By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
GRESHAM Barrett was a very busy man Wednesday, what with hearings on the issue of the hour in Washington — AIG. The matter of what that “too-big-to-fail” insurer did with the billions we sent it occupied most of his day.
But I kept hammering on his staff — I’ve promised my readers, twice, to do a column on the Republican congressman’s candidacy for governor, and with Friday being my last day on the job, I’m about out of time — so he called me right after 5 p.m., and this column is the result. (So blame any inadequacies in this column on me and my hurry, not the congressman.)
While he’s been on the scene for a while — in the Legislature for six years, representing the 3rd District in Congress since his election in 2002 — I haven’t gotten to know him as well as some of the other candidates and potential candidates, such as fellow Republican Attorney General Henry McMaster and Democratic S.C. Sen. Vincent Sheheen.
I had already written what little I knew on my blog: He was critical (although not as harshly as Speaker Bobby Harrell was) four years ago about the job Gov. Mark Sanford had done on economic development; he was an early supporter of Fred Thompson for the GOP presidential nomination; he’s a big fan of nuclear power (the Savannah River Site is in his district); he voted against the TARP bailout, before he voted for it (which adds to his angst over AIG); he was dubbed one of the 10 “Most Beautiful People on Capitol Hill” by The Hill (which frankly I just can’t see, but that’s me).
Rep. Barrett helped me fill in some blanks Wednesday evening.
Some quick bio: He was born and raised in Westminster, S.C., and grew up working in his father’s hardware store, where local farmers would gather on Friday evenings to talk over the issues of the day. His first job was “coal bucket boy.” He would go on to command his company at The Citadel. He served four-and-a-half years in the Army, reaching the rank of captain. He has no combat experience, but learned a lot about leadership in field artillery at Fort Hood. He joined his father’s business after the Army, and ran it from 1993 to 2006. He and his wife, a first-grade schoolteacher, have three children of high school and college age.
Asked to name his biggest accomplishment in the Legislature or Congress, he cited “helping lead the fight” to ban partial-birth abortion in South Carolina. That’s his “crowning achievement” thus far, “absolutely, without a doubt.”
So what would he want to accomplish as governor? So far, he’s light on details — he plans to enlist experts from various fields in developing white papers on a wide range of issues — but he wants to focus on three areas:
- The economy. He wants to create jobs and economic opportunity, so our children and grandchildren don’t have to leave the state to find those things. He says this involves not just recruiting new industry, but also helping existing businesses grow, and changing tax policy. “Too many in Washington, D.C., think government is the answer, and it’s not,” he said. “It’s creating an environment where people are the answer; where you empower people.”
- Energy. Aside from nuclear (he cites Duke Power’s planned $10 billion investment in a new plant in Cherokee County as economic development that can’t be beat), he talks about opportunities in biofuels. He said switchgrass for fuel could be grown on dormant tobacco land in the impoverished I-95 corridor. He also pointed to tree waste from loblolly pines, “and the good Lord has blessed us with that.”
- Education. He advocates, somewhat vaguely, “creating a 21st century environment that educates everybody” with “a holistic approach” from K-12 to higher education. What does that look like? He cited the forthcoming white papers.
After mentioning those as the three main planks of his platform, he added a fourth: government restructuring. That was pleasing to me as a longtime fierce advocate of that very thing, but he startled me when he added, “Governor Sanford has done a fantastic job on government restructuring.” When I asked just where the governor had done this fantastic job, he said “I think he has brought up a lot of issues.”
The congressman was studiously careful, here and elsewhere, to avoid criticizing the incumbent of his party — directly, that is. But he did draw a rather clear contrast when he said:
“One of my strengths is working with people, is having a personal relationship with people…. I think my leadership style is bringing people together .æ.æ. putting them in a room and saying hey, guys, now here’s our ideas and here’s what I want. I want to get to the 35-yard line, and I understand that you want to get to the 20. But let’s do this: Let’s figure out what we can do to move South Carolina … (to the) 25. Let’s open the door … and next time, let’s get to the 30.”
He was too polite to say so, but that would be a change at our State House.
The reason I was all in a sweat to write this column now — a follow-up to a piece I did on Sen. Sheheen after he announced — is that it is critical that we start thinking hard (harder, more wisely, than we have in the past) about who our next governor is going to be, and the more scrutiny on these candidates the better. I’ll continue to follow this race from my new blog, and my colleagues here at The State will be all over it as well, I’m sure.
So I urge you to start paying attention, and please don’t stop until we have elected a governor who will do what this one has not, and help lead South Carolina to be everything it can be. You, and your children, deserve that.
For a copy of the congressman’s statement at the AIG hearing, video from that hearing and more, go to my new blog, bradwarthen.com.