Against All Odds
Running uphill in the Upstate
BY BRAD WYCHE
It looked like it would be a typical day at my law office on March 6 of last year. I had a deposition in the morning, a memorandum to file in court, several phone calls to return and a couple of appointments scheduled, one of which was with Pat Paschal, a friend, fellow lawyer and chairman of the Greenville County Democratic Party. I didn't have a case with him so I assumed he was stopping by to talk politics, which we often did. He was active in my wife's successful campaign for Greenville County probate judge in 1990. We had brainstormed about good candidates to run for office, and I had joined him in trying to recruit a few of them.
The filing deadline for the 1996 races was fast approaching, and I was sure Pat and I again would be commiserating about the difficulty of finding local Democrats to run in this Republican stronghold. After exchanging pleasantries, Pat got right to the point. He asked if I had heard about Bob Leach's announcement to run for the District 21 seat in the state House of Representatives. The incumbent was retiring, and Leach, who had represented almost the same district on the Greenville County Council for 16 years, wanted the job.
Having lived in this district during Leach's entire tenure, I had been deeply disappointed with his performance. He had shown no vision or leadership in coping with the crushing problems caused by rapid growth in the district. He had taken his entire allocation of a "slush fund" that had been set up by County Council to alleviate these problems and turned it over to a local charity on whose board his wife served. He had a county phone installed in his home and used it to make personal calls for which he never fully reimbursed the taxpayers. And Leach's license to sell life insurance had been suspended for 60 days after the state insurance commissioner alleged that he had forged signatures, misapplied insurance premiums and "willfully deceived, and dealt unjustly with, clients."
"Come on, Pat," I said. "Surely you can find someone to run against this guy."
"I have," he responded, smiling broadly.
"Who?" I asked.
He paused a moment, letting the suspense build. "You," he finally said.
I laughed, thinking it was a joke. But Pat wasn't laughing; he was serious.
"No way, Pat," I said. "I'm not a politician. There are plenty of people better than me to do this."
"That's not true," he said. "You're a Greenville native, you've lived in the district for a long time, and you know the issues. You'd be a great candidate and a terrific legislator."
Our argument continued for nearly an hour, and I couldn't believe the way it ended, with me saying, "Okay, I'll think about it."
And I did.
I prepared a list of pros and cons. On the pro side was the complete support of my family. In fact, my wife was even more enthusiastic than Pat, which didn't surprise me. She was a political science major, had worked for U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, relished politics, and had trounced her Republican opponent in 1990. She was thrilled to have another politician in the family.
Also on the pro side was my keen interest in public policy. I had served on the South Carolina Coastal Council for nine years and enjoyed the challenge of debating and establishing policies for protecting and managing the coast. Serving in the legislature would allow me to address many critical issues facing South Carolina.
I also added "giving people a choice" to the pro side. It sounds trite, but government doesn't work unless people have a choice on Election Day. It's a serious problem in the Upstate, where the Republican Party is so dominant that its candidates often run unopposed.
"You would be running as a Democrat in
the most Republican district of the most
Republican county of the most Republican
state in the country.
That was the big item on the "con side." As a Republican friend said to me, "You would be running as a Democrat in the most Republican district of the most Republican county of the most Republican state in the country. You're crazy." He reminded me that a Democrat had not even run for this House seat in 20 years. Another friend put it: "Jesus Christ couldn't win in your district as a Democrat."
Also on the "con side" were having to spend three days a week, five months a year, in Columbia, 100 miles from home; the financial impact of a reduction in pay (a state legislator makes $10,000 a year); and the frustration of being in the minority party.
The filing deadline was rapidly approaching, and I still was thinking about it. Calls were coming in from around the state encouraging me to file. Pundits told me that the Democratic Party was on its way back in South Carolina and that with hard work, a few breaks and a successful fundraising campaign, I could win. The idea of Leach walking into this seat by default gnawed at me. But my friend's comment, "you're crazy," played in the back of my head like a broken record.
Then later in March, the House did two things that boggled my mind: It passed a concealed weapons law, allowing anyone to carry a concealed gun simply by taking an eight-hour course, and it voted down voluntary full-day kindergarten. With education continuing to be this state's most pressing need (nearly one-third of our children test "not ready" for first grade, are overage by third grade, and don't finish high school) and with evidence showing that children who have attended full-day kindergarten are much better prepared for first grade than those who have not, the House vote struck me as completely irresponsible. It was the push I needed.
