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FEATURE ‌ Will He or Won't He?

State Rep. John Graham Altman III steps out of politics ... maybe, sort of

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Like a big rock tossed into a small pond, John Graham Altman III's announcement that he would not seek reelection for the Dist. 119 state House of Representatives seat he's held for the past decade rippled across the local political waters, creating a wave of discussions, especially after The Post and Courier reported he was considering a run for the Charleston County School Board. Altman served on the board from 1976-1996, and was its chair from 1981-84.

To some, Altman's decision not to run again for his House seat wasn't too surprising. The aging, vulnerable incumbent had done serious damage to his viability as a candidate, making national news last year with inflammatory comments about abused women who return to their violent mates.

In 2004, Altman defeated Democrat Charlie Smith by 8 percentage points. The seemingly solid margin actually underscored the near-octogenarian's vulnerability, as Smith is openly gay and the 119th has been openly Republican for decades.

Altman dropping out of the Dist. 119 race leaves only two announced candidates, Republican Greg Hart and Democrat Leon Stavrinakis, both old hands at local politics, in the running.

Hart served a term on Charleston City Council in the late '90s, proving to be an eloquent thorn in Democrat Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.'s side. Stavrinakis is the current chair of the Charleston County Council, where he has served for the past seven years and has been part of several political triumphs and boondoggles, alike.

According to Jamie McKown, a visiting professor and political pundit at the College of Charleston, Altman's stepping aside causes the most problems for Stavrinakis.

"Now the entire 'messaging' of his campaign will have to change, and how (Stavrinakis) will have to approach the race will turn 180 degrees," says McKown. "Before, he was facing a seated incumbent with a long career of public service with a core of voters following him.

"Now, Stavrinakis will have to shift gears totally and look at his campaign strategy differently," as he faces an opponent who's been out of the public eye for the past six years, says McKown, even though there is "no doubt, Leon has more voter recognition."

If other Republican candidates do enter the race, as some political rumors insist they will, McKown says it becomes increasingly difficult for Stavrinakis to tailor his message. "It's hard to answer the question, 'who is going to vote for me and what is my strategy' when the person you're going to face keeps changing?

McKown thinks that with Altman out of there, Stavrinakis faces an even more difficult challenge, as many of the moderate Republicans that voted for Smith in the last race two years ago will be far less likely to abandon Hart, or any other Republican candidate, this time around.

Stavrinakis disagrees, saying it's easier not facing the sometimes insurmountable odds of running against a seated incumbent. "I think a lot of people, by default, automatically vote for the incumbent," he says.

"Obviously, I came into this race thinking I was going to race against John, and I was geared up to do that," says Stavrinakis, fresh from a lunch with County Council candidate Steve Goldberg. "But now that he's out, there's no reason not to run."

Stavrinakis, a practicing criminal defense attorney, says the "numbers" of moderate voters in the district have changed over the years, and that the race was always more about issues — education and tax reform, and crime — and less "all about John Graham Altman."

Stavrinakis says the biggest change that has occurred is that he will now have to raise more money to defeat Hart than Altman. "We're looking at somewhere in the $150,000 to $200,000 range."

"What did you expect him to say?" quips Hart, who would not name the fund-raising figure he and his campaign manager are now gunning for.

"All I know, this is an important race for both parties, and that usually means large campaign budgets," Hart says, declining to wager on an "over/under" for the total amount raised by both sides.

If Altman's departure from the race changed Stavrinakis' campaign strategy "180 degrees," then Hart may be facing a 360 degree-whammy, as rumors circulate that other Republicans may, or may not, join the fray.

"I guess we'll know come March 31st," says Hart, who owns a local staffing office, referencing the final day candidates have to announce. Unlike Stavrinakis, who seems to have preempted the Democratic field, Hart is mired in a guessing game of whether or not he will face anyone in a primary.

Cyndi Mosteller, the chair of the Charleston County Republican Party, "really, really" promises that she doesn't know if anyone else from the district is going to run for what is now a wide-open race.

One thing changed immediately for Hart when Altman pulled out: he had to scrap the polling his team had begun because it focused on how he was going to do against the incumbent.

"I think it's fair to say that John didn't bring his 'A' game in the last election," says Hart, who, in 1995, defeated a 35-year political veteran, W. L. Stephens, for his seat on City Council.

CofC's McKown, who sat next to Mosteller during televised election coverage last year, thinks the local GOP may have decided to finally back Hart absolutely because of all his footwork. Hart, the earliest announced candidate in the race, has already knocked on over 1,000 doors in West Ashley neighborhoods like Sylvan Shores and Avondale.

Unlike Smith, who zipped around West Ashley on a used, $3,000 Segway scooter, Hart is doing his walking and talking from a more conservative pair of black dress shoes.

Stavrinakis says he already had his suspicions Altman might step out, while Hart was "totally floored" last week when he found out he wouldn't be facing the elder politician in a June primary.

With "Altman Republicans" seemingly in hand, Hart will need to pull back many of the "McConnell Republicans" — the normally conservative Republican voters who may have been turned off by some of Altman's words, actions, and perceived homophobia, race-baiting, and misogyny — who voted for Smith in the last election .

Where Stavrinakis sees new out-of-town transplants resculpting the political landscape in the 119th, Hart sees a solidly "blue" district that has historically gone Republican. Armed with Rod Shealy, the same political consultant that helped defeat Stavrinakis the last time he ran for state office, Hart likes his chances.

While both Stavrinakis and Hart are sure the only candidate they won't be facing come November is Altman, School Boardmember Sandra Engelman is at least trying to sound sure she won't face her political mentor this fall.

"He's not going to run," says an emphatic Engelman, who admits to turning to the elder, and admittedly curmudgeonly, Altman for his thoughts before casting her vote on certain issues in School Board meetings.

"Has he announced? He's never announced his candidacy. The Post and Courier may have a quote, but I could give you a quote, and you could make it say anything you want."

Last week, the P&C reported in a front-page story Altman's decision not to run again for the state House, and that he will run again for the Charleston County School Board, quoting him saying, "If there's ever going to be a time to improve our public schools, now is that time."

Altman, apparently taking a week-long break from politics and, perhaps for the first time, the press, was not available for comment for this story.

Saying she has spoken with Charm Altman, the not-so-retiring Representative's wife, Engelman claims to have received assurances she won't face him this election cycle. "John left the School Board to serve in the House.

"I was not shocked or hurt (by his comments in the P&C), not hurt at all," says Engelman. "If John Graham should run, and he's not going to, and when he's elected, I will not be the least bit upset because it will maintain our conservative support on the Board. I would even swing my support to him if he won my seat."

Altman may be waiting to make a more formal announcement about his political future until he finds out if the General Assembly can pass a law creating single-member School Board districts in Charleston County.

Even then, he may have to wait again to see if any proposed changes to the district are approved by the federal Department of Justice, which has kept a keen eye on how elections — and school districts — are run in the Lowcountry. Few insiders believe the legislature and the DOJ will be able to act swiftly enough that he could run in West Ashley without displacing his protege, Engelman.

Regardless, the Altman question has already provided this election season's earliest drama; drama that's seems to have been pulled from Waiting for Godot.

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