For his first interview as a candidate for S.C. House District 111, Will Freeman chooses to meet in a quiet upstairs alcove at the Stern Center, the College of Charleston’s student union. He arrives sharply dressed in a navy blazer and khakis, takes a seat, and readily rattles off a list of reasons why he wants to become a legislator. “Basically because the guy who currently holds the position is not doing his job,” he says, for starters. In a booth maybe 20 feet away, two of his peers are hunched over a binder full of notes studying.
Freeman doesn’t come right out and say it in his campaign press releases, but he’s currently a student, too. And he will still be an undergrad in November when he faces the incumbent, former Charleston City Council member Wendell Gilliard, in the election. His major? Political science.
Actually, two CofC students have registered to run as Republicans in this year’s Statehouse elections: Freeman, 23, will take on second-term Democrat Gilliard in the November election for the district that includes the western half of the peninsula, parts of North Charleston, and most of West Ashley between Savannah Highway and Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. Meanwhile, Peter vonLehe Ruegner, 22, will challenge 17-year Republican incumbent Chip Limehouse in the June 12 primary for District 110, which includes the southern end of the peninsula and parts of Mt. Pleasant and Berkeley County.
Ruegner and Freeman barely know each other and say it’s a coincidence that they are running in the same election cycle. But in the small world of conservative political activism at CofC, they do share a few common bonds.
For one thing, neither aligns himself with the mainstream GOP. Freeman calls himself a paleoconservative (“not quite libertarian, but not quite the brand of conservatism we’re seeing today,” he explains), while Ruegner fashions himself a constitutional conservative and spends a lot of time in Tea Party and 9-12 Project circles.
They also have both served as senators in the college’s Student Government Association, although their tenures only overlapped in the fall of 2010. When it comes to real-world experience, their paths are divergent. Freeman came to Charleston from his Upstate hometown of Simpsonville in 2006, planning to study political science and become a lawyer. His undergraduate degree has taken a bit longer than he bargained for, as the financial burdens of college have forced him to leave school for a few semesters and take jobs in King Street retail stores to save his money. He currently works in the kitchens at Monza and Closed for Business, and he plans to graduate in December.
During one of his stints in retail, Freeman decided he wasn’t interested in law school anymore. Instead, when he enrolled in classes again, he got involved with the S.C. Student Legislature, a sort of mock state government that meets in the Statehouse chambers for a few days of the year. He was elected governor for the 2009-2010 session. “Imagine if all the people who were in the legislature now were in college and basically had everything except for actual power,” he explains. The year he took office, then-Gov. Mark Sanford had eliminated the SCSL’s funding, so the organization had to become a nonprofit and start fundraising. So, in addition to being governor of the organization, Freeman points out, he was a CEO overseeing a $10,000 budget.
Meanwhile, Ruegner grew up in Walterboro and has long been interested in reptiles — not of the figurative, slimy-politican type, but actual reptiles. He is on track to graduate in May with a degree in political science, and his plan is to open a serpentarium in Charleston County. He says he had no interest in politics until 2009, when Congress began debating the merits of a bill that would ban the importation and private ownership of non-native reptiles. Ruegner became a part of the conservative backlash against the bill, and he soon found himself getting involved in Charleston’s GOP scene. He has since volunteered with several conservative campaigns, most recently the re-election of Mt. Pleasant Town Council member Ken Glasson.
Ruegner ran for the student senate to fight a proposed fee increase that would drive up the cost of tuition by about $100 a year. As a senator, he spoke against what he saw as improprieties in the student government’s $115,000 budget, including $1,500 that was being requested by the school’s quidditch club. And he was a vocal critic of the policy of paying the student body president nearly $10,000 a year to “play politics.” As a real legislator, he would earn a slightly higher salary of $10,400.
Ruegner is already on the map with the Republican party, at least in local circles. Charleston County Republican Party Chairwoman Lin Bennett says she knows Ruegner well.
“It’s good that young people are paying attention and they’re concerned about their future,” Bennett says. “They both are very young guys, and you know, I guess you could say they stand as good a chance as anyone else.”
The two young bucks of the Charleston GOP don’t talk like novelty acts or people who are running for office just to prove a point. They talk like candidates who are in the race to win it. Freeman chalks up some of his actions to youthful idealism, but he also speaks in earnest about unseating his Democratic opponent. Ruegner, for his part, knows he has as an uphill battle to fight. As he points out, Limehouse has been in office for nearly as long as Ruegner has been alive.
“I will be outspent probably 100 to one, but I’ll out-campaign him 100 to one,” Ruegner says, “because I have no problem going to every door in my district and knocking on it.”
Not here to make friends
Interestingly, both Ruegner and Freeman had a hand in last fall’s dustup over some imprudent tweets allegedly written by then-student body president Ross Kressel. It was the only SGA news in recent memory to make international headlines.
