- Ryberg, Ravenel, Willis, and Quinn are vying for State Treasurer, a position that is traditionally a precursor to a future run for the Governor's office
If the makings of a great State Treasurer are measured by how a person makes and spends money, then, by golly, we've got a footrace. More dinero is likely to be spent in the 2006 Republican primary for state treasurer than in all the other primaries combined. To date, the four candidates — Jeff Willis, Rick Quinn, Greg Ryberg, and Thomas Ravenel — have reported a total of $3,125,515.60 in their election coffers. This total is likely to become much larger after final figures are reported at the beginning of next month.
In high school, treasurer was the one student body position the normals, geeks, and dweebs had a shot at. You didn't have to have the charisma of the quarterback or the head cheerleader to be elected class bean-counter. So what is the deal? Why are these candidates shelling out so much cash for a chance to win the $97K-a-year election booby prize?
Jamie McKown, professor of political communication at the College of Charleston, says, "If one of these Republicans manages to secure the treasurer position from the incumbent Grady Patterson, he will be sitting well to run for governor in 2010. A Republican treasurer could spend four years focusing solely on popular economic and tax reform issues without having to take positions on more divisive social issues."
Candidate Thomas Ravenel seems to already have his eyes on the governor prize. Ravenel, a last minute addition to the treasurer race, is the son of former Sen. Arthur Ravenel. His first foray into politics was his run for U.S. Senate in 2004. Jim DeMint eventually won the post, with Ravenel finishing third in the Republican primary.
Ravenel says he became motivated to run for the treasurer position because he was frustrated by seeing Gov. Sanford's agenda blocked by the state's Budget and Control Board, which he calls a "five-headed monster." The treasurer controls one of the five seats on the board, which approves all state contracts and settles emergency matters when the General Assembly is not in session. Ravenel believes that the incumbent's cooperation with legislative representatives on the board "makes it difficult for the executive branch to do its job."
"We need to restore a balance of power to the government structure in this state and provide a check on legislative power. If we do that we can save money. I am going to use the treasurer post as a bully pulpit to argue for restructuring," says Ravenel.
Ravenel has other plans for making the governor's job a little easier. He's offered to add his support to Sanford's efforts to eliminate wasteful spending — you've probably seen the governor's "we share hotel rooms" ad — and he wants to see the state's constitutional offices become appointed positions.
Unless he is hoping to ride Sanford's coattails with his governor-friendly agenda, Ravenel's media visibility is likely to see a dramatic upsurge in the coming weeks. Political insiders have been whispering about the small numbers being spent by the Ravenel campaign especially given the crew of fat cats he's hangin' with. As of the last South Carolina Ethics Commission's campaign finance reporting deadline, Ravenel reported total election contributions of a measly $3,000. The real estate-rich Ravenel is likely to add a few zeros to this number come the next reporting cycle. That is, unless the juiciest speculation floating about contains a grain of truth.
Sources throughout the Charleston political community postulate that Ravenel has thrown himself into the treasurer's race to grow his name recognition while he prepares for a different objective — challenging Lindsey Graham for his senate seat in 2008.
When asked to respond to those who accuse him of not being fully invested in the treasurer's race, Ravenel says, "Those people don't know what they are talking about."
State Sen. Greg Ryberg is a candidate who cannot be accused of greater political ambitions — at least not until Gov. Sanford makes plans to vacate the mansion. Ryberg previously ran for the treasurer's position against the venerable incumbent, Grady Patterson, in 2002. He had 48 percent of the vote and lost by only 50,000 ballots. If Ryberg wins the primary, Patterson, who has held the office since 1966, is predicted to be in for another photo finish.
The biggest fat cat of all, Ryberg, a convenience store mogul, has reported $2,652,426.81 of campaign funds, $2 million of which is his own money. He began making ad buys in the middle of April and has bombarded voters with his glossy biopic commercials ever since.
City Paper asked Sen. Ryberg to comment on the money being spent in the race. "I have spent time capaigning in all 46 counties. I have worked all my life since I was 10 years old. I've farmed, I've delivered newspapers and milk, worked on a road crew, and cleaned typewriters." says Ryberg, "I have built a business and invested in myself. This is an investment in my public service."
