Gov. Nikki Haley says she did not start The Original Six Foundation to win votes. But her nonprofit’s job-and-health fairs in struggling South Carolina communities have won her new supporters – even if they don’t recognize who she is.
Becky Biggerstaff did not realize last weekend that the dark-haired woman wearing a T-shirt, dark blue jeans and gray Chuck Taylor sneakers – and blocking Biggerstaff’s path to a blood-pressure testing table inside Barnwell High School’s gym – was the governor of South Carolina or that the Lexington Republican’s foundation was sponsoring the event.
After mouthing “wow” when told by a reporter, the mother of three from Williston, who voted for Democratic President Barack Obama, said she might cast a ballot for a Republican governor in 2014.
“If you have somebody who cares about you, that’s who you want to keep in office,” Biggerstaff said.
Barnwell was the fifth county where The Original Six has held job-and-health fairs since Haley created the nonprofit in 2011 with the stated aim to empower communities. More than 3,000 people have attended the organization’s community days, the foundation’s director said.
The nonprofit’s goals dovetail with Haley’s goal of boosting economic development in the state. Fairs have been held in counties with the state’s highest unemployment rates.
The foundation’s first event was in Allendale County last year. Since then, The Original Six Foundation has bought a $20,000 digital sign to broadcast public-service announcements in Allendale and worked to tear down dilapidated houses.
“The goal is to get a CEO to drive through there and say, ‘This is where we want to put our company,’ ” Haley said last weekend, soon after speaking to some of the 500 people who came to the Barnwell school. “The ultimate goal is jobs. But you’ve got to get them healthy, and you’ve got to get them educated and skilled.”
Haley said the foundation is not an effort to win support for her 2014 re-election. And all five counties that the foundation has visited went for her opponent in 2010 – Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden.
“This is where my heart is,” Haley said, referring to her upbringing in a small, rural S.C. town, Bamberg.
But some question her motives.
“It’s just something that’s campaigning,” state Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell, said while visiting the foundation’s health fair.
Hosey is concerned the foundation’s work will vanish if Haley wins re-election in 2014. “We hope this is not a put-on.”
‘So many corporate sponsors’
The Original Six’s Barnwell County day included more than 40 booths. People could get eye tests, dental exams, diabetes screenings, register for food stamps, apply for jobs, and learn about getting high school equivalency degrees and how to stop smoking.
“It makes us look good as a community,” said Travis Smalls, a graduate student who was holding a handful of fliers and brochures while looking for work. “Barnwell isn’t a big county, but it has a lot of room to grow. This is more one of the most critical types of events we need around here.”
Haley greeted people across the high school campus, played tennis and shot baskets with children, received a vaccination and had her photo taken with anyone who asked. For lunch, she sat on a curb outside the gym, eating a chili dog.
Haley named The Original Six Foundation after her parents and their four children. She pledged to contribute to it the $200,000 left over from her 2011 inauguration and what remains from her $550,000 advance for her 2012 autobiography, “Can’t Is Not an Option,” after paying taxes and book-tour expenses.
The foundation has filed only one tax return, for the year that ended June 30, 2012, which showed $112,260 in contributions. No individual sources for the contributions were listed, but the foundation said $100,000 came from Haley, which her office said was the first of two payments on her book advance.
After expenses, the foundation had $56,585 left over last year.
Executive director Casey Pash, the foundation’s only paid employee, declined to provide updated financial data, saying a new tax return would come some time after the current reporting year ends in June.
Haley has donated the $200,000 left over from her inauguration, her office said, adding she will contribute the second portion of her book advance after she pays her taxes this year.
Haley said the foundation is working on other ways to get help for its projects.
“Our focus is to get as much donated (in in-kind contributions of goods and services) as we can,” Haley said. “This is not about running through money to do this. We’re doing this with peoples’ help. Yeah, the book money and inaugural money is there, but it is strengthening it, and we are getting so many corporate sponsors.”
‘They see the good’
The Barnwell community day did get help from several companies, listed on a “thank you” board outside the gym – including AT&T, Coca-Cola Consolidated, Johnson & Johnson and Ben Arnold-Sunbelt Beverage. Wal-Mart gave away basketballs and soccer balls to kids and raffled five bicycles.