I called Pat to tell him I was in.
My immediate goals were to find a political consultant, a campaign chairman and a headquarters. By the end of April I had all three, and I was on my way.
I felt like I was starting a marathon with my opponent having a 10-mile head start. Not only did I have the "D" label to contend with, but I had almost no name recognition. Although I was born and raised in Greenville, most of my friends, clients and relatives live outside District 21.
During the campaign Leach would call me a "downtown city boy," a description I couldn't really deny.
My first task was to increase my name recognition. We started turning out press releases, and I watched happily as the Greenville News printed them. First there was the announcement of my candidacy, followed by my pledge to serve no more than eight years and not to accept PAC money. Leach's abuse of the "slush fund" earned an article, but by far the best coverage related to the county phone in his residence.
I had learned about this early on, so we filed a Freedom of Information request with Greenville County for the records and bills relating to this phone. I was shocked when the county attorney replied, "There is no itemized report for the Council telephone of Robert W. Leach."
My consultant followed up with the County's director of finance and was informed that itemized records did, in fact, exist. We confirmed this in writing with the finance director, only to receive another letter from the county attorney stating: "There is no itemized expense report for Leach... Your Freedom of Information request has been fully answered."
As luck would have it, a flap developed at the same time about the county administrator's expense accounts. This prompted the News to investigate the accounts of County Council members. The newspaper's FOI request uncovered Leach's phone records.
Leach quickly wrote a check to the county for $674, which was supposed to reimburse taxpayers for two years of personal phone calls. Soon after, The Greenville News ran a long story about how we had been stonewalled and reported that the county had paid more than $1,600 for Leach's phone service over two years.
The next day, we heard again from the county attorney, who said there were itemized statements for Leach's phone after all and that, except for the $674 check, there was no record of any other reimbursement by Leach for personal calls made from his phone during the other six years he had had it.
But there was more to come. The state attorney general called in the State Law Enforcement Division to review all of the expense accounts of the Council and the administrator. It was then that Leach decided to stop talking to the News. During the last two months of the campaign, our press releases continued to receive good coverage in articles which concluded: "Leach would not return the Greenville News' phone calls."
I couldn't believe my good fortune.
When I announced my candidacy, I promised a door-to-door campaign, but I didn't fully appreciate what that meant. There were more than 18,000 registered voters in the district -- or about 9,000 homes. That's a lot of doors. But I did my best to get to all of them. I started in the sweltering heat of July and ended on a chilly Halloween evening. Most weekends and weekday evenings I was out there handing out brochures, sweet-talking angry dogs and putting on my best face. The grand totals: Over 4,000 homes visited and zero dog bites (although I did get wet on once).
I met some strange people. One man demanded to know my position on whether "the rectum is a sexual organ." As he started angrily quoting the Bible and proclaiming the "abomination" of homosexuality, I quickly moved over to the next street.
Another gentleman cautiously accepted my brochure and asked my party affiliation. Upon hearing my answer, he slowly tore the brochure to pieces. As the shreds fell around my feet, he said: "You Democrats are a despicable affront to the moral virtues of this country."
He slammed the door so hard in my face that one of the screws on the "Welcome To Our Home" sign popped out.
And then there was the fellow with whom I had this conversation:
"Hello, sir, I'm Brad Wyche, I'm running for the State House in our district. Nice to meet you. Can I give you one of my brochures?"
Ignoring my offering, he said, "How do you stand on the flag?"
"I think it should be removed and placed at a prominent place on the State House grounds," I said.
With a reddening face, he said, "You obviously didn't have no ancestors that fought in the war."
"Actually, I did, sir," I said. "My great-great grandfather was a Confederate soldier. We still have the letters he wrote home from the battlefields."
"Well, I had four great-great grandfathers fight in the war, and one of 'em was kilt!"
"I respect your opinion, sir, but it looks like we don't agree."
Stabbing his finger in my face, he said, "I'm gonna talk to the SCV [Sons of Confederate Veterans] and we're gonna' whip you."
Hoping he was referring to an electoral whipping only, I turned away, only to hear one last shot: "Minute I saw you, figured you were a damn liberal!" At least he couldn't say I was a damn Yankee.
