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Friday, September 1    |    Upstate South Carolina News, Sports and Information

Former Gov. Carroll Campbell dead at 65
Leader who built South Carolina's Republican party, played on national stage, dies in Lexington

Published: Wednesday, December 7, 2005 - 10:47 am


By Dan Hoover
STAFF WRITER
dchoover@greenvillenews.com

Carroll Ashmore Campbell, a tough-talking, streetwise Greenville teenager who grew up to build the Republican Party into South Carolina's dominant force, brought the automotive industry to the Upstate, and shaped national events, died today. He was 65.

The former governor's death came four years after he wrote an open letter to South Carolinians in October 2002 disclosing he was battling Alzheimer's Disease. He had been institutionalized for acute care since September.

No details of his death were immediately available and funeral arrangements are incomplete.

"Clearly he was a leader of the future (who) became a great, modernizing governor," said former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who entered Congress with Campbell in 1979. "Carroll was the political leader in his generation who understood that South Carolina had to become a modern state as part of the world economy," Gingrich said.

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Along the way, Campbell helped shape American history for his lifetime and beyond. He bucked the state party's old order to help Ronald Reagan win the 1980 presidential nomination. It was his organization that salvaged the wounded presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush in 1988 and his son, George W. Bush, in 2000.

His rise to power didn't come without controversy.

Some who battled him head-to-head remembered Campbell with respect — and criticism.

Although Campbell emerged as a New South governor, one more focused on future economic development than the trappings of Southern heritage, it was race — Campbell's 1970 anti-busing efforts — which first brought him attention outside Greenville. And his 1978 campaign for the U.S. House was tinged with charges of injecting religion, contentions always vehemently rejected by Campbell.

But as a chief executive in a state whose government is structurally and politically slanted to the Legislature, Campbell stood out.

"As only the second Republican governor in a then-Democratic dominated state, he persuaded the General Assembly to pass almost all of his priorities," said Whit Ayers, a Virginia-based Republican pollster who was a top Campbell aide in the first term.

"He did so by appealing to the Democratic leadership to work together for the good of the state," Ayres said.

Interactive timeline (Move the scrollbar at the bottom to view the entire timeline)

As governor, Campbell:

  • Revamped the state's tax code to make it more business-friendly, resulting in record economic development.
  • Set the precedent of submitting an executive budget to the Legislature, a task previously performed by the Budget and Control Board.
  • Directed new expenditures into education, creating the Governor's School for Science and Math and the Governor's Teaching Scholarship.
  • Won partial restructuring of state government, putting formerly board-run agencies, unaccountable to the public, under a cabinet secretary reporting to the governor.

    Intense competitor
    Campbell was a tough guy who was tough to get to know. He was notoriously thin-skinned.

    In public life, Campbell could be fire and ice for those who didn't see things his way, but he always seemed to know just the moment to turn on the charm.

    That didn't mean the intensity was gone.

    "Everything he did had a purpose," said Bob McAlister, a former top aide, friend and confidant. "He didn't relax the way most of us relax. The intensity he showed in public was the same in private."

    Put him in a social setting, especially with beach music lilting in the background, and Campbell could put on a shagging clinic, his skill and smoothness with the official state dance honed during high school summers as a lifeguard at Myrtle Beach.

    Women of widely varying ages would virtually line up for a dance, not with a governor or congressman, but a virtuoso of the shag.

    Notably, his life-long passions were fishing and golf, sports in which you're competing against yourself.

    Campbell's sense of humor tended to be self-deprecating.

    "Most people were afraid to tease him," McAlister said, "but he loved it" when they did.

    Whatever racial views Campbell may have held remained a mystery to one of those who battled him, I.S. Leevy Johnson, a Columbia lawyer who was one of three blacks to win state House seats in 1970, the first African Americans to serve in that body in the 20th century.

    "It's difficult to assess," Johnson said recently. "I don't know and the fact that I don't know speaks volumes."

    He said Campbell "was never identified as a person aggressively advocating programs to eradicate the racial problem."

    Before Campbell took office, he directed that "Dixie" — traditionally played at the inauguration of the state's governors — be dropped from his inauguration program after members of the Legislative Black Caucus threatened to walk out.

    Four months into his term, Campbell summoned reporters to announce that he had ordered state agencies to cease holding meetings in segregated clubs or those without minority members. He won extensive praise from black leaders for the action.

