Saturday, August 18, 2007

It’s been a great summer here at Barbecue & Politics.

We’ve taken a look at the thing South Carolina does better than any other state … From Springfield to Garden City, Gervais has taken it upon himself to ingest vast quantities of succulent, sauce-soaked South Carolina barbecue … and let you know what I’ve found. And some readers have returned the favor, which I greatly appreciate. (Burp.)

We’ve also lifted the bun on the other thing that Sandlappers are passionate about… good old-fashioned, homegrown, pick up the cell phone and threaten to kill your estranged wife’s boyfriend, resign and take a job with the payday lenders, 90% funding from the out-of-state voucher lobby politics. Okay, so it doesn’t seem so old-fashioned and homegrown when I put it that way.

But as the summer winds down, so too must the blogging.

And here, to tide you over until the next Barbecue Season, are some pics from one of my new favorites, Kelly’s BBQ, located in "Flowertown," SC. (That's Summerville on the highway map.)

Kelly’s is a real-deal southern barbecue buffet with all the goods. You can fix your paper plate with cabbage casserole, pickled okra, fried okra, and even breakfast casserole -- next to the fried chicken, prehistoric-sized collard greens, and spice-infused pulled pork. And you can do it in a down-home atmosphere with plastic-ware, dining hall style know-your-neighbor seating and washtub lamps hangin’ down from the ceiling.

So if you need me, that’s where you can find me: at Kelly’s, and dozens of other unique 'cue joints around the Palmetto State, eating good barbecue with nice folks. And you can always hit me up with an email at gervaissbridges @

Take care!

Gervais S. Bridges

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Five Questions with Mick Mulvaney

As you know, I've blogged a lot this summer about what I feel is the exploitation of SC's campaign finance laws in an effort to build a legislature that will support Howard Rich's private-school voucher bill, sometimes referred to as "Put Parents in Charge."

I've mentioned sitting legislators elected with a flood of out-of-state funding from the voucher lobby -- like Reps. Curtis Brantley (at least 86%) and Kit Spires (over 52%).

I've highlighted would-be legislators whose campaigns were almost entirely funded from out-of-state supporters of PPIC -- like Michael Letts (96%), Brad Cain (99.2%) and Roz Mir (99.8%). And of course, I've uncovered evidence that perhaps some of these folks don't actually know their names are being used as contributors to SC races, and that maybe this money doesn't really come from individual checks after all.

All this blogging was based on some underlying assumptions: that SC political races shouldn't be unduly influenced by massive amounts of out-of-state special interest money, that one person shouldn't be able to game the system because he happens to control more LLC's than the average Sandlapper, and that campaign contribution limits are meaningless if they don't really limit anything.

But what if these underlying assumptions are wrong?

It honestly never occurred to me that this sort of funding is the way its supposed to work, or that some people may see no problem whatsoever with this brand of politics. It's an opinion I don't share, but it's a valid opinion nonetheless, and deserves some space on this page -- along with some good humor, a solid tip on a SC 'cue joint, and some thoughts on the blogosphere.

So without further ado, Barbecue & Politics presents...

Five Questions with Rep. Mick Mulvaney

1. Let’s get right to the point, Rep. Mulvaney: Your election to the State House has meant many lunches in the Mustard Belt. Obviously, this fact more than compensates for the meager salary of a legislator. Where back home, in the Tomato Belt, do you go to get your ‘cue on?

My only regular intake of BBQ these days is the 521 Barbecue. It’s on, not surprisingly, Highway 521 in Lancaster County near Sun City. Good stuff, with free refills on the Cherry Coke, which is a characteristic trait of all great BBQ joints. They also cater a mean campaign event at about half the going rate.

2. (a) With which legislator have you worked the most during the last session?

I worked a great deal with Jim Merrill and was surprised to find out about halfway through the session that he was the majority leader, and not the dead poet. Go figure. I also worked with both Bill Herbkersman and Herb Kirsh, and can confirm that they are in fact different people.

(b) Have you made any unlikely alliances in the State House?

I teamed up with Don Bowen this year for a sort of vaudeville thing. I juggle flaming torches while he reads Shakespearean tragedies dressed as Hamlet. He looks good in the tights, but we probably aren’t ready for prime time. We might try some weddings and bar mitzvahs this off-season, though.

3. Okay, enough softballs. As I noted before on this blog, your campaign in 2006 received a $9,000 “shot in the arm” from New York voucher advocate Howard Rich, through his many LLC’s. Do you think this sort of contributing/fund-raising meets the legislative intent of our state’s contribution limits?

Two thoughts before I get to the meat of your question:

One: your question makes an assumption: that all of those LLC’s are Howard Rich --- and only Howard Rich. They may have similar addresses and other legal formalities, but there is a long way between those factors and a true alter ego. I am involved in several companies, many of which have the same address, although with different owners, officers, and directors. So be careful about jumping to conclusions.

