During Wednesday’s town hall meeting at the College of Charleston, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey told Gov. Nikki Haley that he needs her help in resolving the dispute over proposed rail routes through his city. Haley told him to contact Commerce Department Secretary Bobby Hitt and get him back down to the city for talks. “If he doesn’t, call me and let me know.” Meanwhile, nearby neighbors of Patriots Point told Haley that they want a seat on the board that operates the site. She told them to “contact one of your legislators and copy me on it.”
The “call me” message was used time and time again by the governor at the town hall meeting, where 500 Charleston voters listened to Haley talk about her favorite issues, and then they politely lined up in droves to talk about everything else. Throughout the Q&A, the governor’s response was a near-categorical deferral: “I’m going to have to get back to you on that.” “You have any problems, let me know.” “Contact us.” “Call us. We will set that up for you.” Business cards for the governor’s office were flying left and right. Considering this is the sixth of seven town halls, it’s safe to say her voicemail is filling up.
At least one local political expert noticed Haley’s ability to dodge and deflect. “It’s a reluctance to put anything more concrete out there,” says Jeri Cabot, a political science professor at CofC. “Without the facts and figures or her staff in front of her, she’s playing it safe.” But coming to Charleston unprepared is not playing it safe — the county voted for Democrat Vincent Sheheen in November.
Before Haley took the podium, a promotional video ran featuring Van Halen’s “Right Now,” and it was so quiet you could hear the small smattering of college students who attended the event sigh at the old campaign-trail standard. What did they expect, Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America”?
But when the video got to Haley’s talking points noting her opposition to national healthcare reform, the crowd began a dueling duet of boos and cheers. At first, the shouting was in unison, but it quickly evolved into a back and forth — “boo,” cheer, “boo,” cheer, “boo.”
When it came time for questions, the cheers kept to their seats, but the boos were ready to press the governor on healthcare reform. The governor smartly addressed each voter at the mic with her direct attention, which was commendable considering that some politicians go off on oratorical tangents when pressed with questions they don’t like. But as Haley continued to pass on e-mail addresses and phone numbers to voters, one after another, it hinted at an inability on her part to connect with them — that challenging difference between hearing and listening.
Maybe the best example of Haley’s tendency to dodge a question came after a woman launched into an angry anti-Islamic rant about an alleged terrorist training camp in York County and the desire of Muslim-Americans to bring strict Sharia law to the United States.
The woman said, “Islam is not just a religion. It is a hate-filled, misogynistic political doctrine.” As the daughter of Indian immigrants who raised her in the Sikh faith — the governor later became a Methodist — it was an opportunity for Haley to offer a unique perspective on the need for religious tolerance. Instead, Haley told the woman to — wait for it — contact the governor’s office if she believed there were terrorists training in the state.
Before Haley stepped onstage, a staffer carried out a large “report card” of priorities that “we” expect from the legislature. And by “we,” Haley likely meant her and everyone who picked up the homemade, baby-blue “We Are the Movement” T-shirts one of the governor’s fans left on a table out front.
Haley had already told the crowd that her list wasn’t meant to “bash” the legislature. These were the same issues she talked about on the campaign trail — issues like the need for recorded votes and budget reform in the General Assembly, more authority in the governor’s office, and tort reform.
“All of these things are what people wanted,” she said. But those weren’t the issues that Charleston voters wanted to talk about. College students were worried about tuition costs. Crew members from Army Wives wanted to protect incentives for the film industry. The parents of special needs children wanted to talk about preserving their access to therapy sessions amidst Medicaid cuts. State employees were looking for assurances that their retirement benefits were safe.
Dunhill Staffing Systems executive Neil Whitman said that he was worried about the sharp spikes in fees that he was paying in order to replenish the state’s unemployment fund. (Industries with high layoff rates have been targeted to make up for massive payouts during the recession.) Whitman noted his taxes went up from $86 per person per month to $602. “You’re talking about jobs, jobs, jobs,” Whitman said. “We’ve got to get a handle on these costs for small businesses.”
When it was time to go, nearly 30 voters were still waiting to ask questions. Haley told the crowd that she’d take the time to talk to each of them individually and, you know, take pictures and give autographs.
Like the voters, the journalists in the house weren’t particularly interested in talking about Haley’s priorities. Most of the questions for the governor concerned the news of the day.
Earlier on Wednesday, The State had reported that Haley’s application for a job with former employer Lexington Medical Center listed her income as being about $100,000 higher than what she had declared previously on her taxes. According to tax documents, Haley said she made $22,000 at her parent’s business, Exotica International, but she allegedly noted that she had earned $125,000 on the application for Lexington Medical.
The governor told the paper that she never filled out the form and doesn’t know who did. Lexington Medical responded to the governor’s statement, noting that it was “highly unlikely” that someone other than Haley submitted the application.
Haley also recently dumped USC trustee Darla Moore, who has donated a record $70 million to the school and spent more than a decade on the board. The governor replaced her with a big contributor to her gubernatorial campaign. Haley would only say that she has called Moore personally but has not received a call back.
To be fair, there was one issue on Haley’s report card that was in the news on Wednesday, and that was her desire for the governor and lieutenant governor to run on the same ticket. Unfortunately, it was an issue that the governor may have wished she had never brought up. Earlier that day, it was announced that Lt. Gov. Ken Ard is facing 69 charges of allegedly using campaign money for personal use.
We’re certain that Haley has found a few more supporters for that report card priority than she had the day before.