On the campaign trail, Republican Catherine Templeton is pitching herself as a conservative political outsider ready to take on what she says is Columbia’s culture of corruption.
“I am here to put the corrupt good ol’ boys on notice and remind them that they work for us,” the Charleston attorney and former state agency director said earlier this month, while speaking to Greenville Republicans.
Without naming him, Templeton implies incumbent GOP Gov. Henry McMaster – a longtime leader in S.C. Republican politics, whom she is challenging for their party’s June nomination for governor – is at the top of that corrupt network.
The 46-year-old Templeton is not well-known to voters. She is trying to use that lack of familiarity to define herself for voters as a reforming political outsider, the same pitch that helped Republicans Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley get elected governor four times between 2002 and 2016.
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Templeton’s pitch is resonating with some Republicans, curious about the Charleston attorney’s experience with cutting state agency budgets and attracted by her ties to GOP stars, which Templeton highlights in her speeches. Templeton was a former Cabinet director under Gov. Haley and was considered for a Cabinet post by President Donald Trump.
But as the campaign for governor unfolds, Templeton could face tough questions about her record.
For starters, she voted for a Democrat for governor in 2010 – a move that will be tough to explain to some die-hard GOP voters.
While leading the state’s labor and environmental agencies, she cut staff and then had to apologize for her agency’s slow response to a tuberculosis outbreak in a rural S.C. school.
Recent revelations that Templeton secured vague state consulting contracts that paid her more than $100,000 after resigning as a state agency director also could dog her campaign, making her look more like a crony political insider than a reforming outsider.
Whether Templeton takes any hits from GOP primary voters for her record will depend on how much those voters are paying attention – and whether they care, said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon.
“All of our Social Security numbers and tax information were hacked and nobody cared,” Huffmon said, referring to the state data breach that happened on Haley’s watch, a debacle that did not involve Templeton. “If they don’t remember or care about that, they’re not going to remember this.”
Voted for a Democrat?
Templeton has emerged as McMaster’s top challenger largely on the basis of her fundraising ability, almost matching the incumbent dollar for dollar in the campaign’s early stages. She also has attracted the support of powerful GOP boosters, in the state and nationally, including top donors who are supporting her campaign.
Templeton is catching the eye of McMaster and his campaign, too,
Already critics quietly are whispering that Templeton voted for Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen for governor in 2010 over then-state Rep. Nikki Haley, the GOP nominee and eventual two-term governor Templeton now cites as a political role model.
Templeton told The State newspaper she supported U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett in the GOP primary for governor. When Barrett lost to Haley in the Republican runoff, Templeton said she voted for Sheheen in the general election. The Kershaw Democrat was a law school friend, and Haley was widely unknown at the time, she said.
Templeton said she told Haley, whom she voted for in 2014, about her 2010 vote when Haley asked her to join her Cabinet.
“I didn’t know the governor. I voted for her the next time and to her credit ... she didn’t care.”
The vote does not bother some influential Republicans.
“Anyone who meets Catherine knows she’s a strong conservative outsider,” said Barry Wynn of Greenville, a GOP financier who is backing Templeton. “She was a foot soldier for Gresham Barrett in 2010 and, when he lost, she voted for an old college friend. After the election, Gov. Haley appointed Catherine to her team to help clean up Columbia, and Catherine proudly served.”
Anyone who meets Catherine knows she’s a strong conservative outsider. She was a foot soldier for Gresham Barrett in 2010 and, when he lost, she voted for an old college friend (Democrat Vincent Sheheen). After the election, Gov. Haley appointed Catherine to her team to help clean up Columbia, and Catherine proudly served.
— Barry Wynn of Greenville, a GOP financier who is backing Templeton
But Templeton’s vote for a Democrat might not go over so well with other Republicans.
Bob Davis went to a Greenville County GOP meeting Monday night thinking he would vote for McMaster in next June’s GOP primary. However, after hearing Templeton speak, Davis said, “It’s going to be a tough choice.”
The U.S. Marine Corps veteran and retired public school educator added, “Both of them would be fine governors.”
Told Templeton voted for Democrat Sheheen in 2010, Davis said that vote, while not a deal-breaker, is “definitely a drawback.”
“Even if it were my good friend, I wouldn’t vote for him,” Davis said. “If you’re going to be in that party, it shows me something about your philosophy and principles.”
Rocky record as chief
Templeton’s record as a state agency chief in Haley’s Cabinet also could give fuel to critics, especially if she wins the GOP primary and faces the Democratic nominee next November.
▪ Templeton made enemies – and was sued – for laying off several dozen employees at the state’s labor and environmental agencies. While Republicans praised her cost-cutting efforts, Democrats criticized her for overlooking the human cost of the cuts.
▪ Under Templeton’s leadership, the state’s health agency also was slow to respond to a tuberculosis outbreak at a Greenwood County school in the town of Ninety Six, infuriating parents. When tested, 53 students had been infected with the disease, which can be deadly if untreated.
While some locals would disagree, state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said Friday that once she found out about the outbreak, Templeton was “boots on the ground” and managed the situation well.
“In my eye, she resolved the issue. I know there are people in Ninety Six itself that would not agree with me on that, (people) that are connected with the school system. They felt like she probably could have done a better job. I don’t see how.”
In my eye, she resolved the issue. I know there are people in Ninety Six itself that would not agree with me on that, (people) that are connected with the school system. They felt like she probably could have done a better job. I don’t see how.