Two: one of the greatest things about living in this country is that --- ideally --- we aren’t supposed to have to worry about legislative “intent.” In a society governed by written law, the law is what the law is. People should be able to read our laws and know what is permitted and what is proscribed, without having to delve into the netherworld of intangibles. Frankly, I find that people start to focus on “intent” when they don’t like what the law says on its face. Intent rightly becomes an issue when the law lacks clarity…not when you just disagree with it. For the times that legislative intent is validly at issue, we have a court system to perform its proper function.

That said, I have no problem answering your question: absolutely this sort of financing meets the intent.

The easy answer is to say “no,” as I assume folks believe that the “intent” of the law must be to limit the ability of certain groups to contribute to campaigns. They may think that there is some loophole someplace (probably discovered by devious trial lawyers) that politicians are “taken advantage of” with this kind of financing.

That is simply not the case. There is no loophole. It is a cavernous void, so obvious that the only reasonable assumption can be that the Legislature – and I wasn’t a legislator then – did not intend to limit this kind of financing. Indeed, if limiting multiple corporate donations was in fact the intent, it is hard to imagine a law that does a worse job of articulating that.

The definitions in the law make it painfully clear that separate companies, including LLC’s, are treated as separate entities, just as members of one family --- spouses, emancipated children, etc. --- are treated as separate individuals. Clearly, the folks who wrote that law knew full well what would happen: money would come from children, corporate subsidiaries, and multiple LLCs. It’s hard, given the express language, to argue anything else. The Legislature went so far as to distinguish between contributions from emancipated and unemancipated children. Clearly, it could have done the same on related corporate entities. Similarly, many states prohibit contributions from corporations entirely. Our legislators chose not to apply that bright-line rule. I can only assume – and I think reasonably – that they did (or did not do) those things on purpose.

Before anyone decries that position as being overly legalistic, consider an analogous “reform”: the rule changes on lobbying. There, the law is so detailed that the law is actually referred to as the “No Cup of Coffee” law. There is no need to delve into intent, and if there was, that intent would be manifestly clear. Put another way, if the Legislature had wanted campaign finance “reform” to equate to the “$1000 From Any Source” law, they had not only the ability to do so, but also had a ready model available to them.

And I am glad they didn’t as I am not particularly fond of so-called campaign reform laws. Indeed, I think financial limitations are an affront to free speech and create unfair disadvantages for candidates with less personal wealth. In my own race, for example, my opponent was apparently not in a position to provide significant funds to his campaign. However, that his wealthy next door neighbor --- who might have shared his same political philosophy (as misguided as it was) – couldn’t give him $5000 or $10,000 or $100,000 just stuns me. If his neighbor wants to see liberalism prevail, it is a travesty to prevent him from seeking to do so. Look at it this way: if the rich neighbor ran for office himself, he could contribute $2,000,000; if he didn’t, he could contribute $1000. Something is terribly wrong with that dichotomy. Campaign finance “reform” has moved us one step closer to a system where only super-rich candidates are viable --- and that smacks of an aristocracy.

I feel so strongly about the evils of campaign finance limitations, by the way, that I actually sent back one campaign contribution last year: $1000 from John McCain. I had just finished writing a critique of McCain-Feingold when the check came in. Here was a man who, on one hand, was saying that the Bill of Rights was a secondary priority, and that “money corrupts” --- and on the other hand was sending me money. I am not easily offended. That offended me.

Campaign finance reform should be renamed the “Incumbent Protection Act.” That is the only thing it accomplishes. Along with gerrymandered districts, it represents one of the most serious long-term threats to our republican system of government.

Come to think of it, it strikes me that protecting incumbents – and not limiting multiple contributions — may well have been the true intent of the campaign finance reform movement. It makes more sense, at a lot of levels.

4. Whose responsibility is it, if anyone’s, to ensure compliance with state election laws? Candidates? Consultants? Ethics Commission? Bloggers?

I haven’t looked as closely at this issue, but I would think it is fairly self-evident: the candidates are always responsible for their own actions; the ethics commissions (including those in the House and Senate) are responsible for enforcement. Beyond that, consultants are probably just responsible to give good advice to their clients, especially when it comes to the bizarre and often counter-intuitive reporting processes. Bloggers play the same role as other media.

5. New media. South Carolina Politics. What are the possibilities?

Endless. But right now it is its own worst enemy. Too often the new media seems to start off with great promise, only to devolve into anonymous defamation. That is especially true of the comments on blogs. The bloggers themselves are often serious about their work – although they obviously vary in style (which is part of what makes the medium so attractive.) But it seems that good investigative work is often overshadowed by banal chatter in the commentary. It is intended to undermine the credibility of the source, but the effect is to undermine the credibility of the entire form of media. The entire blog turns into a discussion about the blog itself — and its authors, and their styles --- and not about the substance of the matters presented. That is where we are missing the opportunity.

