When your last name is Thurmond and you live in South Carolina, people are going to assume certain things about you. One of them is that you’re a good ol’ boy — and not necessarily in the Dukes of Hazzard sense of the phrase.
For Paul Thurmond, the Republican candidate for S.C. Senate District 41 and son of legendary U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, two questions have come up this year about whether he abused his political connections. State Democratic leaders have accused him of gaming the system to get placed back on the ballot after a massive paperwork flub led to the disqualification of more than 200 statewide candidates. And his Democratic opponent in the District 41 race, fellow Charleston lawyer Paul Tinkler, has accused him of using his influence as a former Charleston County Council member to push through a shady land transaction.
And in a Republican Party whose voters voice increasing suspicion for “insiders,” Thurmond has a lot of outsider cred to build.
Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University who runs the well-known Winthrop Poll, says Strom Thurmond’s legacy is going to both help and cast aspersions on the younger Thurmond’s political career. “His opponents will always say — no matter what he achieves personally — they will always say he only had the opportunity that he did because of his name,” Huffmon says.
Huffmon was quoted in a New York Times piece about Thurmond’s reinstatement on the ballot last week, where he made the point that if the general public remembers the 2012 ballot hullaballoo at all in the long run, they will probably remember it as little more than the good-ol’-boy favor system in action. The Times story, which managed to lead with a Civil War reference and close with a mention of Southern Strategy wiz kid Lee Atwater, said Thurmond’s opponents were chalking up his success to “old school politics.”
The Ballot Blow-Up
If you haven’t been following what political insiders refer to as Ballotgate, here’s a primer: In order to run for an elected position, all candidates have to file a Statement of Economic Interest, which explains any financial entanglements a candidate might have while in office. In 2010, South Carolina passed a law allowing candidates to file the document electronically, but a previous law still required them to file a hard copy. As a result, a court battle over a single race in the Midlands led the state Supreme Court in May to toss over more than 200 candidates off of ballots due to improper filing. Incumbents were given an exemption to the filing requirement, though, meaning that hundreds of races suddenly became uncontested.
The ballot snafu itself was sometimes portrayed as an example of good-ol’-boy maneuvering, an elaborate scheme to keep incumbents in office, but Huffmon doesn’t buy the conspiracy theories. “I don’t think that over a year ago, legislators were twirling their mustaches saying, ‘Ha ha ha, a year from now these people will be tricked because of what we did,'” Huffmon says. “No, it was an oversight. But, as soon as it came to light, the incumbents were very happy to push this and use it … They were very happy to use the serendipity to their favor.”
Thurmond isn’t an incumbent in the District 41 race, though, and neither is Tinkler. The two lawyers — who have actually gone on fishing trips and played bocce together over the years — are running for the seat that was vacated when high-powered Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell left it to become lieutenant governor. But when Thurmond got his name erased from the Republican primary ballot, he didn’t go down without a fight. He challenged the decision, claiming that his position as a part-time prosecutor in North Charleston should grant him the exemptions of an incumbent — and he won in court, prompting the Republican party to hold a do-over primary, which Thurmond won easily in October. He was the only candidate in the state to muscle his way back onto a ballot, leading Democrats to cry foul over what they dubbed “the Thurmond exception.”
Last week, a voter took Thurmond to federal court on the issue, filing a lawsuit alleging that the exception amounted to a change in state election law, which would require federal approval under the Voting Rights Act. Last Thursday, a panel of three judges rejected the lawsuit’s claim.
Old Fishing Buddies
When Thurmond got thrown off the ballot, he actually wasn’t part of the original swath of candidates to get disqualified. His disqualification came at the hands of former Charleston County Democratic chairman George Tempel, who sued the state Election Commission on the matter (and whose wife, Carol Tempel, was booted from the S.C. House District 115 race in an earlier wave of ballot purges).
Here’s where things start to get ugly between Thurmond and Tinkler. See, Thurmond thinks Tinkler was behind the lawsuit. In the transcript of a deposition from the Tempel case (provided to the City Paper by Thurmond), Tempel tells the defendant’s attorney that it was Lachlan McIntosh, a Democratic operative and consultant, who first suggested the lawsuit and even funded the litigation. And if you look up Tinkler’s filings with the State Ethics Commssion, you’ll find that — lo and behold — Tinkler has paid McIntosh $4,000 in consulting fees this election cycle.
