Influential South Carolina political consultant and newspaper owner Rod Shealy died Wednesday at the Medical University of South Carolina. He was 56.
His sister Lori Unumb said Shealy died of bleeding on the brain, possibly related to brain cancer diagnosed in 2008. Shealy was first diagnosed with cancer in 1983. Unumb said Shealy had fallen and broken his hip over the weekend but was optimistic cancer treatments at MUSC were working.
Unumb has a son with autism, and said Shealy helped her draft and find legislative support for a bill requiring autism insurance coverage that is now law.
“Politics was a profession and a passion, but it was also a fun game,” Unumb said, referring to how Shealy enjoyed the intellectual challenge of elections. “Intuitively, he just understood people. He was just one of them. He identified with the common folks.”
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Shealy grew up in Lexington, one of five children of state Sen. Ryan Shealy. A big Jimmy Buffett fan, Shealy was instantly recognizable by the Hawaiian shirts he wore. Shealy also played guitar, his sister said, a cheat sheet of dozens of songs taped to the instrument.
On his blog, Shealy frequently discussed his cancer and mortality.
“Whatever my future holds is okay with me,” Shealy wrote in April. “It’s a great life, and I love this life, but I’ve certainly had my fair share of it — probably more than my share — so when my time comes, it comes.”
A specialist in advising Republican long-shot candidates to victory, Shealy helped longtime friend and client Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and others.
Rep. Nathan Ballentine upset then-House Majority Leader Rick Quinn in 2004 with Shealy’s guidance. Shealy never once doubted his ability to win, Ballentine said, spurring him to complete mundane campaign fundamentals, such as knocking on doors.
“I’d tell him, ‘I knocked on 42 doors today,’” Ballentine said. “He’d always say ‘Is that it?’ It kind of (angered you), but he was always pushing you.”
Shealy ran Republican Tim Scott’s successful 2010 1st Congressional District primary campaign. Scott is seeking to be the first black member of the U.S. House in seven years.
Shealy was a protégé of the late Lee Atwater, a master of bare-knuckled politics. Shealy also had a penchant for pushing the limits of campaign law in search of an advantage.
The Irmo resident pleaded guilty in 1992 of failing to report a campaign contribution after he was accused of hiring a black fisherman to run for office to help drive Lowcountry turnout for another sister, Sherry Shealy Martschink’s, bid for lieutenant governor. Shealy once called the $500 fine a “political parking ticket.”
“I was sort of shocked he would be that stupid,” said Dick Harpootlian, the prosecutor who tried Shealy’s case and also a former S.C. Democratic Party chairman. Shealy was attempting to use one race to influence another, which Harpootlian called a “political bank shot.”
“It didn’t work and required him to break the law,” Harpootlian said.
But Harpootlian said the two joined forces again in 2008 to assist Lexington state Sen. Jake Knotts in his re-election bid against a candidate backed by Gov. Mark Sanford. Shealy and Sanford came from different wings of the Republican Party, Harpootlian said.
“It was just sit down, roll up our sleeves and what do we got to do?” he said.
Republican political consultant Terry Sullivan started his career at one of Shealy’s community newspapers, one of dozens of S.C. political operatives in Shealy’s political family tree. Sullivan has tangled many times with Shealy clients since then and respected Shealy’s ability to not take elections personally.
Shealy memorably recruited Thomas Ravenel to run for state treasurer on the final day of filing in 2006. Ravenel defeated state Sen. Greg Ryberg, Sullivan’s candidate. Ravenel would eventually resign after pleading guilty to federal drug charges.
Shealy “had more fun doing this than all the rest of us,” Sullivan said, saying he learned a lesson from Shealy: “I took it really seriously and he just didn’t.”
Often, Sullivan said, those ideas would begin with Shealy rubbing his beard and proclaiming “You know, I’ve been thinking”
S.C. Deputy Treasurer Scott Malyerck worked with Shealy on campaigns during the early 1990s, eventually getting a job with then-Treasurer Richard Eckstrom, a Shealy client. Shealy, a cigar in his mouth, once rented a City of Columbia trolley and led treasurer staffers and politicos on a caroling trip at Christmas.
Shealy loved to stoke his image as the bogeyman lurking in the corner ready to surprise, Malyerck said. “You never quite knew what Rod was working on, who he was working for, because he never told you,” Malyerck said. “I’ve never seen Rod ever stressed about anything. . . . He knew how to turn somebody who was at 20 points (in the polls) and turn them into somebody at 51 points.”
Rod Shealy is survived by two sons, Rodney and Ross, and two grandchildren. A visitation will be held Friday from 5-7 p.m. at Caughman-Harman Funeral Home in Lexington. Services will be 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Peters Lutheran Church in Lexington.