For example, I have had serious (and non-anonymous) exchanges on the substance of issues with you, Will Folks, and a handful of other bloggers – the same as I would with John O’Connor or Jim Davenport. For that I have been slammed in commentaries. (Indeed, I expect to get hammered just for having this interview.) That sort of attack just undermines the whole endeavor. Can you imagine the chilling effect if someone who talked with The State was accused of various thought-crimes the next day in the Rock Hill Herald for just having had the conversation? This is – or can be – a valid form of media. All sides should treat it as such.

If the commentary got better, I think you would see a spiraling-up effect, where the authors would improve, and the two components would reinforce each other in turn. We are a ways from that yet. If we get there, though, I think you will see this form of media eclipse old-style print media. The interactive component provides that much of an advantage.

I hope to be able to put my money where my mouth is, by the way. I will be introducing my own blog later this month. I hope that I can contribute some meaningful commentary to various debates – although I will leave BBQ to you. We’ll see if I can deliver something of quality.

***Thanks, Rep. Mulvaney, for sharing your views with B&P.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What's in a number?

As you know, Gervais has been going through one of his new favorite websites, researching his favorite voucher groups in the Palmetto State, and coming across some pretty interesting stuff.

Of course, the most telling item was SCRG’s earliest tax return, which inadvertently gave the phone number of Howard Rich’s “US Term Limits” (847-657-7251) as its phone listing. Note to self: if I ever start a bogus, grassroots group in another state (I’m leaning towards Rhode Island) make sure I use a local phone number instead of my own.

But after poking around some more, I found that SCRG wasn’t the only Howard Rich prop-up to use that Illinois phone number. (click on picture for larger view)

For instance, if you lived in Phoenix circa 2004, you had to dial long distance to reach “Arizona At Its Best.” If you lived in Boulder and had a hankerin’ to speak to “Colorado At Its Best,” you also had to phone the Land of Lincoln. Howard Rich, of course, was director of both groups. (pdf) (pdf)

You could also dial 847-657-7251 to reach "Club for Growth State Action," a group which "establishes and supports" seven state affiliates, including the SC Club for Growth. Howard Rich is listed as the president of the group. (pdf).

That’s when it occured to me that over the last few weeks, I’ve neglected one of the vouchin’-est voucher groups in the state (and let’s face it, huge fans of Barbecue & Politics) the SC Club for Growth.

According to the SC Secretary of State’s website, the Club for Growth sets up shop at 3020 Devine Street these days. That’s the same address that SCRG and the Center for Grassroots moved to earlier this year.

I guess that makes it easier for whoever writes the rent check.

But more “SC, grassroots” voucher groups controlled by Howard Rich? Yawn. That’s yesterday’s news.

The best thing about these tax filings is that they reveal the connections between Rich and his roster of out-of-state contributors to SC voucher candidates.

There’s Yvonne Worseley of Mountain Home, AR. You actually won’t find her name on any SC disclosures, but “Yvonne Rich” of the same address gave over $10,000 to SC voucher candidates in 2006. Yvonne is listed as a co-director of Colorado At Its Best. (pdf)

There’s Joseph Stilwell of NY, NY. He gave $37,500 to SC candidates who supported Put Parents in Charge in 2006. He’s a co-director of U.S. Term Limits. (pdf)

There’s Eric Brooks Bala Cynwyd, PA. He contributed $46,000 to voucher candidates in SC last year. Not only that - his wife, Donna Brooks, gave $36,000. Brooks co-directs the “Parents in Charge Foundation,” (pdf), chaired by Howard Rich.

And there’s more, so much more. But here’s my question… Are these folks really parting with up to $80,000 of their household earnings to influence SC political contests? Does that seem likely to you? Or is this just more funny money, like the $1,000 Thomas Simuel didn’t really contribute to Curtis Brantley, yet was attributed to him on Brantley's financial disclosures?

Maybe I'll call these folks, long distance, and find out.

Friday, August 03, 2007

A legislator with 94% out-of state funding? Believe it, SC.

Have you ever given away $1,000 without knowing it? I haven't either. That’s what makes this next story so interesting.

I’ve mentioned the campaign funding of Rep. Curtis Brantley a few times now on this blog. Rep. Brantley, as you recall, got 84% of his 2006 funding from a roster of out-of-state voucher supporters, edging out his opponent by fewer than 200 votes.

As you know by now, I find this brand of politics to be nothing short of appalling. It’s an outright purchase of a legislative seat by an out-of-state interest. It’s a perversion of our political system, and it’s happened in several districts around the state, with even more money (although never at such a high percentage).

