference to denounce the unsubstantiated rumor, which had, in fact, circulated for two years.
"David and I have a wonderful, faithful, Christ-centered marriage," testified Mary Wood Beasley. "Even our dogs are angry," growled George Wolfe, husband of the press secretary.
The couples closed with a group hug.
Metts was mortified. He dropped out of the race and held tearful reunions with Beasley, for whom he now can't stop throwing fund-raising barbecues. And Beasley, who is most formidable when he's making it up on the run, has fashioned the defense of his marital honor into a campaign weapon.
He even encourages reporters to ask about the scurrilous stuff.
"The organized gambling industry has tried to resurrect some old lies." Beasley hikes up his pleated pants and gives you that narrow-eyed, make-my-day look. "But we fooled 'em. We caught 'em with their pants down in the old-fashioned way."
A Yankee reporter was not clear on what that image implied. No matter.
Beasley is a mercurial, quick-quipped character, and more complicated than his Republican Bible-toting image suggests. He hails not from the hilly Bible Belt but from Lamar, a Low Country town where his daddy was a wealthy banker. When the desegregation orders came in the 1960s, Beasley's father kept him in the public schools as most whites scampered to private academies.
He was a jock, and a bit of a naughty boy, who played baseball and bounced around a couple of colleges before earning a law degree at the University of South Carolina. He ran successfully for the state legislature as a Democrat at the age of 21, and settled into the life of a party climber, even serving as a delegate for Michael Dukakis in 1988.
A year later he found God. A year after that he found the Republican Party. Such midnight conversions are not unusual. South Carolina is in the throes of a profound political and cultural metamorphosis, from monolithic Democratic domination to strongly Republican.
The newly minted Republican took aim at the governor's office in 1994, with the help of outgoing Gov. Carroll Campbell, a wizardly politician still much esteemed in South Carolina. Beasley's pilgrimage to Pat Robertson's Virginia Beach headquarters helped line up the Christian Coalition, too.
He got off to a glorious start after a narrow victory. Per capita income nosed upward and BMW opened a plant near Greenville, a once-sleepy hill city where trattorias and condos are elbowing out the Piggly Wiggly supermarkets and mobile homes.
Still, Beasley had that civil war raging inside his Republican Party. And that complicated his every move.
"He took on the flag because he wanted to clean up the state's image so he could run nationally," says Taylor of Bob Jones University. "But a lot of Sons of the Confederacy are members of the religious right, and it got him in a whole lot of trouble."
Beasley won't argue the point. He's just trying to fix fences and stay on message. After a fund-raising barbecue near Columbia, he and Metts and a beer-barrel of a man named Kermit LaForce huddle in the cool, dusty darkness. The crickets keep up a racket and a pale moon's visible through the red pines.
Beasley stares at his guys. "I need you, fellas, I do. I've kicked over a lot of red ant hills and they're spreadin' lies."
Metts and LaForce nod, their eyebrows knitted, real solemn.
"Guv, you know we're with you," Metts says. "We'll have 'em crying before it's over."
In a hangarlike armory in rural Bamberg, S.C., where the cuisine du soir is catfish stew and nuggets of deep-fried deer meat and the ma^tre d'politics is a 70-year-old white farmer named Bubba Free, a couple hundred blacks and whites are cheering Jim Hodges.
He's the stoop-shouldered, balding fellow who just might unseat Beasley and become the next Democratic governor of South Carolina.
Free, a courtly old gent, signals Hodges to set aside his catfish stew. "Man, step up here, Jim, 'cause you're about to become our next governor."
Hodges has found a near-perfect issue in public education, which remains a feudal throwback in many corners of the state. And, in a Democratic concession to changed times, he never mentions taxing South Carolina's wealthy yuppies to pay for education.
He favors a lottery, and that excites blue-collar voters, not to mention the gambling industry, which has given him near-parity in fund-raising with the Republicans.
Still, his recipe for electoral success is complicated. Scratch together 30 to 35 percent of the white vote in the Midlands suburbs near Columbia and among the swamps and cotton fields of the coastal plains. Hope for 90 percent of the black vote. And close your eyes and pretend the more liberal national party doesn't exist.
Ask Hodges if national Dems will stump for him, and he raises his hands in mock horror. "No, no! Close the airports! I hope not. And, please, quote me."
This race, in fact, may be something of an anachronism, a last blip on the screen for the South Carolina Democrats delivered courtesy of Beasley's missteps.
"The underlying data and demographics all favor the Republicans," says Charles Dunn, a Clemson University political analyst. "The Democrats are doing this one with smoke and mirrors."
There's a hint of truth there. And the Democrat's chief necromancer is another of this state's outsize political characters: Dick Harpootlian, the state party chairman. Republican operatives give him their own nickname: "Lucifer."
Working the phone from his stately law offices in Columbia, Harpootlian intends to revive his flagging party by any means necessary. He's subpoenaed Beasley's appointment logs, pored over his financial disclosure statements and threatened to interrogate the governor about his sex life.
And he serves up steaming platefuls of invective.
"David Beasley's a polyester cheap knockoff version of Bill Clinton. He doesn't have a philosophical belief that isn't backed by a tracking poll. He's best at riding a motorcycle and keeping a good tan. He'd rather golf you realize he's played in 43 golf tournaments in the past 45 months!? than govern. I tell you "
Harpootlian tries to draw a breath, but the words keep pouring out.
"He's born rich, silver-spoon special. . . . When David Beasley looks at the camera and cries, a tear comes out of just one eye."
It's one of those peculiar Beasley moments.
The young governor's been feeling better. He's tossed out some good-for-nothing campaign consultants, run a couple of good attack ads he's accused Hodges and Harpootlian of "trying to turn South Carolina into Atlantic City South" and made it clear he's prepared to sign off on the execution of a few convicted murderers right before Election Day. All in all, it's got his poll numbers inching up.
"They've run a downright dishonest campaign against us," he says. "But, buddy-roo, we're turning this around."
Then he goes out and announces he will appoint his mentor, former governor Campbell, to fill any vacancy in the U.S. Senate. Actuarial odds suggest that's a pretty serious offer.
Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, who is 76, is favored for reelection. After 32 years in the Senate, he's still the state's junior senator. The very senior senator is Strom Thurmond, a mere 95 years old.
But it's a bad move. Newspapers question Beasley's taste and raise the specter of a quid pro quo, as Campbell has just announced that he's going to descend from his million-dollar perch as a life insurance lobbyist and campaign for Beasley.
Harpootlian waited about three minutes before jumping on that baby. He says he's outraged, a claim cast in doubt only by the deliriously happy sound of his voice.
"This is the South, man, you can't talk that way," he says. "It's like your father hits 90 years old and you start talking about who's going to get Grandpa's room every time he gets the sniffles. It's tasteless, it's morbid, it's . . ."
It's ground zero for David Beasley.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company