Politics & Government

May 29, 2012

S.C. House firebrand, retiring at 25, now has national post

When state Rep. Boyd Brown introduced his father at the House of Representatives a few weeks ago, he said it was so his Republican colleagues would have proof that Brown was not “the spawn of Satan.”

When state Rep. Boyd Brown introduced his father at the House of Representatives a few weeks ago, he said it was so his Republican colleagues would have proof that Brown was not “the spawn of Satan.”

Brown was only half joking.

Brown has been a thorn in the side of Republicans since he first was elected to the House in 2008 as a 22-year-old. He has introduced legislation that would allow voters to recall elected officials and ban lobbyists from contributing to politicians’ campaigns. In March, he convinced his colleagues in the House to ban Gov. Nikki Haley, who says state agencies should not lobby government, from using public money to lobby the Legislature. The Senate saved Haley potential embarrassment by defeating the proposal.

After four years in the House, Brown — to the relief of some Republicans — is not running for re-election. Instead, he is focusing on finishing law school and starting his career.

But he is not going away.

Two weeks ago, state Democrats elected Brown as the South Carolina party’s Democratic national committeeman. At 25, he is likely the youngest South Carolinian ever to hold that position and one of the youngest to do so in the country, according to state party chairman Dick Harpootlian.

Thus far, Brown’s short political career has been highlighted by what he has said, rather than what he has done — sometimes trading political rhetoric for personal attacks.

He has repeatedly called Haley a “liar,” saying, “She is a terrible, terrible governor and a terrible, terrible person.”

Brown’s tongue-lashings have not been restricted to Republicans.

Two years ago, as he was trying to pass a bill to overhaul the Fairfield County school board, Brown clashed with fellow Democratic state Rep. Leon Howard of Richland County. Brown said the only reason Howard opposed the bill was because a friend of Howard’s was on the school board.

Howard, then chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, went after Brown in the 2010 Democratic primary, spending money to support Brown’s challenger. That led to a showdown in a closed-door caucus meeting, when Brown “cursed me out,” Howard said. (Brown confirmed the meeting but declined to repeat what he said. “Leon and I exchanged words,” Brown said.)

“Him being a 22-year-old white boy going to curse out a 50-year-old black man, he just went off,” Howard said. “The Black Caucus, we went at him for that.”

Brown went on to win the primary by 250 votes, and Howard and Brown since have made amends. But it established Brown’s reputation as a fire-breather, prompting some Democrats to talk with him about honing his delivery.

“We have to pull him back from the cliff sometimes,” said state Rep. Bakari Sellers, who, at 27, often is mentioned with Brown as a future leader of the state Democratic Party. “He’s fighting for what he believes in. He’s fighting for the ideas he believes in. He just has to understand the right punches to throw and the time to throw them.”

But Brown still shows little interest in diplomacy. “I’d rather punch somebody in the mouth than slap them on the back,” he said.

‘Nowadays ... you have to speak up’

Brown was born in Winnsboro, just like his father, his father’s father and his father’s father’s father.

Brown’s father is David Brown, a member of the Fairfield County Council since 1980. His grandfather was Walter Brown, who served in the same House seat held by his grandson before retiring to become one of the state’s most influential lobbyists.

Brown attributes his family’s political success in Fairfield County to the former family business: movie theaters. During the Great Depression, his great-grandmother would let children in for five Coke bottle caps. Christmas featured a raffle “where everyone would get a toy.”

“Folks never seemed to forget that,” Brown said. “That’s why public service means an awful lot to me.”

Walter Brown was not known for grabbing headlines, often orchestrating legislation on car rides home with the speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate. David Brown has spent his time on Fairfield County Council content to work behind the scenes.

“I’ve always been the quiet politician. My father was the quiet politician,” David Brown said. “Nowadays, if you want to get something done, you have to speak up.”

Boyd Brown has done more than speak up, often finding ways to insert himself into the controversial political story of the day.

• When former Gov. Mark Sanford disappeared for a week in 2009, eventually revealing he was having an affair with an Argentine woman, Brown was quoted regularly in state and national media. “Man, that was fun,” Brown said. “It was a sad time for South Carolina. It was a really sad time for the Sanford family. But, with that said, I enjoyed just helping make him look like the scumbag he really is.”
• When lawmakers were trying to find a way to subpoena Haley’s staff to find out about the governor’s role in a controversial DHEC decision, Brown wrote a letter to a Senate committee claiming to have extracted a late-night, drunken confession from a Haley staff members at a Five Points bar. Haley later would dub Brown the “legislator of Five Points,” a nickname Brown took as a compliment.
• Last week, when the House Ethics Committee was deciding whether to pursue charges against Haley, Brown was the only lawmaker to publicly call for state Rep. Philip Lowe, a Florence Republican and committee member, to recuse himself from the case. Lowe’s business partner has a pending case before a state agency that reports directly to Haley, Brown said, implying Haley could use that as leverage to control Lowe’s vote.

“Boyd will say about anything,” said state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, the former House majority leader. “Sometimes he’s on mark, and sometimes he’s just flapping his gums.”

Some, including state Sen. Creighton Coleman, a fellow Democrat from Fairfield County, worry Brown could be doing more harm than good.

“I don’t know how to say this. Boyd is smart. Sometimes ... he can handle things a little better, maybe sometimes, and not jumping in with both feet,” Coleman said.

Brown’s slash-and-burn tactics are not the signs of a rogue politician, but the state Democratic Party’s renewed focus on criticizing Republicans, who have ruled the S.C. Legislature and governor’s office for more than 10 years. It is a strategy devised by Harpootlian, the state party chairman, who says, “Hyperbole, if done correctly, is an effective advocacy tool.”

“You’re asking Dick Harpootlian if he’s worried about someone sticking their foot in their mouth?” Harpootlian said. “No, of course not.”

‘To save this village ... destroy it’

Brown says his goals as a national committeeman are to keep South Carolina’s status as the first-in-the-South Democratic presidential primary, convince the Democratic National Committee to hold one of its annual meetings in the state and to “bring more attention to South Carolina from national Democrats.”

That last goal includes getting more aggressive Democrats elected in South Carolina. “To change the state ... you’ve got to change the people that are working up here,” Brown said. Until that happens, Brown says the only thing Democrats can do is “throw rocks.”

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg, the state party’s other S.C. national committee member, says she will be happy to help Brown toward that goal.

“One of the most disappointing aspects of my service here is this timidity on the part of South Carolina Democrats,” Cobb-Hunter said. “It’s like we’re just glad to be here, and we just go along to get along. And so, with that kind of attitude, it makes it hard for people to see any difference or any reason to vote Democratic.”

Republicans welcome the new, more aggressive strategy.

“When South Carolina Democrats elect someone to represent them on their national committee who sat with (state Sen.) Jake Knotts (R-Lexington), smirking and drinking a beer, while Knotts called President Obama and Boyd’s then-colleague, now-governor, ‘ragheads,’ it says everything anyone needs to know about the direction Democrats are headed in our state,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said. “This isn’t the party of (former Gov.) Dick Riley or (former Senate president pro tem) John Drummond anymore.”

Brown agrees.

“In order to save this village, you must destroy it,” he said. “That’s the way I look at the State House right now. Somebody needs to either take a tank of gasoline and a match to the place, or the FBI needs to swoop in here and take out some corrupt individuals.”

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