State Rep. Tommy Pope remembers the moments that shaped him.
SLED Chief Pete Strom could have fired the teenaged Pope when he refused to let the State Law Enforcement Division boss into that agency’s headquarters.
A Lexington Circuit Court judge could have held Pope in contempt of court for spouting off to a reporter about a pending case.
And, as a young solicitor, Pope could have stumbled in the national spotlight as he prosecuted Union child-killer Susan Smith.
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But each moment turned out another way, teaching the York Republican and newly elected House speaker pro tempore valuable lessons, he says, that built on each other and shaped the person he is today.
“You never know what in life prepares you for something else,” Pope, 52, said recently from his new office in Columbia.
In the House’s No. 2 leadership spot, Pope has a chance to help shape a new era in the State House in how lawmakers go about doing the public’s work.
Opportunity’s door opened for the third-term representative as a decade-long reign in the House ended – when then-Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, resigned in October after pleading guilty to campaign finance abuses.
The Harrell ethics saga unfolded during an ongoing debate over how best to toughen the state’s two-decade-old ethics laws, which govern how public officials should behave.
Pope’s leadership style combines a prosecutor’s understanding of the law with a folksy, often self-deprecating sense of humor that diffuses tension and helps build consensus, his colleagues say.
In four years, Pope says he will run for governor – a political ambition stemming from a desire to “fix things,” he says.
State Reps. Gary Simrill and Ralph Norman, fellow York Republicans, say Pope would make a good chief executive of the state.
“He’s not scripted,” Simrill said. “He’s his own person. And that is what is lacking so much today in politics.”
“It’s a spotlight position, but he’s been in the spotlight before and he’s held up very well,” Norman said. “I just want somebody who is honest and straightforward, and he is.”
‘Just people doing a job’
As speaker pro tem, a largely ceremonial role in the past, Pope hopes to be more involved in the House’s work, moving between legislative issues and committees, helping to build consensus.
Updating the state’s ethics laws is a top priority, said Pope, who worked for 14 years as a solicitor before joining Rock Hill’s Elrod Pope Law Firm, specializing in personal injury, workers compensation and medical malpractice law.
“We shouldn’t allow some hierarchy that allows us (lawmakers) to be treated any differently – one, that’s offensive to the public, and two, we are just people doing a job,” Pope said.
“I don’t want something wrapped in the ethic’s law that’s – to use my York vernacular – just stealing.”
Pope said helping others pass legislation is one measure of his own success. But he is especially proud of leading an effort to pass a state law making the “Honor and Remember” flag the official banner memorializing fallen service men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Pope took up the cause at a York couple’s request. Their son died in an Iraqi explosion in 2007.
Pope also excels at drafting legislation, colleagues say.
State Rep. Tommy Stringer, R-Greenville, said he got to know Pope when the two were on a House GOP Caucus committee tasked with proposing tax reforms for the 2011-12 legislative session.
“He was consistent,” Stringer said. “He was always there, always asked good questions, had good input.”
Having worked all summer on a proposal, Stringer and Pope hoped to see a bill pass the House that would have eliminated more than 60 sales tax exemptions. Instead, Pope saw how difficult passing a law can be. On the House floor, two-thirds of the exemptions were put back into the proposed bill before it passed.
Pope still voices his concerns openly about the need to change the tax code, Stringer said.
“From Day 1 (of being elected to the House), he was not afraid to say what he believed,” Stringer said, pointing to how freshman Pope, in his first days in the Legislature, was one of only five representatives who voted for Norman over Harrell for speaker.
For that vote, Pope was not appointed by Harrell to the House Judiciary Committee, a committee where a lawyer’s expertise comes in handy, Stringer and Norman note.
“You think about that,” Stringer said. “The prosecutor who put away Susan Smith is elected to the House and did not get put on the Judiciary Committee. That speaks volumes.”
Drawn to public service
Pope credits his “momma,” a school teacher, and his “daddy”, a cop and sheriff in the 1980s, with inspiring him to public service.