When it comes to government spending, however, Ryberg is a spendthrift. In addition to being responsible for advising the governor and the Statehouse on financial matters, the treasurer is responsible for $30 billion in state investments and all state workers' retirement programs. Ryberg has been openly critical of the current management of these duties. He believes that the treasurer should be an advocate for the taxpayers. As such, he would like to make public all forecasts of major budget issues in the legislature and expand the state's investment portfolio to include equity funds.
"Any investment plan with 100 percent in one area — having all your eggs in one basket — is a recipe for disaster. You have to diversify. This increases returns and minimizes risk," says Ryberg of the retirement portfolio.
Candidate Rick Quinn has different ideas about the role of the treasurer. He believes that the position should be used as a tax expert for officials. Quinn served in the State House as a representative from Lexington County from 1988 to 2004, his last six years as majority leader. He is pushing a campaign platform of thorough reform of the state tax code. The plan includes increasing consumption tax while decreasing property taxes. This pitch plays well in Charleston, where property taxes rose an average of 48 percent after reassessment last year. Quinn also wants taxable exemptions lifted, in the total of $2.5 billion, as well as raising the cigarette tax and charging a vehicle sales tax of 3 percent rather than the current $300 per vehicle.
Quinn would also like to improve the treasurer's office procedures for information gathering and storage. He believes that the current treasurer's office "didn't keep information" that is crucial to making financial policy decisions, and that you "have to know local government information for all of the areas of South Carolina in order to make sound decisions." He referred to the North Carolina treasurer's office and their online accessibility of information as a model that he might like to follow.
The Columbia insider is another big campaign spender. A direct mail advertising business owner and Columbia office space leaser, Quinn's election lockbox contained $274,398.49 at last reporting. He made his ad buy May 19, so expect to see his friendly mug on a television near you pretty regularly for the next few weeks.
Jeff Willis is the candidate that rounds out the pack of potential treasurers. He is the youngling of the bunch at 37. Motivated to run for the position after his mother lost her retirement savings in the bankruptcy of the Carolina Investors finance company, he wants to use the office of the treasurer as an opportunity to make the state employee retirement system more secure by creating greater diversity of investments. His plans also include increasing the state employee service requirement from 28 to 30 years in order to decrease the number of employees drawing benefits from the system. Willis would also like to strengthen prevention and prosecution of identity theft.
This last proposal is not necessarily related to the position of treasurer, but if Mr. Ravenel can use the race as a bully pulpit, so can Mr. Willis. He argues that the treasurer position is the perfect post to take on identity theft. "The treasurer works with financial institutions and could provide a website, phone number, and friendly voice to help people figure out what the process is for dealing with identity theft," he says.
Formerly a manager of an upstate textile mill, Willis returned to the family homebuilding business seven years ago. He has a number of years of accounting experience, the only candidate in the race to advertise this kind of treasurer-related skill in his bio. He has also proven to be a good fund-raiser. Of his $195,010 reported campaign funds, only $30K is from his own contribution. Of the money being spent on the race by other candidates, Willis says, "If I'm going to spend $2 million, I'm going to change the world."
He is attempting to do his part, anyway, by creating a new nonprofit organization called Homes for Vets. The NPO is based on Jimmy Carter's Habitat for Humanity, but will focus its efforts on homeless veterans. The charity will give away its first home next Tuesday.
All of Willis' efforts may be for naught if inside political predictions pan out. "Unless Ravenel decides to make a serious commitment to this race, it is going to come down to Ryberg and Quinn, although Ravenel might just make the runoff without lifting a finger," concludes political communication expert McKown, "and there will definitely be a runoff."
If McKown is correct, when the dust settles after the primary, whoever remains should hope to have some longevity. "Money will become an even bigger factor in a runoff," he predicts.
Ryberg is currently outspending Quinn at a rate of three to one. On advertising alone, Ryberg is spending $180K a week to Quinn's $60K. To make up for the margins in funding, Quinn is relying on an old fashioned campaign strategy — pounding the pavement. He made a two-day visit to Charleston last week — sans entourage — to stump for his property tax plan. He has also sent campaign materials with his personal contact information, including cell phone number, to over 40,000 voters.
"Today there is a disillusionment with politics. All of the money being used in this campaign feeds the distrust that people have for politicians. My campaign is just about putting myself out there," says Quinn.
The Republican primary will be held on June 13 and the winner will face Democratic incumbent Grady Patterson in the general election November 7. Patterson is the only Democrat seeking reelection in a statewide contest this year, and the only Democrat holding statewide office now that Inez Tenenbaum has chosen not to run for a third term.