As county officials outlined the backbone of a public utility project last week, running from Hopkins to Eastover and opening the way to new industry and subdivisions, Barry Green realized he’d better brace for change.
“It seemed decisions had already been made,” said Green, among about three dozen people gathered at Hopkins Park to hear about construction of Lower Richland sewer lines that should be complete a year from now. “Kelvin seems like he’s pulling us into something we’re not ready for.”
Kelvin is Councilman Kelvin Washington, who represents one-third of Richland County’s land mass and is presiding over what could prove the defining moment in the life of his adopted rural community.
After years of county dollars flowing to projects in downtown Columbia and suburban areas, Washington has demanded that money be spent in rural areas. He convinces colleagues to support his projects by freely supporting theirs, sometimes pitting rural and suburban members against those who represent the city. The result is millions heading into his Lower Richland district, one he says has been long neglected.
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In addition to the $20 million sewerage expansion, the county is embarking on $45 million in countywide dirt-road paving, nearly half of it going to Lower Richland. County Council will decide in coming weeks whether to invest an estimated $20 million in an indoor sports arena, too, that Washington expects would attract hotels, restaurants and other services to Bluff Road, south of the I-77 beltway.
“We’re moving pretty quickly to make sure we have control of where the growth goes,” said Washington, 50, who also is pushing hard for bus service into his district, using a penny sales tax devoted to transportation improvements.
The way to control growth, Washington said, is to control the route of public utilities — a fledgling, county-backed water and sewer system that many residents like Green view with skepticism. Green said growth will cause a demand for more county services, which will raise property taxes in the Lower Richland area where people already struggle with the cost of living.
Washington — impatient, analytical, vociferous — often attacks an issue with what he calls “a straight line of solutions” in mind. He chafes against the plodding nature of the democratic process.
Councilman Damon Jeter said once Washington decides what he wants, he’ll figure out how to get the attention of county staff or his colleagues on the council.
“I call him a bulldog,” said Jeter, who represents an urban district on the 11-member County Council. “He will not bite his tongue. He’s a get-in-your-face kind of guy.”
Councilman Paul Livingston said Washington sometimes influences people by “throwing a temper tantrum” or playing “the ‘poor Lower Richland’ card.”
“‘Y’all dump on us and never give us anything.’ That’s his main line for most things,” said Livingston, the council’s most veteran member.
While it’s true Washington regularly reminds people of Lower Richland’s superfund sites, landfills, nuclear fuel production plant and coal-fired power plant with a 15-story-high ash dump on the side, he does not call himself an environmentalist. He says he’s pro-business but wants to ensure new industry has a plan for managing any waste or environmental discharges so they don’t harm people living along floodplains and wetlands.
His concern is public health, he said, not aesthetics.
As Livingston and others who were willing to talk about him agree, Washington is an effective advocate for the district previously represented by his mother-in-law, political powerhouse Bernice Scott. When she retired, he took over.
In January 2009, he brought to the district a willingness to consider new ideas and a more sophisticated presence, observers said. But he retains a single-minded focus on the district and on constituent service.
“He’s a very hard person to read,” said Bob Liming, an advocate for bus service who observes Washington in the decision-making role of the Regional Transit Authority board.
“He seems to have a real zeal for rural transit ... which makes perfectly good sense, but I’m not sure I know his vision for the whole county.”
A taste for rural life
Washington grew up in Washington, D.C., one of four children of Maryland and Eliza McBride Washington. His parents worked for the federal government. They were South Carolinians, though, and their youngest spent most of his summers with one or the other grandparent in Florence County.
“That gave me a taste for rural life,” he said.
When it came time to go to college, Washington said his mother insisted he explore life away from home. So he enrolled at what then was S.C. State College in Orangeburg for a degree in electrical engineering.
In physics class, he met his future wife, Valerie Scott, who he approached by saying he needed a tutor. “We ended up both flunking physics,” he added.
Upon graduation, Washington returned to D.C. briefly but was lured back to Columbia in 1991 to join Valerie and take a job with the S.C. Department of Transportation. The Washingtons have two children, Jalisa, 26, and Kelvin Jr., 16, who uses his middle name, Emil.