As a young man, Pope was drawn to being a cop.
Lacking focus in college, Pope decided to work at SLED, starting out as a “phone boy” who would stay overnight at state police headquarters, buzz officers into the building and, sometimes, go “running with the hounds” on police searches.
One night, then-SLED chief Pete Strom buzzed the intercom, asking to be let in. Thinking an officer was impersonating the legendary, longtime chief, Pope quizzed Strom instead.
Eventually, the SLED chief said, “Tommy?”
Pope hit the buzzer to open the door. But Strom could not get to the door before the lock re-engaged. When Pope ran to the door to apologize, the SLED chief had gone to find another entrance.
Later that night, the two talked.
“He absolutely had every reason to get rid of me,” Pope recalled. “If he had any modicum of arrogance, he could have gotten rid of me. I always remember that, when I’ve been fortunate enough to be in charge of people, to not forget where you come from.”
Instead, Strom quizzed Pope about his family and his plans, encouraging him to go to law school.
Pope said he resisted at first: He was a “young man chasing bad guys” with a blue light and a “siren.”
“But he knew better for me than I knew for myself.”
‘Got to have a wrong to right’
While in law school and, later, after he graduated, Pope worked as a SLED agent in narcotics.
Pope said a similar impulse drove him to be a cop, an attorney and a legislator.
“I’ve got to have a victim. That’s just the way I’m wired. I’ve got to have a wrong to right, somebody to fight for.”
His conversational tone sliding between jest and seriousness, Pope’s rural upbringing comes out. Making fun of himself, Pope said his days as a cop ruined the excellent diction his mother instilled in him.
“When you go to work undercover narcotics, you don’t say, ‘Perhaps, I’d like to purchase marijuana.’... You say, ‘Bo, you got some reefer?’ ”
Jokes aside, Pope’s colleagues say he is well-spoken, poised and humble. But as a young attorney, Pope said his ego once got the best of him.
While working for the Lexington County solicitor, Pope prosecuted a defendant who was a con man who pretended to be related to President Kennedy to win the favor of women whom he would rob.
A reporter asked Pope what he thought about the defendant after court, and Pope said he “laid it on thick. I talked about how he was an A-1 con man, how he almost had me crying in the courtroom, and I hope the judge wasn’t buying it.”
The only problem, Pope said, was the case still was being heard.
Pope got up the next day, proud to see his quotes in the newspaper and “feeling like the king of the world.”
He rushed to the office – “I’m figuring my boys are wanting to talk about it” – and the judge’s assistant called, asking him to come to the courthouse.
Entering the smoke-filled chambers, Pope said the judge gave him a book with the rules of ethics for attorneys, pointing to a rule that Pope had violated.
Asked why the judge should not hold him in contempt, Pope said, “I can find absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t hold me in contempt of court.”
The judge laughed – another save, Pope said.
But faltering then left him prepared for his next big trial.
Not that ‘big a deal’
Pope was 30 years old when he was elected 16th Circuit solicitor, beating an incumbent who had an infamous backlog of cases.
If he has a legacy as a prosecutor, it would be eliminating that backlog and turning the office into one of the most efficient in the state, Pope said.
Not long after he was elected in 1992, Pope was thrust into the national spotlight when he tried Susan Smith for strapping her two small children into her car and rolling it into a lake outside Union.
To some degree, Pope counts the murder trial as a failure – he sought the death penalty but managed only to get Smith put behind bars for life. But the 1995 trial also exposed Pope to the “crack-cocaine of media.”
Before Pope would encounter a flurry of reporters at the courthouse, he had one thing on his mind: getting chewed out by the Lexington County judge and the “handful of things I could say” about the Smith case while it was ongoing.
The experience also thickened Pope’s skin, he said.
“The scrutiny was so intense, the media pressure was so intense, that ... just running for office or running (for) the House (speaker pro tem) didn’t seem like that big a deal.”