For social liberals in South Carolina, the state Democratic Party can be kind of a letdown. Entrenched in red territory, its current nominee for governor, Vincent Sheheen, won’t even come out in favor of marriage equality.
Enter gubernatorial candidate Steve French, a pro-choice, pro-marriage-equality candidate who adamantly believes South Carolina should be the next state to legalize recreational marijuana use. If you want a social liberal in the Governor’s Mansion next year, here’s your guy.
French is the Libertarian Party candidate, though, so he also holds some aggressively conservative views on fiscal matters. He likes school vouchers, for example, and he wants to replace income and corporate taxes with an across-the-board 7 percent sales tax with no tax breaks or incentives.
As the fall election season heats up, French is going to say some things that are a little hard for both sides to swallow. But he’ll tell you that all he’s looking for is a little consistency.
“We have Republicans that talk about smaller government, but they’ll kick your door in because you’re playing a poker game,” French says. “We’ve got the Democratic Party that talks about individual liberty, but then they want to unload all these taxes on us at the same time.”
French is sitting in his home campaign office in Mt. Pleasant, leaning forward in a swivel chair as he lays into his campaign platform. At age 33, French would be one of the youngest governors in state history (the minimum age is 30). The man is intense in his rhetoric, self-assured in his views. When it comes to Sheheen and other state Democrats, he thinks the soft-sell approach isn’t working.
“I don’t know why the Democratic Party down here doesn’t go as far left socially, whether they just don’t believe they can win with that,” French says. “I think the opposite. I really feel like our generation especially is pretty much in agreement of what we feel the government’s role should be.”
All Aboard the Grease Bus
Steve French is in the grease business. He is the CEO of Low Country Grease Service, a company that buys used cooking grease from local restaurants, refines it in North Charleston, and sells the product to biofuel companies.
“I’m not that far from being in poverty,” French says. “When we started my business back in 2009, we were lower than broke.”
Originally from North Carolina, French held a middle-management job at Enterprise Rent-A-Car after graduating from N.C. State. In 2008, when gas prices shot up, he says Enterprise started laying people off, and his job ended up on the chopping block.
So he started looking for another way to make money. “I’d always heard about hippies in California making fuel out of grease, and I was still at the age where a lot of my friends were working for restaurants,” French says. So he tried starting an all-biofuel rental car company. When that business floundered, he switched into the biofuel business, starting his company in Wilmington before moving to Mt. Pleasant in 2009.
“It really shows the power of the free market,” French says. “When I got involved, I couldn’t even pay people for the [oil]. They said, ‘Here, just take it. If you can just take this stuff for free, that’s great’ … It’s now transformed into a hot commodity, so we’re paying big dollars to all these restaurants.”
French seems to be doing OK financially now — his house has a big front yard and a campaign war room in the garage — but when he talks public policy, the poor are often on his mind.
“I think a voucher program would be the greatest anti-poverty program this state has ever undertaken,” he says, referring to a plan that would allow parents to use public funds to send their children to the public or private school of their choice.
On the matter of restructuring the state tax code, he favors the S.C. Fair Tax proposal, which would include a monthly “prebate” check to cover the sales tax burden from families’ basic expenses up to $2,500. The prebate measure is meant to counteract a common critique of the alternative “flat tax” plan, which would put a regressive tax burden on lower-income families.
Unsurprisingly, French is also bullish on biofuels. He plans to buy a campaign bus and outfit it to run on biodiesel, and he intends to keep preaching that gospel in the Statehouse.
“There’s enough grease in this state to where every single county bus should be running on a biofuel blend,” French says. “There is zero excuse. I mean, you go to places like Portland and California, it’s second nature there. And it’s been very discouraging to see the pushback from fear of change. People just didn’t want to listen to me. I assure you, after this campaign in November, they will.”
French is, of course, an underdog. Gov. Haley recently earned a nearly 50 percent approval rating in a Winthrop Poll, and as of April 10, French had just $8,525 in his campaign fund (including $7,925 from his own savings).
When asked for an honest assessment of his chances in the election, French says, “Honestly, I believe it’s ours to lose.” But in an off-presidential election, voter turnout is traditionally sparse, and he knows he’ll have to rally independent voters to get them to the polls. “I would love for this to be the biggest turnout South Carolina has ever seen,” he says.