News+Opinion » Will Moredock

Isle Of Palms realtors plumb the sewers of S.C. politics

Something Sleazy on the Isle



My mama used to say you are known by the people you associate with. If that is true, there are some people on the Isle of Palms who should be running for cover right now. Instead, they are running for office.

The Isle of Palms, that beach town up the coast from the Holy City, has been divided for some time over what course development should take ("Piling On," March 21). Powerful real estate and development interests are pushing to allow further construction of huge houses — mini-hotels, critics call them — with as many as 10 or 11 bedrooms. Not only do these mansions dwarf the traditional bungalows and ranch houses in this cozy community, but many of them are short-term rental properties, catering to huge parties or revelers and vacationers, some of whom arrive by bus and spend days trashing neighborhoods and keeping residents awake at night.

Opponents of the mini-hotels want to limit them to the oceanfront and have existing ordinances and codes strictly enforced. Toward that end they have organized the Isle of Palms Neighborhood Association and are backing a slate of four candidates in next week's city council election.

The real estate and development crowd has lined up their own four candidates, but they have gone one better. They hired as their slate's campaign consultant a man with a reputation for bare-knuckled, political tactics — Ron Shealy.

Shealy is an Irmo-based operator who has been running Republican campaigns in the state for more than 20 years. The one that got him convicted and fined for violation of state campaign laws occurred in 1990. In that year his sister, state Sen. Sherry Shealy Martschink of Mt. Pleasant, was running for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor — and brother Rod wanted to help.

Shealy hired a 28-year-old unemployed, alcoholic black man named Benjamin J. Hunt to run in the Republican primary against then-U.S. Rep. Arthur Ravenel. By putting a black man in the First Congressional District GOP primary, Shealy appeared to have found a way to guarantee that white voters would stay with the Republican Party in the district in large enough numbers to nominate Ravenel, and while they were pulling the Republican lever, they would go ahead and vote for the local girl, Sherry Martschink.

The logic was infallible, though the numbers didn't quite work out. Martschink lost the primary to Henry McMaster (now attorney general), who lost the general election to Democrat Nick Theodore.

Shealy's little scheme was found out. In court it was revealed that he had paid Hunt $500 directly and paid his $2,414 filing fees with money from an unreported $5,000 donation that he solicited from a hazardous-waste hauler in the name of his sister's campaign. Shealy was fined $500 for his corruption of the electoral process. He called it a political traffic ticket.

In covering the trial, The New York Times wrote that "to many in the state, both Democrats and Republicans, the accusation speaks volumes about a style of South Carolina politics in which some people take peculiar pleasure in skulduggery and dirty tricks and shamelessly exploit racial differences and racism in the pursuit of victory."

The Times went on to say that Shealy's tactics had "a particularly discordant echo," coming from the state that produced Harry Dent, author of Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" ("So Long, Harry Dent," Oct. 10), and Lee Atwater, creator of the infamous Willie Horton campaign against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign.

This is the man the Isle of Palms realtors and developers have turned to for advice, and, by all appearances, they are getting their money's worth. To start with, he apparently counseled his employers to call themselves the IOP Community Association, a name guaranteed to create confusion with the IOP Neighborhood Association. And Shealy dove right into the septic tank of local fears and superstitions by branding Jane McMackin, an opposition council candidate, as "liberal."

"What does (this issue) have to do with being liberal or conservative or anything in between?" McMackin says. "I'm being responsive to the people who voted me into office."

Whatever else the Rod Shealy affair accomplishes, it gives the lie to local Republican claims that they are the party of law and order. And it would seem to confirm a lot of stereotypes about Republicans, racism, and corporate interests in S.C. No matter how they try, they just can't shake that image.

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