COLUMBIA, SC — Mia McLeod speaks her mind.
She had been a state legislator just three months when she wrote a 2011 newspaper editorial calling out the General Assembly for being mired in good ol’ boy politics, with legislators who conduct business based on party loyalties and, frankly, waste a lot of time.
She sends out regular email blasts, letting constituents know what’s happening at the State House — and what isn’t.
And now, Rep. McLeod — who recently went back to using her maiden name, from the more familiar Mia Butler Garrick — has reached a defining moment in her short career in elective politics.
She has crossed some senior members of Richland County’s legislative delegation, placing responsibility for the Election Day disaster at the feet of Lillian McBride, an African-American woman the delegation picked and paid handsomely to lead the voter office.
As the weeks have gone by, McLeod has framed the debate as one pitting the old guard against the new guard.
“I don’t think she means, ‘They’re old, we’re younger,’” said McLeod’s good friend Reggie Lloyd, the former SLED chief now in private law practice in Camden.
“What she’s talking about is a mentality. ‘This is the way we’ve done it in the past; we don’t turn on our political friends; we support ourselves in the politics of race regardless of whether somebody is right or wrong.’”
McLeod, 44, who represents much of racially diverse Northeast Richland, said all she wants is accountability.
Admirers say the way she’s handled the Nov. 6 crisis – asking tough questions and not backing down – demonstrates her courage, ethics and potential.
They say she’s a principled leader, a Democrat who works with people in both political parties as an eager agent for change.
“She seems to have a way of expressing what the public thinks on an issue. That’s a real talent,” said former Gov. Jim Hodges, who said the recent debate on election reform demonstrates McLeod’s characteristic willingness to call it as she sees it.
Hodges hired McLeod, then a young lawyer, to head his Office of Victim Assistance in 1999.
“She’s caught some grief over some things that she’s said,” he said, “but she’s always shown a courage to form her own opinions and to express what she thinks.”
‘Make your community better’
Mia McLeod grew up in the Marlboro County town of Bennettsville, the second of four children.
Her father, Jimmy, ran the family concern, Morris Funeral Home, which celebrates a century in business in 2014. Her mother, Shirley, was a teacher and school librarian.
The couple insisted their children keep up with current events by watching TV news and reading the newspaper. “Might very well have gotten quizzed on a couple of things” before getting permission to go out with friends, said Tracey McLeod, the oldest of the four.
The family lived next door to the funeral home in a black neighborhood downtown known simply as West Bennettsville. They attended Shiloh Baptist Church. Mia sang in the choir.
Jimmy McLeod forbade the girls to shop at businesses that had discriminated against African-Americans or treated people poorly, a rule that could make shopping in a small town difficult, Mia McLeod said, smiling.
Her father served on Bennettsville City Council and on the local bank board. He was a level-headed man with a deep voice and was sensitive to people’s needs.
“He was a go-to person in this community for so many folks who didn’t know where to turn,” said Doug Jennings, a Bennettsville lawyer and former House member. “I think he raised Mia that way.”
Mia was a gifted student at Bennettsville High School and a member of the Honor Society, part of a class that turned out to be unusually accomplished as adults, retired English teacher Beatrice DuPree said.
Once DuPree took a group of students to Europe, and Mia went along. “Most of them had never flown before,” she recalled.
McLeod inherited her philosophy on civic life from her folks:
You’re either part of the problem or you’re part of the solution.
Those who don’t participate in the process don’t get to complain.
“My parents were sticklers about, ‘You have to make your community better,’” Mia McLeod said.
Part of her decision to change her name was in tribute to her father, who died with cancer last year. Her mother passed away in 1999.
Now, the wife and mother of two teenage boys said, it’s her time to step up.
“I want to be the kind of leader my boys can be proud of,” she said.
She wants them to know she stands for something.
‘She gets it’
Mia McLeod came to Columbia for school, graduating in 1995 with a law degree from the University of South Carolina. She was never interested in practicing law but knew it would hone her interests.
During college, she worked in Jim Clyburn’s first campaign for Congress and served as a law clerk for Richard Gergel, now a federal judge. She also worked for the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.
When she made the move to state government, she worked first on domestic violence, then victim assistance.
In 1997, then-Attorney General Charlie Condon wanted to improve the state’s abysmal record on domestic violence. He chose McLeod to lead his new initiative, working with law enforcement and the courts to staunch the high rate of dismissed charges.