Basically, Kressel was accused of saying some regrettable things on Twitter about women, sororities, and his fellow employees in the SGA office. Ruegner, who had lost a presidential bid to Kressel in the 2011 election, got his hands on some screenshots of the tweets and published them on his personal blog, which at the time was wallpapered with yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden flags, those defiant emblems of Tea Party conservatism. The George Street Observer took the story and ran with it, and in September, a well-attended public impeachment hearing turned into a verbal flogging for Kressel. Ultimately, his peers passed a vote of no confidence against him, but they stopped short of impeaching him. Kressel resigned of his own accord a month-and-a-half later.
Freeman was in the audience at the hearing, too, and although he wasn’t on Kressel’s side, he spoke up to say he thought the whole process was a waste of time. He says a simple warning from the executive board would have sufficed, with the understanding that the president would be impeached if he slipped up again.
Ruegner disagrees. He says he spoke with one member of the executive board before going public with the screenshots, and he was told they planned to deal with the matter internally. “I was like, ‘Well, the students have a right to see this,’ and [the board member] said, ‘Well, they don’t,’ ” Ruegner says. “They were going to try to sweep that under the rug.”
Ruegner is not shy about calling people out. He recently planned a political rally in West Ashley with a conservative group called RINO Hunt (RINO stands for Republican In Name Only) that drew the ire of Republican leaders including Bennett, and he sees hypocrisy in a state Republican establishment that pays lip service to ideas like the FairTax (which would replace all income taxes with a sales tax) while voting for tax exemptions and loopholes. He says Limehouse is a RINO who has been in power too long.
“I’m not going to Columbia to make friends with anybody,” Ruegner says — especially not with longtime Republican legislators who he thinks march in lockstep with Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell.
As a representative, Ruegner says he would work to establish term limits: three terms in the House, two in the Senate. He supports Gov. Nikki Haley’s goal of replacing the Budget and Control Board with a Department of Administration under the governor. And he would like to make the Fair Tax a reality and establish annual spending caps for state government.
Ruegner is more strident in critiquing his opponent than Freeman is, and maybe it’s because he has to be: Limehouse has run unopposed in the last five elections. But Ruegner says he hears rumblings among Charleston Republicans. “He lives in a bubble in Columbia,” Ruegner says. “They think he is a great guy personally, but he has gotten to the point where he is what is wrong with politics.”
Experience with the S.C. Student Legislature sounds more like a bullet point on a grad school application than a qualification for elected office, but it has gotten at least one early-twentysomething a seat in the Statehouse. Joshua Putnam, who was Senate president pro tempore of the mock government while Freeman was governor, is now a state representative serving Anderson County’s District 10.
Putnam made his first attempt at the office in 2010 against incumbent Republican Daniel Cooper, a well-connected realtor and insurance salesman who wielded significant power as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Putnam, who was a student at North Greenville University at the time, lost the race. But when Cooper announced he was resigning to spend more time with his family in the fall of 2011, Putnam graduated just in time to take the office in a special Aug. 30 election. At age 23, he is the youngest member of the state legislature, and he thinks his youth has actually been a boon for his district.
“You’ll have people come up and ask you questions just to find out what you think because you’re young,” Putnam says. “I think if you send somebody down there that looks like everybody else down there, you get blended in with the crowd. But you send a young person down there, you stick out pretty well.”
In Will Freeman’s case, his youth could be an obstacle in at least one way: If he were to beat Wendell Gilliard, he would be take the office the Monday after the November election and still have one last round of exams to take in December. He plans to load up on classes over the summer session so he can have a light fall semester during the heat of campaign season, but he will still have some loose ends to tie up academically.
Freeman’s youth is also a factor in his political ideals. He voted for Ron Paul in the state Republican presidential primary, and he saw the electricity in the crowd when the Texas congressman and messianic leader of the GOP’s libertarian wing spoke in the packed courtyard outside the Stern Center in January. He says Paul’s brand of conservatism is the most common one he sees among the 18-to-25 set. “What happens is our parents, a lot of times, they said, ‘Well, I’ve got to vote for either this guy or this guy,'” Freeman says, referring to the candidates offered up by the two-party system. “Well, I think we’re kind of getting tired of the lesser-of-two-evils argument.”
In a few significant ways, Freeman strays from South Carolina Republican orthodoxy. On the topic of improving the state’s education system, he thinks school vouchers could be a useful tool, but he doesn’t even bring them up as a campaign issue. Instead, he favors an audit of the school districts to cut out waste and says districts should be funded from a statewide pool of money that gets divvied up based on the number of students served — a proposal that he thinks could improve the outlook of impoverished districts along the Interstate 95 corridor. “This is something the Republicans aren’t saying,” he says.
Freeman says he entered the race partly because schools in Gilliard’s district were lagging in graduation rates, but also partly because he thinks Gilliard took a stand with the National Labor Relations Board and against Boeing in last year’s union feud. Like many Republicans in the state, including Gov. Haley, Freeman labeled the NLRB’s investigation as an anti-job-creation move.
Freeman doesn’t claim to be the voice of his generation; he has actually had a hard time rustling up a campaign team on the largely liberal College of Charleston campus. Nor is he the archetypal 21st-century Young Republican. He’s just a 23-year-old conservative who gives a damn about his state. “Part of me wanted to run for public office at some point,” Freeman says. “Honestly, I didn’t think it would be this early, though.”