Washington worked most of his career at the DOT’s research and materials lab, evaluating pavement quality. But in 2012, he was the focus of an anonymous complaint that he was violating the Hatch Act, a law that forbids public employees with jobs supported by federal dollars from engaging in partisan politics.
He left the DOT for a job at S.C. State’s transportation center and now is self-employed as a new-business consultant. Being self-employed more or less allows him to be a full-time councilman, he said. He works for businesses looking for opportunities in the Midlands but said he anticipates no conflict with his service on the council’s economic development committee, which negotiates tax-breaks for new industry. He said he has no Richland County clients.
Washington has run afoul with another law governing political activity: The S.C. Ethics Commission says he owes $11,100, most of it fines and penalties, for failing to file financial disclosure reports for his 2008 campaign. The case went to a hearing last July and Washington was publicly reprimanded, according to information on the agency’s website.
The councilman said he’s “still working” to resolve the matter and referred questions to his lawyer, Tim Rogers. Efforts to reach Rogers were unsuccessful.
Washington said he views his role as educating his colleagues to the daily struggles of navigating rural life, with dirt roads, services that are few and far between and a scarcity of jobs.
He told the story of a mother he met at the ballpark during one of his son’s games. She had gotten off welfare to take a job in fast food, requiring she catch a ride to Columbia and arrange for somebody else to get her three children to school in the mornings. Eventually she was able to get a car but was discouraged by how much of her salary went for gas, maintenance and taxes.
“She said, ‘I hate to say it, I did better on welfare,’” Washington related.
He viewed the root issue as a transportation problem, one that he said affects senior citizens trying to reach parks for activities and meals, too.
“I get upset sometimes,” he said. “I see this straight line of solutions. ... There’s a problem and you’ve got a solution for that problem, but our process is frustrating.”
Washington lives with his family in a home along a dirt road in Gadsden, about 30 minutes from town. “Everything I need for the day is in my car, knowing I can’t just run back home,” he said. In the seat is a bag of work-out gear in case he has time to drop by the YMCA.
Often, he does not.
Preparing for the inevitable?
Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland and an ally, said these are interesting times for Lower Richland because of the potential for growth and new people moving in.
“That’s why he’s worked really hard on water issues and things like that. Residents who live there now may feel it’s an inconvenience but Kelvin says for the future it will make Lower Richland viable.”
Washington has a couple of things going for him, Jackson said: His background in engineering allows him to take a long view and he isn’t saddled with historical perspective because he wasn’t born here.
Virginia Sanders, a member of the county’s conservation commission, said conflict is likely to intensify among people who have polluted wells and want public water; those who have septic systems on land that’s no longer perking and want public sewerage; and those who want to protect the countryside from “tacky stores and fast-food restaurants.”
Many people don’t realize that when the county brings in infrastructure like public water, sewerage and sidewalks, it will set up Lower Richland for development, Sanders said.
“This is a tough issue in Lower Richland — I mean a real tough issue,” Sanders said.
Her answer is for the county to focus on nature- and history-based tourism, connecting sites that include the Congaree National Park, Cook’s Mountain and old plantations that tell the story of race, black and white.
And it’s clear Washington has worked to shift more of the county’s tourism development money to institutions in rural areas. The budget for SERCO, for example, the South East Rural Community Outreach, has grown by 16 percent during his tenure and has now been guaranteed annual funding. It will receive $275,000 this year, with another $145,000 divided among the Kingville Reunion, the Sweet Potato Festival and the Eastover Barbecue.
While some are hesitant to open the doors of Lower Richland to more development, others want to prepare for what they consider inevitable change.
Yvonne P. Brown, who lives in Hopkins, said most people are open to “controlled change.” She views Washington as a realist.
“Whenever he gets together with any community people, he always talks about the growth of the Lower Richland area and is always asking the question, ‘What do you want to see?’” Brown said.
“You always have people who say, ‘I don’t want any change, I want it just the way it was when my grandmother lived here,’” she said. “He takes a realistic view: Change is going to happen; it can roll right over you. Let’s be prepared for it.”