GEORGETOWN — Perhaps no one in South Carolina is more connected to the presidential race than Walter Siau.
He is first lady Michelle Obama’s second cousin and once was a chemist at Georgetown Steel, a mill owned by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital that closed after its 2001 bankruptcy.
As the 2012 presidential race counts down to November, Michelle Obama’s Georgetown relatives, including Siau, again are grappling with the pseudo-stardom that descended on them four years ago.
But a second spotlight fixed on Georgetown as Romney campaigned to become the Republican presidential nominee and his ties to Bain and Georgetown Steel made headlines.
“It brought back old memories,” said Siau, who lost his job at Georgetown Steel – now reopened as ArcelorMittal Georgetown – more than a decade before Bain bought the steel mill but remains friends with many mill workers. “(The workers) never thought that someone who cut the company down would be up in politics trying to get someplace, you know?”
Not all in Georgetown County, once a Democratic bastion in Republican South Carolina, share that assessment.
The county has been trending Republican in recent elections – mostly because of the growth in the Waccamaw Neck area, north of the city of Georgetown between the Atlantic Ocean and the Waccamaw River. Romney’s supporters note that Georgetown Steel’s bankruptcy was not an isolated case. By 2002, more than two dozen U.S. steel companies were in bankruptcy protection, including titans Bethlehem Steel and National Steel.
“A lot of that was due to the cheap steel that was being produced outside of the United States,” said Jim Jerow, former chairman of the Georgetown Economic Development Commission and current chairman of the Georgetown Republican Party. “It became a competitive situation.”
‘Who would have guessed’
South Carolina is not a factor in the November presidential election.
The state’s nine electoral votes almost certainly will go to the Republican nominee – as they have in every election starting in 1980. No presidential candidate will campaign in the state. South Carolina’s two political parties are focusing on North Carolina instead, sending money and volunteers to that neighboring battleground state.
But Georgetown – with its roots to the first lady’s family and ties to one of the campaign’s loudest narratives, debating the merits and shortcomings of free enterprise – has a unique place in this presidential election.
Georgetown Steel opened in the late 1960s, founded by German entrepreneur Willy Korf.
It quickly became a major employer, giving Sam Wragg a good excuse to move back home. Wragg, who was born in Georgetown but left when he was 19, had lived in Minnesota and Chicago. He moved back to Georgetown on June 12, 1972.
Three days later, he was on the Georgetown Steel payroll.
Wragg grew up with Thomas Robinson, the brother of Fraser Robinson, Michelle Obama’s father. When Fraser Robinson moved to Chicago, Thomas would visit him and sometimes stay with Wragg.
Relatives say Michelle Obama, who grew up in Chicago with her family, often would visit relatives in Georgetown during the summer. Harolyn Siau, Walter Siau’s sister and another second cousin of the first lady, says she remembers watching a young Michelle Obama sit in her father’s lap while he finished her okra and tomato soup.
“Who would have guessed that that little girl, who didn’t like something on her plate, would turn out to be the first lady,” she said.
Walter Siau said he and his family also would visit Fraser Robinson in Chicago, and Michelle Obama – then about 6 – would sleep on a couch so Siau could have her bed. “I’d do it (visit) again, the only difference this time is I want to stay in the White House,” he said with a laugh.
Four years ago, as Barack Obama’s candidacy took off, Michelle Obama visited Georgetown and spoke at Bethel Church, where her father and grandfather once attended. Afterward, Michelle Obama met with her extended family and took pictures with them, including one that sits on Walter Siau’s living room table.
Since then, Obama’s relatives have avoided the spotlight.
Walter and Harolyn Siau say they don’t publicize their relationship – at least, most of the time. At a friend’s house four years ago, as Michelle Obama’s popularity was soaring, Harolyn Siau said several people were talking about a picture of Michelle Obama in Ebony Magazine.
“They were admiring how beautiful she was. Well, I had to speak up. I said, ‘Michelle, that’s my cousin,’ ” Harolyn Siau said. “They probably paid me no attention.”
‘Not ... a very positive opinion’
Like many in Georgetown County, Harolyn Siau says she did not know of Romney’s connections to Georgetown Steel.
But his role in the mill’s history still angers some of its workers.
James Sanderson moved to Georgetown in 1974, taking a job at the steel mill so he could be closer to his wife’s family. He still works there and is president of the local chapter of the United Steelworkers union.
When Bain Capital purchased the mill in the mid-1990s, Sanderson said he did not think much of it.
Shortly after, however, he said, “We noticed a difference in the way the plant was being operated. They had unqualified, salaried people there that did not even have any experience running the steel mill, making decisions that affected our livelihood.”
In 2001, the company filed for bankruptcy.
By then, Wragg had retired. But the bankruptcy put his pension in limbo, requiring several years of court hearings to sort it out.
Today, he blames Romney.
“Anyone that’s a part of the union in Georgetown, they are not going to have a very positive opinion of Romney,” Wragg said.
Georgetown GOP chairman Jerow says – and Sanderson and Wragg agree – that no one in Georgetown knew of Romney’s involvement with Georgetown Steel until January, when the former Massachusetts governor was battling Newt Gingrich in the S.C. Republican primary. To Jerow, that is proof the Bain debate is a false issue, something contrived by political strategists.
That opinion is shared by Georgetown resident Shirley Carter. “He didn’t have money in there to see Georgetown get destroyed,” she says of Romney.
Carter lives in the shadow of the steel mill and sued it in 1998, alleging it was polluting the air and discoloring her home. She and others won their class-action lawsuit, but the original $870,000 reward was reduced to $113,000 by the company’s bankruptcy, according to court documents. Carter said her share was $800.
Still, in November, Carter plans to vote for Romney, citing his “good business sense.”
“It is going to take good business sense to get America built back up,” Carter said.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.