Andrew Dys

It took 21 years, but Spratt's right-hand man gets his due

U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., and others applaud as state Rep. Herb Kirsh, D-Clover, right, presents Robert Hopkins with an award from the state House of Representatives honoring his service as Spratt's district coordinator.
U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., and others applaud as state Rep. Herb Kirsh, D-Clover, right, presents Robert Hopkins with an award from the state House of Representatives honoring his service as Spratt's district coordinator.

Monday afternoon, Robert Hopkins was the man of the hour. People in suit coats shook his hand. There was a reception in his honor.

He smiled and he thanked people and he turned red.

"I'm embarrassed," said the 65-year-old Hopkins.

Because the man who retires Friday after 21 years as district coordinator for U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., is a throwback to the old days of politics. His job was to help people in the district. There are 650,000 people in the district, covering 14 counties from Dillon to Gaffney, Sumter to Lake Wylie. Somebody in those counties needed a cowcatcher to plow through the morass of red tape that is the federal government.

So that is what Hopkins did. He worked for a Democrat, but I never heard of him asking anybody who they voted for before helping.

There were probably 100 people at that reception at an art gallery on Main Street in Rock Hill. But I kept looking for little old ladies carrying framed Social Security checks, or men with a limp carrying a laminated Medicare card. Veterans who got benefits they deserved, or the widows of those veterans who got the benefits they deserved.

Those, and more, are the people Hopkins helped in all those years.

The reception started at 4 p.m. and in the hours leading up to it, Hopkins couldn't be found in the office. I know because I called, then walked in there on the third floor of the Gettys Center on Main Street and looked around. All I found was his desk with a week's worth of appointments and scheduling on it. Friday is Hopkins' last day: The guy has a list of things to do to help strangers still on his desk that lasts until the bell rings Friday afternoon.

Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols thanked Hopkins for all he did for the people of the 5th District's largest city. Democratic Rep. Herb Kirsh from Clover gave Hopkins a resolution from the General Assembly.

"Straight talk," Kirsh said of Hopkins. "He told you what he thought, plain as day."

For Hopkins, shooting the breeze was an art form. He learned e-mail because he had to, but he hates it. He would invite people to the office, bring them in and sit them down and let them talk.

The political stuff was fun for him. Unlike so many of the younger people who work for politicians of any party, Hopkins never sneered at the opponents. You never saw him on TV calling anybody names or heard a sound bite from him claiming the opponent was a monster.

But you did see him hanging around Democratic functions, shooting the breeze. People would come up to him -- I saw it dozens of time myself in the past seven years -- and he would say, "Come to the office," or "Call, and we'll work it out."

Hopkins gave a little speech, tiny, describing his job as a "guide for people through the political maze."

Yet true to form, Hopkins refused to talk about himself, choosing to thank all the others in the office now and through the years.

Spratt chose Hopkins 21 years ago because they had been buddies since kindergarten, but more because Hopkins had a track record of success in life in the military and afterward.

"I've never been disappointed," Spratt said.

The office is in great hands. Deputy administrator Jeffrey Sligh and others have been there for years. New district administrator Charlie McDow, a capable and gracious man with deep roots in Rock Hill, has already started.

Hopkins ended his speech, and he got a round of applause. For a man who has been the behind-the-scenes fixer for two decades, working the shadows, it was about time.

But after Friday, the little old ladies with the Social Security check problems will have to find somebody else to help them.

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