But these encounters were the exception. Most people could not have been more cordial. Nor could they have been less interested in my campaign. I was surprised at how few wanted to discuss the issues. I expected more people to take advantage of having a candidate at the doorstep to engage in debate. It rarely happened. When I included my email address on my brochure and in my mailings, I expected to be flooded with inquiries. I received about 10. It was a sobering experience.
In fairness, I should say that there was also a race to represent roughly the same district on the Greenville County School Board, which did energize the electorate. A debate between the three candidates for this seat attracted nearly 200 people, whereas my debate drew about 10. In fact, Leach didn't even come.
I think the different levels of interest are explained in large part by the proximity of the government seat at stake. The state capitol seems distant, mysterious and perplexing, whereas voters, especially those with school-age children, are keenly attuned to the local school board. It was heartening to see so much enthusiasm and controversy focused on that race, yet distressing that I could not generate even a fraction of that for mine.
Early in my campaign, I received a letter from a group called Project Vote Smart, whose honorary chairmen were Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and whose founders included Barry Goldwater and George McGovern. No doubt, this was a bipartisan effort. The group sent me an extensive, multiple-choice questionnaire that sought my views on gun control, public education, the environment, affirmative action, taxes, you name it.
Vote Smart would put my responses, along with those of other candidates, on the Internet. It was made clear that anyone who refused to participate would be publicly excoriated. But I didn't need to be threatened; I gladly completed the questionnaire, and then eagerly awaited hearing from the voters about my responses.
Things didn't turn out quite the way I expected. By and large, the only people who read my answers were my opponent's campaign managers and the anti-choice camp. Unfortunately, multi-choice questions don't let you explain your answers. For example, I don't advocate abortion but, except in the case of partial-birth abortions, I don't believe it's the business of government to interfere. Protesting, counseling centers, billboards and ads urging women to consider adoption are fine, but let's keep government out of it. The only statement on the questionnaire that I could, in good conscience, check was: "abortion should continue to be legally available."
The anti-choice cavalry was after me in no time. Their literature described me as a "hardened abortionist." A local newspaper claiming to be the community's "conservative voice" published a letter from Leach's campaign manager that described me as a "Clinton satellite" who favored partial-birth abortion. The same paper ran an article headlined: "Survey Reveals Wyche's Liberal Positions," which discussed and distorted my Vote Smart responses.
All of this was a flagrant violation of Vote Smart's golden rule, which is that a candidate's answers are not to be used in an opposing candidate's campaign. The Vote Smart people claim that only 1 percent of candidates violate the rule, but that's small comfort when your opponent is in that percentile.
Vote Smart wrote Leach to ask him to stop, to no avail. In fact, during the last three weeks of the campaign, the state Republican Party turned its well-oiled, well-funded direct mail machinery on me. Because so many races in this part of the state are uncontested, the few Democrats crazy enough to run can be easy targets.
One attack was titled "The Choice Is Clear," a brochure featuring two comparative columns. My opponent was described as conservative, Republican and a small businessman, while I was presented as the unholy triad: Democrat, liberal and lawyer. On the issues it said my opponent was pro-life while I favored partial-birth abortion, and that my opponent supported the Second Amendment, while I opposed it (in fact, I opposed only the concealed weapons law and legalizing semiautomatic weapons). Next to each of the misrepresentations about my views was a reference to the Vote Smart questionnaire, leaving the reader with the false impression that there was support for what they were saying.
And there was the piece that arrived on Halloween. It was bright orange, featured photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton and me, and warned in gothic type set in a background of spider webs: "With These Democrats the Similarities Are Frightening." The flip side of the card warned that "Bill, Hillary and Brad" want to ban semi-automatic weapons, support "bureaucratic environmental regulations," and, of course, "are liberal lawyers." Next to a terror-stricken cat at the bottom it said: "Let's End the Nightmare of Democratic Rule on November 5."
Even the governor couldn't resist. He sent out a postcard that called me a liberal who was "not concerned with the truth."
Having grown up in a family of lawyers, and being one myself, I am used to rules. There are rules of evidence, procedure, discovery, trial, appeal, etc. So I was particularly struck at the complete absence of rules governing campaign conduct. While the law regulates political contributions, it does not restrict what one candidate can say about another. That decision is left to each candidate's own moral compass and sense of fair play.
Incidentally, Leach never sent in his Vote Smart questionnaire. The public condemnation that was promised consisted of a short paragraph in the News.
