Is it the water? South Carolina a magnet for political scandal

Rep. Nikki Haley took the majority of the GOP vote in the gubernatorial primary in South Carolina.
Rep. Nikki Haley took the majority of the GOP vote in the gubernatorial primary in South Carolina. Rich Glickstein/The State/MCT

WASHINGTON — What's the matter with South Carolina?

In the last year alone, the state's bizarre brand of politics has pushed two phrases — "You lie!" (which Rep. Joe Wilson did shout) and "hiking on the Appalachian Trail" (which Gov. Mark Sanford did not do) — into the national lexicon overnight.

No sooner did a female Republican gubernatorial candidate deny allegations of marital infidelity than a new controversy went viral:

How did an unemployed military veteran who's facing felony obscenity charges defeat a former judge and state legislator to win the Democratic U.S. Senate primary?

Not only did Alvin Greene best Vic Rawl, a Charleston County councilman — he crushed him, winning almost 60 percent of the June 8 vote.

To say the outcome was shocking is an understatement. Greene spent no money — other than the $10,400 campaign filing fee that no one knows how he came up with — did no campaigning and had no experience in electoral politics.

Democratic state Rep. Kenneth Kennedy, like Greene an African-American, said he's been flooded by calls from constituents with two questions:

Who is Alvin Greene?

How did he win the right to face Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, an archconservative who's heavily favored to win the Nov. 2 general election in a predominantly Republican state?

Kennedy said some of his neighbors, friends and even relatives voted for Greene, but they're not exactly sure why.

Best they can figure is — "Greene" comes before "Rawl" in the alphabet.

"I have family members who I did not even discuss this with (before the primary), who did not know either of these guys, but they voted for Al Greene because his name was first on the ballot," Kennedy told McClatchy.

Local prosecutors say they know who Al Greene is — a fellow they charged in November with showing a University of South Carolina student pornographic pictures in a computer lab, and then suggesting that they repair to her dorm room. Greene denies the charge.

For the last year, Democrats had been clucking over prominent GOP pols' predilection for making fools of themselves.

Sanford, the outgoing governor whose fellow Republicans have overridden hundreds of his spending vetoes in the state legislature, transfixed the nation a year ago.

Sanford, who has four sons, disappeared last June over Father's Day weekend, prompting state police to issue an all-points bulletin. His spokesman said he'd needed some solitude and had gone hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

It soon emerged that Sanford had flown to Buenos Aires for a tryst with his Argentinean mistress, former TV reporter Maria Belen Chapur.

Upon returning home, a tearful Sanford acknowledged the affair at a news conference that televised live nationwide; he later said Chapur had become his soul mate, but he was trying to fall back in love with his wife, Jenny. She soon left him, their sons in tow.

Three months later, Wilson hollered "You lie!" at Barack Obama as the president addressed a joint session of Congress on prime-time TV.

Wilson apologized and suffered a rare House vote reprimanding him. Since then, he's cashed in, raking in millions of dollars in campaign contributions from conservative activists across the country.

Now, with the Alvin Greene fiasco, it's South Carolina Democrats who the targets of late-night comics.

"Not to be outdone by the Republicans, the Democrats have nominated an unemployed indigent who is out on bond for distributing porn," said Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party.

So intense is the competition for the political limelight in South Carolina, it can sometimes seem like one outrageous brouhaha quickly gets eclipsed by the next.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the state was consumed by claims from two men — a lobbyist and a former Sanford aide — that they'd had sexual encounters with state Rep. Nikki Haley, who's running for governor.

That scandal-wannabe was followed by Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts' description of Haley — an Indian-American who was raised as a Sikh and converted to Christianity — as a "raghead."

On the same night that Greene defeated Rawl, Haley fell just short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff as she finished far ahead of three opponents in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Harpootlian said Haley's overwhelming win shows she got a large sympathy vote from women — and men.

"We're the South," he said. "A gentleman doesn't publicly claim he had sex with anybody."

Several scholars noted that South Carolina's predilection for zany behavior by its political leaders didn't start yesterday.

Not even the day before yesterday.

"South Carolina strikes me as a state that's always had very strong personalities who tend to be quite outspoken," said Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist.

Indeed, way back in 1856, a few years before South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, Rep. Preston Smith Brooks charged into the U.S. Senate chamber and bludgeoned abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane over a perceived insult.

On Feb. 22, 1902, the state's two senators, Benjamin "Pitchfork" Tillman and John McLaurin, got into a brawl, also on the Senate floor.

Skipping forward almost a century, a bitter political fight over whether the Confederate flag should fly above the Statehouse dome in Columbia regularly drew national attention in the 1990s before the banner was lowered on July 1, 2000, and moved to a less conspicuous spot on the capitol grounds.

In December 2003, survivors of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond acknowledged that the one-time ardent segregationist had fathered an illegitimate daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, with the family's black maid. Her name was added in 2004 to those of his other children etched on a monument to him outside the State House.


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