“She was starting something new across the state. She had to have cooperation,” Condon said. “She has the ability to work with everyone.”
Nancy Barton, the longtime director of the women’s shelter Sistercare, said McLeod was motivated by helping those who are marginalized and don’t have a strong voice.
“As we say in the field, ‘She gets it,’” Barton said. “She’s very sensitive and knowledgeable.”
Victim-rights expert Laura Hudson and McLeod met in 1999, when Hodges hired McLeod as director of the state Office of Victim Assistance.
“She is very detail-oriented and has a great sense of doing good things for good people,” Hudson said.
McLeod demoted a couple of employees who she felt weren’t qualified, promoting others in their place. At the same time, she ordered a study allowing the office to predict its revenues from fines and fees, placing the agency on firm financial footing.
“She’s really a person who is pushing that glass ceiling,” Hudson said.
Email blasts and impatience
In 2002, McLeod opened her own lobbying and public relations firm, McLeod Butler Communications. She worked for legislation involving education, health care and public safety.
Notably, she was one of the “Safety Chicks” who succeeded in getting a mandatory seat belt law passed in a state with a Libertarian streak. A news article about the victory is framed on the wall of her office in the Blatt Building.
“She’s very blessed to be able to have relationships with people in all walks of life,” said McNair Law Firm lobbyist Lynn Stokes Murray, who partnered with McLeod on the legislation.
“She’s gone from being a working mom with children going through school, then coming in to lobby professionally and then working really hard to win in a district most people said she couldn’t.
“I think she’s amazing,” Murray said. “It’s really hard to be able to juggle it all.”
The path to public office opened when then-Rep. Anton Gunn was called to Washington to work in the Obama administration.
Gunn had won the House 79 seat held by white Republicans for years. When he decided not to seek a second term, McLeod, who lives in Lake Carolina, was the first person he told.
One of the things he passed along to her was his constituent email list.
McLeod likes to write, and her email blasts are popular so the list keeps growing. She writes about “things that actually matter,” Gunn said.
“She’s not trying to make political statements. It’s more like a diary, if anything: How she sees things as a representative and what she hears from voters and people in the community. She just spins it back out in a thoughtful way.”
Gunn said sometimes people forward the emails to him, not realizing he already gets them, with a note validating McLeod’s point-of-view.
Otis Rawl, director of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, said the emails can be controversial.
“You don’t expect legislators to call other legislators out publicly,” he said. “It almost seems to work better if you work behind the scenes.”
State Rep. James Smith said he doesn’t know of any other legislator who communicates with voters in quite the same way.
Her most pointed comments came as part of intense scrutiny of Richland County’s election debacle, Smith said.
Election Day was marked by an unexplained shortage of voting machines, excruciating waits for voters and countless numbers of people simply dropping out of line. To top it all off, some ballots were found missing.
In the fallout, McLeod crossed swords with political leaders she’s long respected and worked with.
Rep. Leon Howard, for one, continues to support McBride, the director of the county elections office. Howard was quoted in a Free Times story as saying he was disappointed in McLeod for “trashing” another African-American woman without evidence.
McLeod responded by email, characterizing Howard as part of the “old guard” working to protect the status quo at all costs.
She wrote: “In fact, most elected leaders who have overstayed their welcomes actually entered government ‘on fire’ and eager to represent the people who sent them. But somewhere along the way, that passion and zeal gradually yields to self-inflation, self-promotion and an undeniable sense of entitlement.
“But beware, because when their stronghold is threatened, they fight hard and play dirty. Very few stand up to them and survive.”
McLeod added that “their ‘messengers’ have already notified me that they’re aggressively looking for my replacement.”
The legislator, who just won a second term Nov. 6, said the events of recent weeks haven’t changed her. “It just brought the real me out.”
She admits to being frustrated and disappointed, even disheartened by criticism from political colleagues.
But she said she’s regularly approached by perfect strangers who shake her hand and thank her for standing up for them.
“I don’t have a whole lot of patience,” she said. “It’s almost 2013. I just don’t think at this stage of the game we should still be having the conversations that we had during and after the Civil Rights movement.
“This is not where I thought we were as a county or a state.”
Tracey McLeod said her sister has become stronger, more confident and knowledgeable.
Their parents would be proud.
“What she’s done is commendable, speaking out for the people,” Tracey McLeod said. “That’s what she’s supposed to be doing.”
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.