Opinion

Commentary: The lobbyist who would be S.C. governor

It's an unremarkable and oft-repeated story of what prompted someone to run for office: Elected official does something he doesn't like. He writes the elected official suggesting a change of course. Elected official doesn't respond. He stews. He decides he could do a better job. He runs for office.

What makes the story interesting is that the disgruntled, sick of watching from the sidelines, I could do better candidate is the ultimate power broker in Columbia, South Carolina — lobbyist Dwight Drake.

The fact that he would decide to trade the relatively anonymity of his (highly lucrative) behind-the-scenes string-pulling and deal-making for the long-shot chance to assume what is arguably the weakest governorship in the country is easily the most interesting story of the 2010 gubernatorial race. So when he asked to visit with our editorial board, I shelved my usual distaste for meetings.

Mr. Drake has been an instrumental player in our state government for his entire adult life - as a top aide to Govs. John West and Dick Riley and, for longer than the 22 years I've known him, one of the most sought-after lobbyists at the State House. But he never considered moving from behind the scenes to the front line until Gov. Mark Sanford started using the unemployed as pawns in a political game and then did the same with the public schools, and the entire state government.

He paints an appealing picture, with his focus on improving public education and promoting job development - hardly earth-shattering ideas, but it's possible that he would have more success than most because of his focus on and track record with cooperation and breaking down partisan divides and ideological divides and divides that have nothing to do with anything except personal aggrandizement.

He has worked for very successful governors (and goes out of his way to note how much he worked with Gov. Carroll Campbell - on BMW by the way, in case you forgot), and so he has seen up close what it takes for a governor to be effective without the powers that other governors take for granted. That's certainly a plus given what Mr. Sanford has done for the prospects of governors getting any additional formal power any time soon. And there's no question that Mr. Drake knows how to get his way with the Legislature.

His prescription for getting Republicans and Democrats to work together would seem absurdly obvious if it weren't so infrequently practiced by elected officials: "To start with, you start out with that as a goal."

His description of how he helped defeat Gov. Sanford's 2005 attempt to divert tax money to private schools is illustrative: He went to dinner with his cousin, then-House Education Chairman Ronny Townsend, and explained the intricacies of the bill. Mr. Townsend was convinced it was bad news, and the cousins agreed that Mr. Drake would keep all the Democrats in the House opposed to the bill, and Mr. Townsend would get 25 Republicans to oppose it - no amendments, no compromise; just kill it. The plan worked.

"It ain't rocket science," he said. "You've just got to start out wanting to do it."

Though he's much more of a surprise, Mr. Drake isn't the first insider/deal maker to run for governor. But he's a lot more appealing than his predecessor. I never had the warm feelings about then-Sen. Tommy Moore that I've had about Mr. Drake; the senator's decision to sell out to the payday lending industry vindicated my doubts.

Which brings me to the central problem with Mr. Drake: He has done well for himself by convincing the Legislature to do well for his clients - sometimes to the detriment of our state.

Payday lending leaps to mind. Video poker is not far behind. And though he has been less of a roadblock than other cigarette company lobbyists, I can't dismiss his longtime lobbying to protect the interests of one of our nation's top killers.

The crucial point in our conversation came when I asked if there were any instances where South Carolina would have been better off if he had not been so successful. He thought a moment and then said no. "There are some I've been involved in I wish were more successful," he said. "But everything that I have ever advocated I have been comfortable advocating."

Everything that I have ever advocated I have been comfortable advocating.

It was not the answer I expected.

Mr. Drake notes that he doesn't like to kill legislation - which is the easiest thing a lobbyist can do. Instead, he helps people reach compromises. In his mind, he thus does good for our state. He uses payday lending as an example: "I said if y'all are just fighting to preserve the status quo, I'm not that interested."

That sounds noble; goodness knows that after eight years of Mr. Sanford, we could stand a little less stalemate.

But the status quo and a compromise that the industry could live with were not the only alternatives. Lawmakers could have outlawed payday lending, as a number of states have done, or passed much tougher regulations. Mr. Drake helped assure that neither happened. Just like he helped assure for years that the Legislature didn't outlaw video gambling.

My concern isn't that a Gov. Drake would shill for his old clients; I believe him when he says his "client" as governor would be the people of South Carolina. My concern is his judgment.

I don't think being a lobbyist, even for bad guys, should automatically preclude someone from office. Our priorities change. Our values shift. People who spend years focusing on their own careers can awake one day and decide they want to serve the public. I respect people who are willing to say they regret what they did.

But Mr. Drake - a very smart, capable person with a lot of the values and abilities our state needs - doesn't regret anything he has done. And I find that extremely regrettable.

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In a column I wrote last fall ("What we learned from the weird debate," Nov. 10), I called Mr. Drake's boasting about helping to shut down the Barnwell nuclear dump to the nation a naked attempt to whitewash his efforts "to convince the Legislature to bust up a deadline for other states to stop dumping their waste in our state." My memory and my research both were wrong. Mr. Drake did not work to keep the dump open to the nation.

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