“That’s Wal-Mart saying, ‘We want to help,’ ” said Haley, who has courted the nation’s largest retailer and its suppliers to open more businesses in South Carolina.
The companies helping The Original Six also have helped Haley.
Ten businesses and professional trade groups listed on a “thank you” board at Barnwell – including AT&T, Wal-Mart, BlueCross and BlueShield of South Carolina, and the S.C. Chiropractic Association – have contributed $58,230 to her gubernatorial campaigns, according to S.C. Ethics Commission filings.
AT&T and its political committee have contributed $14,000 to Haley. AT&T’s S.C. president Pamela Lackey is a member of the foundation’s unpaid board as is Pat McKinney, partner in Kiawah Island’s master developer, and Intertech Group boss Anita Zucker, the only person from the state on Forbes’ 400 richest Americans list. Zucker and McKinney have donated $8,000 and $7,300, respectively, to Haley’s campaigns.
The foundation also gets help from state agencies that attend the county events. Five state agencies, four of which have directors appointed by Haley, had booths in Barnwell, for example.
“They all come because they see the good this does,” Haley said. “No, we don’t make them come out here. They have chosen to come out here.”
The governor’s political consultant, Tim Pearson, who attended the Barnwell event, added: “All the agencies that are here reached out to us.”
Haley continued, “I’m always surprised at how they continue to come back out. It’s now a passion of all of ours.”
The S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, a cabinet agency, had booths in Barnwell to help people looking for jobs at the agency as well as answer questions about getting licenses and photo-identification cards.
Agency director Kevin Shwedo, a member of The Original Six’s board, said staffers from Motor Vehicles’ local offices have been happy to work at the foundation’s fairs because they can help their communities and improve their agency’s image. Three of four employees from the Barnwell Motor Vehicles office were at the high school along with regional and local managers. Shwedo said the state employees would be eligible for time off for working a Saturday.
“This has less to do with the governor or The Original Six than what we can do with the community,” Shwedo said.
He added, “We would do anything she (the governor) asked.”
State Sen. John Matthews, an Orangeburg Democrat who resigned from The Original Six’s board because he did not have time to attend its meetings, said he does not have an issue with state agencies attending foundation events. He said he has asked agencies to attend some of his events.
“As long as she’s trying to help those people and she’s not getting any gain out of it, I don’t see any problem with that,” he said.
‘A different person here’
As the foundation was starting, Haley said one of her board members asked: “Why are you doing this? None of these people will ever vote for you.”
Haley said she is driven by trying to help improve the lives of South Carolinians, by giving them one-stop access to government and social services and health screenings. “These counties deserve what we’re doing. ... We’ll help you, but you’ve got to be involved, too.”
In Allendale, the foundation said it partnered with Christ Central Ministries, whose chief executive is on The Original Six board, to open a residential drug-and-alcohol abuse center. The foundation also is helping in other areas it has visited with a library book drive this spring in Marion County and starting an after-school program in Marlboro County.
“We can’t fix everything,” said foundation board member Mikee Johnson, chief executive of an Orangeburg wood business and a former high school classmate of Haley’s. “We fix a few things and do it well.”
But politics is never far away from the governor – even when she looks more like she’s heading to a ball field than a cabinet meeting.
At the health fair in Barnwell, a booth provided information about signing up for Medicaid while several insurers offered information about their Medicaid plans for low-income South Carolinians – an irony that struck Democrat Hosey.
The day before the foundation’s Barnwell event, Haley spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, outside Washington, D.C., and repeated emphatically that South Carolina would not expand Medicaid while she was governor.
Haley did not use that kind of language in speaking to the Barnwell gathering.
“You see a different person here,” Hosey said. “Did you get on the stage today and say, ‘I don’t want Medicaid expansion’? That statement she made (a day earlier), it’s contrarian to what’s going on here.”
Hosey hopes Haley might have a change of heart after visiting some of South Carolina’s most economically desperate areas, adding, “We need do this for the people.”
Haley said the community days show there are alternatives to expanding Medicaid, including working with hospitals and the private sector. Neither is a cure-all, she says, but they are steps in the right direction.
Haley said no one spoke her about Medicaid expansion at the Barnwell event.
“They don’t care about Medicaid expansion at what we’re doing today,” Haley said. “What they appreciate is that they’ve got one stop to get all of this done.”