When Susan Pearlstine started campaigning to join the Medical University of South Carolina's board of trustees, she didn't imagine that the process would involve traveling to Columbia and cornering legislators in the Statehouse parking garage.
Pearlstine, who owned Pearlstine Distributors in Charleston until she sold the company in December, is running for a seat on a 14-member university board that currently includes zero women. Recently, Project XX, an advocacy group that seeks to install South Carolina women in public office, conducted an analysis of the state's eight public university boards where seats are up for grabs this year and found that none of them have a large enough proportion of women to represent the state's 51 percent female population.
According to Project XX co-founder Ginny Deerin, this is a problem because it violates state law. Here's what the law says: "In electing members of the board, the General Assembly shall elect members based on merit regardless of race, color, creed, or gender and shall strive to assure that the membership of the board is representative of all citizens of the State of South Carolina." If 51 percent of South Carolinians are female, Deerin argues, then shouldn't half of board members be female too?
Several seats are open on university boards around the state this year, including nine where legislators will have the chance to choose a female board member. At MUSC, Pearlstine is running for a layperson seat (that is, held by a non-medical professional) from the first congressional district. Her opponent is Michael Stavrinakis, owner of Manny's Neighborhood Grille and brother to state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis. Michael Stavrinakis did not return a call asking for comment on the race.
Pearlstine's interest in the hospital goes back to the 1970s, when she started volunteering at MUSC as a candy striper. In the '80s, the hospital selected her as a member of the children's hospital board, and later, after Pearlstine's mother died of cancer, the family founded a healing garden at the Hollings Cancer Center. This year, Pearlstine made a $5 million donation to support sarcoidosis research at the hospital.
But when Pearlstine approached MUSC President Raymond Greenberg about applying for a position on the board of trustees, she says he laughed and explained that the school doesn't select the board. Since the board is appointed by the legislature, he explained, she would have to take it up with the lawmakers. So she started making calls.
"One hundred percent of the time, I was told, 'You just have to come to Columbia," Pearlstine says. "And I had a real hard time understanding why that meant anything, and that is unfortunately what the process has become ... I contend that it's a heck of a lot easier to know where to be when your brother's in the legislature."
Hence the practice of stalking the House and Senate office halls and chasing down lawmakers in the basement garage underneath the Statehouse. Rep. David Mack, a member of the university board screening committee from North Charleston, says the races work differently than general elections. The candidates seek commitments from legislators, and if they rack up enough commitments, they sometimes convince their opponents to drop out of the running before it ever comes to a vote on the Statehouse floor. "Unlike an election, you have a finite number of people that you're soliciting votes from," Mack says. "A lot of folks, if they know they don't have the votes, they'll drop out."
Deerin says that's part of the problem, as some women she has spoken to have dropped out of board races because they were outgunned in the Statehouse lobbying arena. "It's largely decided out of the view of anybody with a lot of back-room shenanigans. 'I'll vote for this person if you vote for my pal over here,'" Deerin says. "When we've met with legislators, they say, 'That's just the way it is.'"
Pearlstine says she has been surprised to learn how the process works, but she intends to stay in the running until the end. "It's a lot of backslapping and 'Hey buddy,' and that's why women don't fit into that system," Pearlstine says. A date has not yet been set for the General Assembly vote, but Mack says it will likely be in early May.