    Campbell's upset victory over Greenville Mayor Max Heller, who fled pogroms in Poland and Nazi tyranny, was as bitterly fought as it was fraught with controversy, some of which still lingers.

    A Campbell campaign poll asked for respondents' preference for Campbell, "a native South Carolinian," or Heller, "a Jewish immigrant."

    Campbell always rejected criticism that he brought religion into the campaign.

    In the campaign's waning days, Don Sprouse, a local wrecker service operator, entered as an independent and denounced Heller because "he is not a Christian," further injecting religion and ethnicity into the race. Campbell denied critics' allegations that his campaign put Sprouse up to it.

    Heller has long said he wouldn't re-hash the issue, but expressed regret at Campbell's untimely illness and described him as "a good governor."

    Don Fowler, a future national Democratic Party chairman, was state chairman at the time.

    "Carroll Campbell was a very capable public servant (with) a lot of talent, a lot of ability and, I think, a lot of dedication. I actively disagreed with a lot of his policies. He did play the race issue occasionally, which I thought was reprehensible," Fowler said, adding that he was referring to Campbell's early anti-busing efforts.

    Fowler, a Spartanburg native and a Columbia communications executive, blamed Campbell for undermining the Education Improvement Act, won under his predecessor, Dick Riley, by going along with legislators who diverted funds from the program.

    The congressional campaign remains a sore spot, Fowler said, "for those of us who remember."

    Sam Tenenbaum, a retired Lexington industrialist, Democratic fund-raiser and friend of Heller's, often questioned Campbell's policies. "We're all a bundle of contradictions, good and bad," he said.

    "He was an effective governor, he knew where he wanted to go and was willing to play the politics in order to govern. He had a mission to govern and that's important. My biggest problem with Carroll was that he went over the line to win, going back to Heller," Tenenbaum said.

    If you were Campbell's friend, you were, well, his friend.

    Sam Cerezo, a native of Puerto Rico, and a Lee County educator after 20 years in the Air Force, said Campbell "was the most important man to the Hispanic community. He supported me, became my friend, with no strings attached."

    Rewriting politics
    How did South Carolina politics change with Campbell?

    When he took the oath as governor in January 1987, 31 of 124 House members were Republicans and nine of 46 senators shared the GOP label. As governor, Campbell was the lone Republican constitutional officer among the nine statewide officials.

    Sitting on the windswept south front of the Statehouse in January 1995 for the inauguration of David Beasley, his hand-picked successor, Campbell could look upon 16 Republican senators, a GOP House majority, including Speaker David Wilkins of Greenville, and six fellow Republicans holding statewide offices. Within five years, Republicans would control the state Senate.

    Wilkins, now U.S. Ambassador to Canada, described Campbell as "the master architect" of the state Republican Party's speedy rise to dominance.

    Strom Thurmond's defection to the GOP in 1964 may have made it safe for Democrats to switch, but it was Campbell who was the party-builder. He assiduously recruited candidates, helped them raise money, offered guidance, then beat the bushes to get them elected.

    In the process, the party built both a strong farm system and a ready bench, while the Democrats became the party that struggled to compete.

    Campbell was the real-life political version of Ray Kinsella, the fictional protagonist in the movie, "Field of Dreams," Wilkins said.

    "Carroll Campbell knew if he built it, they would come. So he did. And they came — one precinct meeting, one fundraiser, one election at a time," he said.

    Fowler, the consummate Democrat, credited Campbell with building the GOP into the state's majority party.

    "When he beat Mike Daniel (to win the governorship in 1986), separate and apart from personalities, the Republican had to be a better candidate and run a better campaign to win. At the end of his eight years, the Democrat had to be a better candidate and run a better campaign to win," Fowler said. "The roles were reversed."

    As Campbell's vision stretched beyond Greenville, it also stretched beyond South Carolina.

    He was instrumental in putting Reagan and both Presidents Bush in the White House by spearheading their comeback primary victories and was on a pair of vice presidential short lists. Campbell made his own quixotic presidential run before settling back into a lucrative and influential private sector job in Washington in the mid-1990s.

    Campbell had to overcome the odds to reach his goals.

    Taking risks
    The scion of a blue-blooded family fallen on hard times who never went to college in the traditional sense, Campbell was a risk-taker of immense drive who found early success in business, then politics.