With about two weeks to go until Nov. 5, I decided to take a poll. I knew it would tear a big hole in my already beleaguered checking account, but at least it would tell me, as I entered the home stretch, whether Leach was still 10 miles ahead.
The poll revealed that I was leading by three points. The margin of error was six points, so I could easily be trailing, but the admonitions of the experts who said I had no chance of winning appeared mistaken indeed.
But there was one very significant finding of the poll: Over half of the voters were undecided. I knew from my door-to-door campaign that these people weren't losing sleep trying to decide whom to vote for. They hadn't even thought about it.
That proved to be my undoing, because most of this group ended up voting straight-ticket Republican. In South Carolina, you are allowed to vote for the party rather than the candidate. With one stroke, you can cast your vote for every Republican or every Democratic candidate in each race, except for president.
It's a device created decades ago by Democrats when they controlled the state. Today, Upstate Republicans love it.
As it turned out, my Republican friend was correct. It wasn't even close. I ended up with only 44 percent of the vote. Eighteen percent of my votes came from straight-ticket Democrats; my opponent's straight-ticket share was 60 percent.
Not counting any of the straight-ticket votes for either party, I received 55 percent. Small consolation, but it's nice to know that among the voters who turned to page 7 of the ballot and actually looked at the two candidates, I won. (Clinton ended up with only 27 percent of the vote in District 21, so I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad.)
It all made me think of what Adlai Stevenson said to a supporter on the campaign trail who assured him he would receive the vote of every thinking person in the country. Stevenson replied, "Thank you, madam, but that will not do. I need a majority."
Nobody worked harder on my campaign than my 9-year-old daughter, Jessica. She accompanied me to most of those 4,000 homes, using the registered voter list to direct our journey and to keep a record of whom we met. When I was worn out and ready to go home, she convinced me to do one more street. When it was raining on Friday evening, she persuaded me to go to the high school football game anyway.
Nobody took my defeat harder. After I had conceded on election night, she tearfully asked, "How could anyone not like you, Dad?" I think she understands now that my defeat had little to do with people not liking me. It had a lot more to do with people not knowing me -- or, more precisely, not even wanting to know me because of my party affiliation.
During my campaign, state and local Republicans were taking positions on issues that I did not believe were consistent with the views of most people in my district: opposing full-day kindergarten; supporting concealed weapons legislation; supporting continued reliance on a nuclear waste landfill as a source of revenues for building and repairing public school facilities; and supporting a county resolution that condemned homosexuality.
Most voters seemed to care only about the party label. In the presidential debate, when Dole attacked Clinton as "a liberal Democrat," the president said, "That dog doesn't hunt anymore." That may be true elsewhere, but here that dog still hunts very well.
After the election, I escaped with my wife for a week's vacation of sleep, mystery novels, and lazy sight-seeing. It made more bearable my return to the world of lawyering to deal with clients whose patience with me had expired on Nov. 6.
About two months later, as I sat comfortably behind my desk drafting a discovery request, a reporter called to tell me that she had completed her review of all the candidates' campaign disclosure filings and that I had broken the record for the most money spent on a South Carolina House race -- about $120,000.
"How does it feel to break the record but lose?" she asked, getting quickly to the point. I was quiet for a few seconds, as the pain of her question radiated through me. "Well," I finally said, "I would say that's a dubious distinction."
After reading the article the next day, I realized I may have established a less dubious record. "Only" about 15 percent of the money spent on the campaign had come from my own personal funds, so I may well have raised the most money for a State House race in South Carolina history.
I received a gratifying amount of support that cut across both party and district lines. There was the group of family members and lifelong friends whose support was deeply appreciated but was not surprising.
But I was astonished to see complete strangers working on the campaign -- putting up yard signs, stuffing envelopes and making phone calls. Unsolicited checks arrived from people I had never met.
And these weren't political activists; they were people who heard and understood my message, who believed I could make a difference.
After the election, my sister presented me with a mock newspaper headline that said, "Leach Elected But Wyche Wins!" I can't think of a better way to put it. Despite the headaches and the heartache, I do feel like the real winner. I learned a lot about state government, made many new friends, and gave the people a choice on Nov. 5.
All the same, I've told my secretary not to schedule any more appointments with Pat Paschal.
Brad Wyche lives in Greenville and works with the Wyche, Burgess, Freeman & Parham law firm. He also was defeated in a hard-fought campaign for president of his 9th grade class. He prefers appointed positions.