Scoppe: A breath of fresh air

Associate EditorOctober 21, 2010 

DISCLAIMER: I might not be nearly so impressed by Ken Ard if he were running for an important position. The candidates for attorney general, for instance, both seem to be fine young men, and I liked them both, but the responsibilities of that office are so significant that I can’t get excited about people who between them don’t have as much experience as any of their predecessors.

But Mr. Ard is running for a position that is important only if something happens that requires the immediate services of a new governor, and so I get to judge him apart from a particular office, just on his attitude and approach to government and people. And there is quite a lot to like.

To put it bluntly, he’s the type of person we need to have in political office — particularly now, particularly in this state, particularly as a Republican.

After eight years of Mark Sanford and at a time when the shrillest voices and the most unbending ideologues on both sides are increasingly dominating our political debate, when the dominant wing of the Republican Party that controls our state has declared it a cardinal sin to so much as refuse to demonize members of the other party, Mr. Ard is a refreshing voice of reason. He has the values we used to take for granted in politics but that are increasingly rare, at least among new faces.

A friend of mine in the Pee Dee described him as “a good man with the right perspective on public service” who talks to a lot of people before he makes a decision and “can go talk to a dozen people across the political spectrum and he’ll say the same thing to all of them.”

I never have expected much from candidates for lieutenant governor, and I was expecting even less from Mr. Ard. In the limited news coverage there has been of the race, he came across as one-dimensional; about the only thing I could tell you about him was that he had not even registered to vote until he got mad about something the government was doing and filed for office. I hadn’t been blown away by his opponent, but I liked him better than I thought I was going to like Mr. Ard. The day he visited us was a busy one, and I promised my colleague Warren Bolton I would get Mr. Ard out in 45 minutes. Nearly two hours later, we reluctantly concluded the meeting.

For the first few minutes, he met my expectations. He talked about how much he learned watching his dad start a business and then taking it over himself, and deciding to run for county council because he got mad at what the government told him to do. He declared “I’m not a hyper-partisan guy; I am a reasonable businessman” and then launched into his love for lower taxes and less government. And I thought: I’ve heard this before. Any minute now, he’ll haul out the “run government like a business” cliche. But he didn’t.

Instead, he talked about discovering that his fellow county council members (mostly Democrats) were “not evil people doing evil things” but people with “a genuine lacking of what I call business acumen.” He left no question that he believes running his business gave him experience — and a mindset — that’s needed in government. And the way he described it, I agree.

As a business owner, he said, “I’ve never had the opportunity to blame other people. … I had a deadline. I had a hundred and some odd employees depending on me.” He learned to expect the worst — prices for supplies suddenly skyrocket, the price he can charge plummets — and be prepared to adapt. He also realized that he couldn’t succeed unless he could get people to follow him. And that wouldn’t happen unless he was willing to listen to people — which he calls his greatest strength.

I don’t think you have to own a business to learn those values, but I agree they should be considered essential for elected officials — and they inform his approach to politics. It is one of results over philosophy, of pragmatism. He is not a policy wonk, he says, but he knows how to fix things. “I goof up a lot,” he says. “But I goof up trying.”

He complains that politics has become a game in which “you’re either one of them or one of us,” which makes it impossible for anybody to accomplish anything. “Turn on one channel, and you think Democrats are the worst people,” he said. “Turn it up two channels, you’ll think Republicans are the worst. That’s detrimental.”

Perhaps Mr. Ard is being overly ambitious when he says he wants to help heal that divide that is poisoning our state and nation. But for the first time in my 22 years of covering state government, I saw in him the possibility of making something of the lieutenant governor’s office. If we could elect someone with those values to an office that most South Carolinians consider important, and if he could actually live up to those values, then he could serve as a very high-profile model of the way politicians are supposed to behave. And at the risk of damning with faint praise, that probably would be more than all of our previous lieutenant governors have accomplished combined.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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