    "He always had the heart of an underdog," said Bob McAlister, a top aide during Campbell's eight years as governor, close friend and spiritual adviser. "He always saw himself as that young man in Greenville struggling to make a living."

    In his 1986 campaign for governor, Campbell would rail at the "good 'ol boys" he said dominated state politics for their own, not the people's, prosperity.

    Campbell's unsettled adolescence amid a disintegrating family led to a transforming moment when an uncle enrolled him in Chattanooga's prestigious McCallie School after he dropped out of Greenville High School. Its discipline and structure wrought a turning point in Campbell's life.

    "There's no question it was good for me," he would later recall.

    At McCallie in 1957-58, the blond, lean, trim Campbell reflected the personal dichotomy that would mark his approach to politics in later life. The senior was both a swimmer and member of the Smoking Club, according to 1958 annual.

    But money problems scuttled his plans to attend the University of South Carolina.

    It was as a 39-year-old congressman that Campbell would finally enter the halls of academia, enrolling in a master's degree program at Washington's American University.

    While struggle "made me a better man," missing the college experience would remain "one of the biggest disappointments of my life," he said in 1994.

    Like so many of his contemporaries, Campbell married young.

    He had met Iris Faye Rhodes through a friend, her brother Jack, recalled Campbell's younger son, Mike, currently a candidate for lieutenant governor.

    After returning from the McCallie School in 1958, Campbell took a job selling clothing at McDonald's men's store downtown. Iris Rhodes worked at a drug store lunch counter "and he'd go there for lunch and they'd talk, get to know each other," Mike Campbell said.

    On Sept. 5, 1959, they eloped, to Pickens. Campbell had turned 20 in July, his bride was 19.

    Apparently, only the justice of the peace was clued in.

    "They didn't say anything," Mike Campbell said. Instead, his future parents went back to their respective parents' homes. That lasted long enough for the parents "to figure out something was going on." Next stop: A one-room apartment.

    Mike Campbell described a "great dad," who while a strict disciplinarian, "made sure there was always quality, undivided time" for him and older brother Carroll III.

    Building a business and a political career kept the elder Campbell away extensively, "but he taught us the things he was doing and why he was doing them."

    As a 20-year-old working two jobs, he leased land downtown to pave for a parking lot; next, with help from a partner, came real estate; then fast food. By the mid-1970s his firms were hitting the $6 million mark. He would acquire a farm near Fountain Inn and raise Arabian horses.

    Political beginnings
    Along the way Campbell began to dabble in local politics, spurred, he would say, to right what he saw as the wrongs of one-party politics.

    Helping a friend run for a local office, they were told "how much it would cost to buy five boxes (precincts)," Campbell said in 1978. No sale. No victory.

    "I was mad at the system and I knew there had to be some competition," he said. That November 1960 he became a Republican poll-watcher.

    In January 1970, two months after losing a special election for a state House seat, Campbell organized a motorcade to Columbia to protest court-ordered busing to achieve racial integration of South Carolina's public schools.

    It was the issue that would bring him his first statewide recognition, although Campbell said often in his public career that he supported civil rights for all, but opposed quotas in any form.

    He won a state House seat that November.

    Four years later, teaming with an up-and-coming political strategist named Lee Atwater, Campbell ran for lieutenant governor. Although Republican Jim Edwards won his race as Democrats fragmented to become the century's first GOP governor, Campbell lost to Democrat Brantley Harvey. The Campbell-Atwater team would have better days in the future.

    Edwards signed Campbell on as a staff aide assigned to pursue welfare reform. He did, until opportunity knocked anew in 1974 in the form of a state Senate seat in Greenville, suddenly open when Riley stepped down to run Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential campaign in South Carolina and prepare for his own 1978 run for governor.

    This time, Campbell won, defeating Democrat Dan Yarborough. He would never lose another election.

    Campbell was halfway through his term when Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Mann of Greenville said he wouldn't run again in 1976, setting the stage for his battle with Heller, one in which Campbell's hard-fisted political style attracted widespread attention.

    Campbell won and headed to Washington in January 1978 for the first of four terms.

    It wasn't apparent then, but the Upstate and South Carolina were on the brink of the most sweeping political change in a century.