“In essence, one could assume that Paul Tinkler was funding the litigation against me to make sure that I was removed so he didn’t have opposition,” Thurmond says. “Can you imagine if that’s what consultants do these days? Try to fix the game, so to speak?”
McIntosh says the money he received from the Tinkler campaign went to pay for his own rent and utility bills, not to legal fees. “As someone who didn’t come from famous parents and works for every dime I have, I am in no position to pay other people’s legal bills,” he writes in an e-mail.
Tinkler denies that he had any part in the litigation — although he acknowledges that McIntosh was the one who proposed it. Tinkler provided the City Paper with a May 22 e-mail he received from McIntosh with a link to a news story about a similar lawsuit in Marlboro County. “Know anyone who might file a lawsuit in Charleston like this one?” McIntosh asked in the e-mail. “That could make you the only candidate on the ballot.” But Tinkler wrote back to McIntosh that “it would be such a chicken shit thing to do for me to get behind a lawsuit like that that I am not going to do it.”
It’s hard to pin down exactly how closely Thurmond and Tinkler have worked together in the past. In an interview, Thurmond originally claimed that the two had worked together on DUI cases, but Tinkler later shot back that it wasn’t true. Thurmond then provided copies of e-mail correspondence showing that Tinkler had consulted Thurmond for advice while working on a DUI case in 2009.
Whatever the nature their past relationship, it is safe it has gone sour. “If he really thought that I was an unethical person,” Thurmond says, “don’t you think he would insist on not having a relationship like we had together?”
The Land Deal
The other recent development in Thurmond’s political career that smacked of good-ol’-boy cronyism was Charleston County’s August 2011 purchase of a 322-acre land tract near Bees Ferry Road. The county paid $4.9 million for the former home of the Bulow Hunt Club, a price that Tinkler finds suspiciously high. And the law firm of Thurmond, a former Charleston County Council member, received $100,000 in consulting fees from the seller.
So … you fill in the blanks. OK, here, Tinkler will do it for you: “Mr. Thurmond’s campaign signs say ‘Proven Conservative.’ He’s the guardian of the taxpayers’ money,” Tinkler says. “But as soon as he gets off of County Council, what does he do? He gets $100,000 from the taxpayers.”
Tinkler is outraged at the high price paid for the land, pointing to a pair of property appraisals prepared by real estate appraisal company C.S. McCall & Co. The first appraisal of the Bulow property, which the county was considering buying to add to the adjacent Long Savannah Park, valued the land at just over $3 million, although an alternate appraisal of $3.725 million was offered under the “extraordinary assumption” that a 144-acre tract on the property was not subject to a conservation easement. This appraisal was dated June 20, 2011.
A second appraisal, dated June 27, 2011, cited a new survey of the property (provided by the owner) that indicated there was more non-wetland property than was originally reported. The new appraised value, under the same “extraordinary assumption” about the conservation easement, was placed at $4.9 million.
The county bought the property at the highest of the appraised prices, largely with funds from the Greenbelt Bank Board. But Thurmond calls the accusation that he manipulated the price hogwash. He says he had nothing to do with the appraisal.
As for the $100,000 consulting fee, Thurmond says he can’t discuss the contractual agreement he had with his client, but he says he was very careful not to violate any ethics laws. In fact, in a July 2011 e-mail provided by Thurmond, he asked the general counsel of the State Ethics Commission if he would need to register as a lobbyist since he had “actively encouraged [County Council] to support this project.” Ethics wrote back to say that lobbying county councils, city councils, and school boards does not count as lobbying under state law.
“This opportunity as a private citizen came to me. I was not prohibited from lobbying. There’s nothing unethical to do,” Thurmond says. “And what [Tinkler] has done, even though I had a relationship with another private citizen, he is trying to paint it that I received some kind of taxpayer money. I didn’t receive any taxpayer money. I received money from the seller who asked for my assistance. And that’s why this has been so unbelievably frustrating.”
Scott Huffmon notes one grand irony about Thurmond’s ordeal in this election cycle: While Thurmond will always have to combat the good-ol’-boy image, in the lens of history, “the system that tried to keep him off and exclude him will also be labeled that way.” Who’s the insider now?
“It’s not particularly enviable,” Huffmon says, “but [Thurmond] has navigated some treacherous waters.”
NOTE: Due to space constraints, a shorter version of this story appeared in the Oct. 24 print edition.