On the campaign trail, County Council candidate Joe Qualey will occasionally get an invitation to come in and sit down. Other times, he's got to settle for handing off a campaign flier. Sitting at the top of a list of biographical bona fides — before you get to his career as a lawyer, public official, husband, and father — is "native Charlestonian."
You've got to be fast and efficient when introducing yourself to voters, says Qualey, a Republican running to represent the eastern half of James Island, along with all of Folly, Kiawah, and Seabrook.
"Typically, I'm stealing their time," he says. "I don't want to impose on them."
So, you go with a short line that means more than two words. For Qualey, native Charlestonian means sitting on the docks as a boy where Waterfront Park is today or standing in the thick of the destruction and helping to rebuild after Hurricane Hugo.
"It means I'm vested," he says. "I'm not going anywhere."
Qualey's primary opponent, Seabrook Island Mayor John DuBois, has been mistaken for being from that dreaded roaming town of "Off" because of his beachfront zip code. He left Charleston as a young man, spending a career in the military serving in Korea and Vietnam and later working as an investigator for various federal agencies before returning to retire on Seabrook. If you thought that was a remarkable simplification of DuBois' life, it could be reduced to four words on the campaign trail: a Charleston native and veteran.
Another bio nugget you'll often find on the campaign trail is "business owner." These days, a candidate will sometimes add a folksy narrative to dramatize that fact. Gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley talks about "how hard it is to earn a dollar and how easy it is for the government to take it away." Congressional candidate Tim Scott was on WTMA earlier this month talking about how he "still signs the front of a paycheck."
The phrase "business owner" used to be code for "Republican," says Jeri Cabot, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. These days, it's a non-partisan symbol of the economic engine, the entrepreneurial spirit, and those put upon by the government.
"Business owners are the people supposedly squeezed the most from taxes and healthcare costs," Cabot says.
Right under his native-son status, Qualey notes he's the "owner of a successful small business."
"To be successful, to be moderately successful, to keep the doors open, you've got to work hard and be creative and find opportunities," he says.
Some South Carolina voters are likely getting their first introduction to Upstate Congressman Gresham Barrett in a new radio spot on illegal immigration.
"Gresham Barrett. Family man. Small businessman. Army field artillery captain," the narrator says. "Gresham knows the value of our Constitution because he's defended it."
Barret isn't just hoping for voters to recognize his patriotism, he's hoping they'll consider it a qualification for protecting the borders.
In DuBois' case, his military experience offers a good, almost sacrificial reason for leaving the area — he wasn't looking for a better place to live, he was defending the country.
Haley, who can't boast of military service herself, highlights her husband's service as a full-time National Guardsman in her first TV ad, saying, "I'm the wife of a man who wakes up every morning and puts a uniform on."
But oversimplifying a military career has its pitfalls, as seen last week in a U.S. Senate race in Connecticut. The New York Times reported that Democrat Richard Blumenthal had exaggerated his Vietnam War record. According to the paper, he received five deferments and only joined the Marine Corps Reserve, another popular avenue to avoid combat, when the deferment program came under scrutiny. But he's made several public comments about being "in Vietnam" and coming home to fierce protests.
South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham came under similar scrutiny in the late '90s because of references in his official biography to being "an Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm veteran." Graham's sin, according to critics, was that he hoped to infer service overseas, even though he'd never been on the battlefield. It wasn't a lie; Graham served as a military lawyer stateside, but he was counting on the line to evoke gut emotions of patriotism and sacrifice. It's the same kind of intentionally ambiguous effort that put John Kerry in an orange blazer on a hunting preserve in 2004.
"People read what they will into that," Cabot says.
In the end, the bio is just part of the tool chest. DuBois notes the first question he's usually asked is about his platform — but there's shorthand for that, too. A campaign slogan like "The islands are important," suggests conservative land use principles and environmental stewardship. If he's got time, he'll tell you about his work auditing federal programs; if not, DuBois will just say, "I'm a tightwad when it comes to money."
Candidates will try to connect with voters any way they can. In a website bio, County Council candidate Fran Roberts tries to hit just about any interest the two of you might have in common: "A combat veteran, Mr. Roberts is a life member of American Legion Post #179. He is a 32nd Degree Mason, a Shriner, and a member of the Calvary Baptist Church in Meggett. An avid fisherman, certified scuba diver, and a Harley rider, Mr. Roberts is also a life member of the NRA."
But what about introverts who can't boast of military service, have never joined the ranks of the self-employed, and have only seen fish hooks in one of those Saw movies?
There's still hope for a political career if they can find that part of their bio that relates to people. Dog owner? Clemson grad? Stuck with a worthless mortgage? There's a voting block with your name on it. "It all depends on how you tell your story," Cabot says.