    Even as a freshman in a seniority-bound House, Campbell attracted attention. Gingrich, elected to Congress the same year, earlier this year recalled Campbell as "one of the stars of that freshman class who rapidly rose" to early seats on the Appropriations and tax-writing Ways and Means committees.

    National power
    By 1980, Campbell would flex his muscles again. With Atwater, he engineered South Carolina's first presidential primary, backing former California Gov. Ronald Reagan and, in the process, bucking Edwards and Sen. Strom Thurmond, who were supporting former Texas Gov. John Connally.

    Former Nixon White House aide Harry Dent was pushing a little known one-term Texas congressman named George H. W. Bush.

    With Connally staking his candidacy on a victory in South Carolina, the nomination was on the line.

    The Campbell-Atwater team wooed delegates and built alliances and schmoozed the press.

    Reagan won, destroying Connally's chances, and went on to easily lock up the nomination, eventually settling on Bush as his vice president.

    Campbell and Atwater were now big-time players to be reckoned with at home and nationally.

    For Campbell, once described as a man who could squeeze every drop of advantage out of an opportunity, playing a pivotal role in Reagan's campaign meant political juice.

    Consider: In 1969, he was an unknown activist in Greenville leading a ragtag anti-busing caravan to Columbia; in 1978, he won a congressional seat; two years later, he helped determine the outcome of the presidential race; and by 1986 had been elected governor.

    You don't come that far, that fast and not step on some toes, particularly for a straight-ahead guy like Campbell.

    "Egotistical," snapped the then state agriculture commissioner during the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit where Campbell and Atwater ramrodded the state's delegation.

    Some were taken aback by what they saw as a preoccupation with winning and disdain for the massaging needed to keep in line those who didn't get their way.

    Campbell's acquired polish and deftness in dealing with the press, industrial barons and, when it suited him, often hostile legislatures both in Columbia and Washington, but there was a thin veneer over an equally thin skin.

    Ask a question he didn't like and the smile would tighten into pursed lips and the eyes go cold as he challenged the questioner's motives.

    And don't go after his friends.

    When Democratic candidate Elliott Springs Close suggested in 1996 that Thurmond, then 94, was too old to be re-elected, Campbell jumped to the senator's defense, calling the Springs Industries' heir "a snotty-nosed upstart."

    And don't cross him.

    After a coastal Republican legislator helped scuttle Campbell's signature auto liability insurance bill, he dispatched political allies to the offender's district where they recruited a primary challenger, then financed and masterminded his defeat.

    To Kristin Maguire, a thirtysomething conservative activist from Clemson, Campbell was the reason South Carolina is now a heavily Republican state. In the process, he set a standard for hard-nosed leadership, she said.

    "Sometimes heads had to be knocked together. He'd say, 'This is where we're going. If you get in the way, you're going to get knocked over,'" Maguire said.

    "His forceful leadership, his command of the facts, and his devotion to the good of the entire state set a standard for all governors to emulate," said Ayres, the pollster who was an aide in Campbell's first term as governor.

    Presidential player
    Eight years after the 1980 triumph, the Campbell-Atwater team would do for Bush what it had done for Reagan. And in 1992 for the elder Bush, and in 1996 for Bob Dole, he would stave off challenges from the right by Patrick Buchanan.

    In 2000, Campbell and the organization he crafted would be there for the presidential son, George W. Bush, preserving his campaign with a victory in South Carolina to eradicate the stain of defeat in New Hampshire, just as it did for his father.

    Atwater died of a brain tumor in 1991 at age 40 when he was chairman of the Republican National Committee.

    Campbell put his future on the line when the Governor's Office was open in 1986 in a South Carolina where Democrats maintained a near-century of dominance.

    Greenville's Riley had been elected governor in 1978 and soon won approval of a constitutional amendment allowing South Carolina governors to serve a second term. He won his in 1982.

    Campbell defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Daniel in 1986 to become the second Republican governor of the 20th century.

    Only one Democrat, Jim Hodges, has held the office in the past 19 years.

    Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist and part-time GOP consultant, views Campbell's election as a classic, with Campbell carrying only 17 of the 46 counties, but yet enough for a 51 to 49 win.

    "He was the first of a number of Southern Republicans who would capitalize on the emerging urban trends to forge winning coalitions with disenchanted Democrats and suburban Republicans," Woodard said.

