Some politicians look the part of movie stars – perfect hair, gleaming teeth and a public image polished to a high sheen.
That wasn’t Herb Kirsh, the heavyset man in the wrinkled sportcoat driving the Lincoln Town Car with the license plate with simply the number “1” on it. This Jewish former store owner drove 95 miles from his home to the Statehouse each legislative day for 32 years to argue against taxes, and fight for the little guy.
The Clover Democrat, who at the end of his career was the longest-serving legislator in South Carolina, died at about 9 p.m. Tuesday at a Gaston County, N.C., hospital after being taken off life support, his family said.
Kirsh, 84, suffered a series of falls starting in December and had been hospitalized and at rehabilitation centers since, said Kevin Kirsh, one of his sons. After being hospitalized Saturday, doctors found blood clots in Kirsh’s legs and his body functions started to fail, his son said, so the family made the decision to take him off life support.
“My father has always been a fighter,” Kevin Kirsh said.
Kirsh’s wife of 59 years, Sue, who accompanied him to the Legislature daily and gave Statehouse tours to the public, died in 2009. Today would have been their 64th wedding anniversary.
Kirsh’s health had declined in the past couple of years. He was hospitalized for three days in July after a mini-stroke.
He started his public career in 1970 because he he did not think Clover town leaders were paying attention to how public money was being spent. After serving as a Clover town councilman and mayor, Kirsh took his passion for financial oversight to the Statehouse, where he served District 47 from 1978 until he lost a final bid for re-election to Republican Tommy Pope in 2010.
“There is only one Herb Kirsh, and there will never be another like him,” state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said just hours before Kirsh died. He served with Kirsh for 18 years. “A great person. A great legislator. A great man.”
Kirsh was a throwback to the days when small-town legislators dealt with constituents face-to-face. His legislative office was at the small Clover department store started by his father in 1937, when the Kirsh family moved from New York to become Clover’s only Jewish family.
Until the day he retired, that office held only a desk and Rolodex of address cards and phone numbers – no computers, ever. This man, who graduated from Duke University at 20, doggedly read through state budgets that ran to hundreds of pages, looking for ways to save taxpayer money. He wrote thousands of notes by hand to voters, including condolence notes for deaths. He was known as a ferocious opponent to bureaucracy.
“There was a constituent one time whose tax refund was withheld mistakenly when a person with the same name had failed to pay child support,” said Bob Breakfield, Kirsh’s lawyer for more than 30 years. “Even when we proved through documentation and affidavits that this man from Clover was not the man who owed the money, the tax office refused to yield. Herb had referred the man to me, so I called Herb.”
Within two hours, a chastened public employee called back to say that the check was in the mail.
At the Statehouse, Kirsh had no staffers because he didn’t want to spend public money on himself. He often said helping out “regular people” was the only reason he had ever jumped into politics.
“People could come see me any time, and I always made time for them,” Kirsh said in a July interview. “I worked for them. It wasn’t the other way around.”
Kirsh’s store refused to follow segregation customs that separated blacks and whites before the 1970s, and Kirsh was known as a person black constituents could go to for help throughout his political career. His devotion to hard-working people continued even after his service in the Legislature ended. In recent months, the Kirsh family created the “Kirsh Family Foundation,” an endowment from both Herb and Sue Kirsh. This spring, the foundation will award a $25,000-a-year undergraduate academic scholarship to a Clover High School senior.
“Over the years, Mr. Kirsh always talked about how much his community meant to him and how he could give some benefit back to the community,” Breakfield said. “This is a substantial way. He wanted a really good, promising student to not let the cost of a top education be a barrier.”
Pope said Kirsh left a lasting legacy in his legislative district and around the state.
“It was never personal with Herb; I have always had great respect for him,” Pope said Tuesday. “He cared first about the people of York County and South Carolina, and he did what he thought was best for those people.”
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, called Kirsh a “legendary man and legislator” whose dedication to the people of the state always came first.
“In everything Herb Kirsh did, he is an example to the rest of us to follow,” Harrell said earlier Tuesday. “He has the greatest integrity. He is a fighter.”
A Democrat who was so tight with taxpayer dollars he earned the nickname “Representative No,” Kirsh was respected by members of both parties.
“Herb Kirsh had ferocious courage,” said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, who served with Kirsh for two decades. “No one knew the budget like him. He would tell an audience the truth, not what they wanted to hear. That is rare in politicians.”
Powerful political leaders routinely sought his favor and support when Kirsh was Democratic leader of the House Ways and Means Committee, which crafts the state budget. When President George W. Bush addressed the General Assembly in 2005, it was Herb Kirsh the Democrat who walked him onto the House floor.
Heading into what would be his last terms in office, Kirsh said he was proud of being frugal with taxpayer’s money, yet he never wavered in his refusal to vote a party line on any issue. Kirsh never gave a thought to switching parties despite repeated attempts by Republicans to get him to jump ship.
“They have tried and tried,” Kirsh said in 2007. “I started out in a time when there wasn’t any Republicans. So there are some now. I vote the way I want, anyway. I can’t vote in lockstep with anybody or any party.”
The decision to often vote with Republicans at times rankled Democrats, but peers expected nothing less than Kirsh to stand his ground.
“Herb Kirsh stood for what he believed in,” said state Rep. John King, of Rock Hill, the only Democrat in York County’s House delegation. “We applauded him as a Democrat for his honesty and integrity, and we welcomed him as a Democrat for those same reasons.”
Yet through his entire life, Kirsh remained a small-town Clover guy. He played football on the 1945 Clover High team that lost in the state finals, and for the rest of his life never missed a home game in Clover. His phone number was in the book. As mayor, Kirsh worked the emergency dispatch center on Christmas so town employees could have the day off.
“I love the people of Clover,” Kirsh said after his last illness in July, “and I hope I earned some love back from them, too."