We said Howie Rich was an outsider with no interest in our state, pumping in massive amounts of money to try to control our Legislature; his supporters bristled. We said he was trying to use South Carolina as a launching pad to spread his narrow ideological view across the country; they balked. We said he had a single-minded fixation on what he calls "school choice" they objected.
And now, in an extraordinary interview with the chairman of the state Republican Party, the man who wants to give parents who will send their kids to private schools our tax dollars, or else give them a pass on paying taxes themselves, has confirmed pretty much everything I and other critics ever said about him.
Some question the propriety of Katon Dawson providing such a fawning platform ("So you felt it was your duty as an American to be involved in these issues, not just in South Carolina but in the other states?") for a man whose main focus for five years has been unseating Republican state legislators. I'll leave that for Republicans to fight out; I'm grateful to Mr. Dawson.
No matter how friendly a questioner he was, Mr. Dawson's interview provides the fullest look South Carolina voters have had at our Legislature's would-be puppetmaster, and in so doing washes away any hint of deniability of his intentions. Here's a little of what we learn from Mr. Rich:
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He has no ties to our state.
"Here in South Carolina," he said, "I own no property, I have no businesses down here, so there's no real monetary benefit." This is his proof that his motivations are pure; after all, what's more important than making money? If that's not what you're trying to do, you must be Mother Theresa.
Try to imagine this: George Soros or some other bete noire of the left targets our legislators, explaining that he has no financial interest, but merely wants to bring his enlightened world view to power in our state -- and state Republicans smile with approval.
He's a one-issue guy in South Carolina, and his interest in that issue extends across the nation. Mr. Rich said he has long been interested in lowering taxes, shrinking government and preserving "personal freedom," but these days he's focused on public school "choice" and term limits.
"I'm involved in school choice in South Carolina," he said, "and I've been involved all across the country in that issue, also since as early as 1990. We're talking Washington state, California, Georgia, Arizona, Colorado and several other states."
This is significant because his sycophants insist that the agenda they push with his money is much larger than one issue. They say this to deny charges that their attacks on issues other than school "choice" are part of a bait-and-switch campaign. Their patron begs to differ.
He'd love to use South Carolina as a launching pad. When Mr. Dawson asked whether he though a victory here could be "a model for the rest of the nation," Mr. Rich excitedly said he did, and then launched into a recap of recent successes in Florida and Georgia. "So we have a whole Southeastern strategy so to speak, with Florida, Georgia and hopefully South Carolina."
Stuck with him
We're stuck with him. "I am not going away, and my groups are not going away," he said, in the one part of the interview that has been widely reported. "If we get a bill, a good bill, in 2009, I'm sure Governor Sanford will sign it. That'll be terrific. If not, it could be 2010, 2011 or 2015."
He believes that if you oppose his ideas, you must be on the take; you could not possibly just believe he's wrong. He explained to Mr. Dawson that it is impossible for his opponents to understand his altruistic motivations "because the other side is in it for one thing -- taxpayer dollars. They love it every year when the Legislature gives them more money for what they call 'education.'"
He believes that private schools are always and inherently superior to public schools. It's not even an assertion on his part; it's an article of faith. "And these are going to be much better schools," he said of those private schools in our state that would educate "one child, ten kids, a thousand children, ten thousand children" at taxpayer expense. He said it much the way you might say, "and it's pleasant out today."
He grades on a curve. Public schools may be irredeemable by definition, but the governor whose biggest accomplishment in six years has been to bring the House and Senate together in opposition to pretty much every one of his initiatives "has been just terrific" in the area of lower taxes and spending.
He believes there should be no restrictions on his efforts to purchase himself a friendly little Southern Legislature. "This is money that I earned honestly, primarily in the real estate business," he said, "and I believe since it's my money, I can do with it as I choose. And if I want to do something I strongly believe in ... I should be allowed to do that. Everything I've done is 100 percent legal."
He's right: It is legal, although there's good reason to question whether his shell-game approach -- giving the $1,000 legal maximum contribution to each chosen candidate not only from his personal account but also from a network of paper companies with obscure names, even before enlisting his cronies across the nation to do likewise -- should be.
But in this country, even those of us who don't have the money to evade the intent of the campaign donation law are allowed to have our own opinion about whether legislators should be beholden to someone with views such as these. And if we don't think they should -- and if we actually live in South Carolina -- we get to say so at the polls.