    Campbell's efforts on behalf of the elder Bush created a strong bond of friendship — and a place on his short list of running mate possibilities.

    Building economy
    The eight years as governor were marked by strong economic development, topped off by his personal efforts to woo BMW to the Upstate, and a major initiative that restructured part of state government bringing more authority to his successors at the expense of the Legislature.

    Fowler found himself on the same side as Campbell — and with current Republican Gov. Mark Sanford's next-step efforts — in the government restructuring fight.

    "He deserves good marks for that, and his economic development efforts," Fowler said of Campbell. "BMW did come here when he was governor and it's been an economic blessing."

    Former Democratic Gov. Robert McNair has credited Campbell with breathing new life into a sagging industry-hunting effort, getting the state "back into the international arena where we had in 1960s and 1970s been a leader, both regionally and nationally.

    "He did it the way you have to do it, by personal involvement (as) a tremendous spokesman for the state," McNair said a decade ago.

    Hastings Wyman, writing in his Carolina Report political newsletter as Campbell's second term neared its end in January 1995, observed that Campbell followed a widely accepted dictum of executive power by focusing his message and keeping it simple.

    "Campbell's achievements are substantial in the areas in which he focused his administration's efforts: fiscal responsibility, government accountability and economic development. It is in these areas that Campbell's major accomplishments lie, a legacy that will both benefit (future governors) and grow in stature with time."

    It wasn't all roses. Campbell was constantly in the Democrats' crosshairs and he wasn't one to turn the other cheek.

    Much of the discord stemmed from both his combative nature and his discovery, after taking office, of how little power the governor really had.

    "It surprised me that you only had the bully pulpit to work with," he said.

    Work it, he did. Doing so challenged the ruling Democrats' power and they reacted fiercely to protect their turf, but Campbell cajoled enough of a coalition to prevail in a battle that continues to be fought out each session for new reforms.

    Campbell's administration wasn't immune to scandal, although none touched him.

    A 1989-90 FBI sting into vote-selling by some legislators reached into Campbell's inner circle, including a drug possession charge against Greenville's Dick Greer, a friend and former state Development Board chairman; and an obstruction of justice charge former legislative liaison David Hawkins. Greer pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in 1991 and was sentenced to two months in a halfway house.

    As Campbell's second term was winding down, he launched an unofficial campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, campaigning in early primary states, before seeing the handwriting on the wall and pulling the plug.

    In January 1995 he shifted seamlessly from the Statehouse to a $1 million-a-year job running the life insurance industry's Washington trade association.

    But he didn't walk away from politics.

    Campbell campaigned for Bob Dole's ill-fated 1996 presidential bid, helping beat back Patrick Buchanan's insurgency from the right, and in 1998 considered taking on veteran Democratic U.S. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings in 1998.

    By 2001 South Carolina Republicans were urging Campbell to run for governor again in 2002 to take back the Statehouse from Hodges, who had defeated Beasley in 1998. But by then, unknown to all but his family and closest friends, Campbell's health was coming into play.

    He would use an open letter to South Carolinians on Oct. 5, 2001, to reveal his illness.

    As governor, Campbell's greatest challenge wasn't dealing with a Democratic Legislature or a first-term recession, but a landmark storm.

    When Hurricane Hugo approached in September 1989, Campbell organized a small working group of top aides, plus State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart and Adjutant General Eston Marchant. They methodically planned how to deal with the storm —before and after.

    Campbell and Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. emerged as heroes — Campbell for sound judgment and tough decisions on the front end, Riley for organizing relief efforts in the Lowcountry. They set leadership standards for the future.

    "Everything was in place, the judgment call (Campbell) made was the evacuation," McAlister said. "That decision saved lives," he said, contrasting Campbell's decisiveness with the confusion of Louisiana officials during Hurricane Katrina this year.

    Hugo would inflict billions of dollars in property damage, but relatively few lives were lost given the power and scope of the powerful Category 4 storm.

    McAlister recalled Campbell in his office after returning from a tour of the devastated coastal region, tears glistening on his cheeks. "It's gone, the coast, it's gone," Campbell said, shaking his head.

    "He had his moments of weakness in private, but he never showed it in public," McAlister said.

    Before leaving office, Campbell described Hugo as "an awesome challenge (that) you can't prepare for and you just have to deal with it."

    Dan Hoover covers politics and can be reached at 298-4883.

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