Widow of GOP power broker Lee Atwater sets sights on education post

abeam@thestate.comJanuary 31, 2014 

— Sally Atwater, widow of legendary S.C. political operative Lee Atwater, says she is running for state superintendent of education.

Atwater returned to South Carolina from Washington, D.C., two years ago to take a job teaching at Hendersonville Elementary School in Colleton County. The native of Union now lives in Charleston and has hired veteran S.C. Republican consultants Warren Tompkins and Luke Byars to run her campaign.

“I love South Carolina,” Atwater said Friday. “Washington has never been really home for me. I knew it was a good time in my life, and when I read (Republican Gov.) Nikki Haley’s new education reform initiative, I just thought: ‘This is the answer.’ 

Lee Atwater rose to national prominence in the 1980s as an adviser to Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He managed Bush’s successful 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis, overcoming a 17-point deficit to win the White House in a contest that saw the Democrat’s bid derailed, in part, by the controversial Willie Horton TV ad about a weekend furlough program for Massachusetts inmates.

Lee Atwater died from a brain tumor in 1991, leaving his wife to raise their three daughters – then 10, 5 and 1.

In the years since her husband’s death, Sally Atwater has kept her national and local political connections.

President George W. Bush appointed her executive director of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, a position she held for the duration of Bush’s presidency. She also spent a year on Capitol Hill as a staffer for House Education and Workforce committee underchairman John Kline, R-Minn.

Atwater also has dabbled in campaigns for various candidates in South Carolina and elsewhere.

“I used to raise money for other people. I have kept in touch,” she said Friday. “One thing I learned from Lee Atwater: Always keep in touch.”

To get her candidacy for the GOP nomination for state education superintendent started, Atwater is loaning her campaign $50,000. Sheri Few of Kershaw County, the only other Republican in the race to file a campaign disclosure report, had $17,000 available to spend as of last week.

Atwater, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Winthrop University, taught in public schools in Rock Hill, Gilbert and Columbia for nine years before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1982. She worked for the U.S. Department of Education under Reagan and later was appointed to advisory boards at the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health.

Atwater said she returned to South Carolina to be closer to her daughters, two of whom are teaching here. She said she decided to run for state superintendent after hearing Haley speak at Forest Hills Elementary School in Walterboro about her education reform plan, which includes about $60 million for reading coaches and technology upgrades.

“By third grade, if you are not reading, you are going go have real challenges,” Atwater said. “And I cannot tell you what I had to fight to get one computer for my children.”

Tompkins, the former chief of staff for Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell, said he agreed to work for Atwater because she has “an excellent message and an excellent idea of what needs to be done.”

“Most importantly, she’s coming right out of the classroom,” Tompkins said. “She knows what’s going on.”

South Carolina is famous for its bare-knuckles style of politics – a style owed in large part to Lee Atwater. Sally Atwater said she has what it takes to survive what is sure to be a contentious Republican primary, with three other candidates already in the race: Anderson County School District 4 board member Gary Burgess, Charleston County school board member Elizabeth Moffly and Few, president of S.C. Parents Involved in Education.

At least three others also are thinking about running for the GOP nomination: Charmeka Childs, deputy superintendent of school effectiveness under Republican Superintendent Mick Zais who is not seeking re-election; state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, a former public-school teacher; and Molly Spearman, executive director of the S.C. Association of School Administrators and a former state representative.

On the Democratic side, two candidates are running – state Rep. Mike Anthony, D-Union, a retired football coach, athletics director and teacher, and Montrio Belton, a former educator from Fort Mill who once worked at the Education Department under Zais.

The job pays $92,007 a year.

“I don’t think it can be any more challenging than raising three girls (alone),” Atwater said. “There is nothing that politics could do to me that life hasn’t already done.”

The Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service