— State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, on Templeton’s response to a TB outbreak at a Ninety-Six school while head of DHEC
▪ A more recent revelation also could stymie Templeton’s efforts to win over voters as a crusading reformer.
After quitting as director of the state’s health and environmental agency, Templeton was paid $124,000 for five months’ work as a consultant for two state agencies. The directors of those state agencies at the time now are among Templeton’s campaign contributors.
Those agencies have no record of what Templeton did, raising questions about whether the work was necessary.
Hitting her own highlights
While campaigning, Templeton makes sure to highlight her conservative values and record.
▪ She is pro-life. While pregnant with twins, she said she refused her doctors’ recommendations to abort one child to protect the other.
“We didn’t have any more tests. Of course, we didn’t,” Templeton said. “Our children are God’s children to protect, and we did just that.”
▪ She is “proud of the Confederacy,” she controversially said during a campaign stop in Pickens.
While she supported the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, Templeton says she would not support other Confederate monuments being removed. “We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and I don’t apologize for that.”
We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and I don’t apologize for that.
— Templeton on Confederates memorialized by State House monuments
▪ She is pro-gun and pro-Second Amendment.
“When I worked for the state and fired a bunch of entrenched bureaucrats, the liberal media wrote nasty things about me, and the entrenched bureaucrats were very unhappy,” Templeton told GOP voters. As a result, she added, she was asked “to start carrying a weapon to protect myself, and so I’ve carried ever since.”
▪ She also touts winning legal battles against a labor union and the Obama administration as Haley’s state labor chief, brought on after aircraft manufacturer Boeing decided to build a new plant in North Charleston.
“We fought the Obama administration ... and we beat them back,” she said.
▪ Gov. Haley asked Templeton to run the state’s health and environmental agency and “blow it up, from the inside out,” Templeton says. “We did, and you can read all about it in the paper. The liberal media called me a buzz saw. The Democrats said I was dangerous.
“But I didn’t care.”
▪ Templeton also briefly worked for the S.C. Ports Authority in 2015 before leaving abruptly, saying publicly at the timethat the job was not the right fit.
Earlier this year, however, she said she was fired for releasing documents detailing the Ports Authority’s relationship to a powerful Columbia political consulting and strategy firm once tied to McMaster. State and federal prosecutors now are investigating that firm and its relationships, including with the Ports Authority, as part of an ongoing corruption probe that has resulted in guilty pleas from two legislators and charges against two others.
“I asked the right questions about the wrong people. I stood up to powerful political insiders, and I publicly released corrupt state government contracts to the public,” she said. “Those same powerful political insiders fired me days later.”
Campaigning recently, Templeton took credit in advance for charges that could result from that corruption investigation, saying, “You know what? I would do it all again because it was the right thing to do. As a result, we may even have some more indictments.”
I asked the right questions about the wrong people. I stood up to powerful political insiders, and I publicly released corrupt state government contracts to the public. Those same powerful political insiders fired me days later. ... You know what? I would do it all again because it was the right thing to do. As a result, we may even have some more indictments.
— Templeton on her stormy, short tenure at the State Ports Authority
However, the spat with the Ports Authority has turned ugly, with the state agency’s director accusing Templeton of lying for political gain.
‘Get rid of the good ol’ boys’
Running as an outsider, with pledgesto clean up State House corruption, is nothing new in S.C. campaigns.
It worked for Republicans Sanford and Haley, and it could work for Templeton, political observers say.
“It is an appealing strategy, given the continued investigations in Columbia and prominent state legislative leaders who have had to resign,” said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.
McMaster, who became governor when Haley resigned to join the Trump administration, has a huge advantage running as an incumbent. But, Knotts added, “McMaster has been in Columbia for a long time, and there is an increasing mistrust with the state Legislature – something that Templeton has the potential to tap into.”
It is an appealing strategy, given the continued investigations in Columbia and prominent state legislative leaders who have had to resign. ... (Gov.) McMaster has been in Columbia for a long time, and there is an increasing mistrust with the state Legislature – something that Templeton has the potential to tap into.
— College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts on Templeton’s strategy, running as an outsider and a reformer
So far, Templeton’s pitch is working with some GOP voters.
“I like what I heard today,” Patricia Arceneaux said, after hearing Templeton speak at a Greenville luncheon for GOP women.
“I’m not for the good ol’ boy crony. I think an outsider would be good,” Arceneaux said, adding she wants to look more closely at Templeton’s positions on issues.
Jeannie Collins of Greenville said she doesn’t know much yet about any of the candidates running but had a similar reaction to Templeton’s message.
“Just get rid of the good ol’ boys, and make them stop ripping us off.”
The Charleston attorney and former state agency director who is challenging Gov. Henry McMaster for the GOP nomination for the state’s chief executive
Family: Married to Charleston attorney Morgan Templeton; three children
Education: Wofford College, bachelor’s degree in political economics and philosophy, 1993; University of South Carolina, law degree, 1998
Work experience: Consultant, Brawley Templeton LLC, 2015 to present; director, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, 2012-2015; director, S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, 2011-2012; labor law attorney specializing in “union avoidance” for Ogletree and Deakins, 1998-2011; managed hiring, retention, training and safety for S.C. and Georgia manufacturing facilities, Milliken & Co., 1993-1995
Political experience: First run for elected office