It’s part of an overarching agenda to pack the South Carolina legislature with enough votes to pass anti-public education ideologue Howard Rich’s scheme known as Put Parents in Charge.

And it’s actually worse than it seems, at least in the case of Rep. Curtis Brantley.

When I revisited Rep. Brantley’s figures recently, something still didn’t seem right about them. It wasn’t the out-of-state funding this time, though. This time, it was the in-state funding.

Brantley received only $3,410 in funding from inside the Palmetto State. The lion’s share of this funding was two $1000 checks: one from a man named Thomas Simuel, and the other from a lady named Tammie Gilchrist.

For those of you who haven’t been following these new voucher subgroups, Thomas Simuel is the president of the SC Center from Grassroots (SCCG), the organization that shares an office with South Carolinians for Responsible Government (SCRG) and received about a half-million dollars in mysterious funding in 2005. Thomas Simuel took the reins of SCCG from a guy named Stephen Gilchrist, whose wife is named Tammie.

Thomas Simuel may be neck-deep in pushing the SCRG voucher plan, and he wears a nice enough suit, but to me, he didn’t seem like the type of person who would write a personal check for $1,000. At least not to fund a State House candidate who wasn’t even in his district. Neither did Tammie Gilchrist, a public school teacher.

Sensing something was awry, Gervais decided to call Mr. Simuel. After about a dozen calls (one of which was inadvertently answered by the SCRG secretary instead of the SCCG secretary) I finally got in touch with him.

I started by asking Simuel where the $489,000 in SCCG funding came from. He said he wasn’t president of SCCG at the time, so he had no idea. Regarding Howard Rich, he said, “I couldn’t tell you who Howard Rich is … I’ve only heard his name in the papers.”

Mr. Simuel explained that he’s been doing “strictly (c)(3) work” that isn’t very political. This, of course, is shorthand for 501(c)(3), the IRS designation for non-profit organizations.

So I asked a natural follow-up: “Have you ever contributed to a political candidate?”

“Never more than a hundred dollars or so,” he said. Hmmm.

“Do you know who Rep. Curtis Brantley is?” I asked.

Mr. Simuel said he didn’t want to have any part of the interview if I was going to attack Rep. Brantley, someone he considered to be an honorable man. I assured him that I have no opinion of Rep. Brantley as a person or a representative.

Then I asked the question I wanted to ask all along: “Did you contribute to Curtis Brantley in 2006?”

“No,” Simuel said confidently.

So I dropped the bomb. I asked Simuel if he was aware that his name was listed among the $1,000 contributors to Brantley’s 2006 campaign. Suddenly, and awkwardly, he changed his story.

“Like I said, I probably gave Curtis some money.”

“Hold on now,” I replied. “That is not what you said. You said you didn’t give him any money. You said you never gave more than a hundred dollars or so to anybody.”

“Like I said, I probably gave him some money,” he repeated.

“Wait a second, I heard what you said. You specifically said you didn’t give Curtis Brantley any money and you said –“


Mr. Simuel had hung up.

I had caught Mr. Simuel doing something the voucher lobby rarely does regarding their funding: telling the truth -- that he didn’t contribute $1,000 to Curtis Brantley in 2006. And I bet, if I asked any other $1000 contributor on the list of Brantley funders, they couldn’t point to a stub in their personal checkbook either.

Because that’s not how this double-dealing campaign finance operation works, folks.

Candidates who are willing to vouch for Howard Rich’s Put Parents in Charge plan don’t get a measly $1,000 at a time. That kind of chump-change is for suckers who follow SC ethics laws, like the handful of former lawmakers who didn’t make the cut in this year’s edition of the legislative manual.

Instead, what most likely happens is this: First, SCRG/SCCG funnels a voucher candidate $10,000, ten times the legal limit, from a slush fund of out-of-state money. Then, SCRG/SCCG consults a list of names (generally out-of-state folk and Howard Rich-controlled LLC’s) and magically turns that $10,000 into ten "separate" contributions. Repeat until elected. That's how an outsider special interest buys a seat in the SC Legislature, to the tune of 84% make that 94% out-of-state funding.

And occasionally in this whole process, some of these contributions are attributed to people like Thomas Simuel.

People who gave away $1,000, without even knowing it.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

One more reason not to vote for Dennis Kucinich

No, not the tall piece of arm-candy he somehow landed as his wife. He gets "mad props," "big ups," and a hardy "kudos" for that.

It’s the shirt.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure there are good reasons not to eat 'cue. Like, your stomach lacks the enzymes to break down the barbecue AND you cannot find a friend to swallow, digest, and regurgitate it for you.

But I bet Dennis Kucinich has got the enzymes. I bet he’s got plenty of them enzymes.