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An ‘exit interview’ with the governor’s right-hand man

MY BEST CONTACT in the governor’s office left Mark Sanford’s employ last week, which is bad news for me. The jury is still out on whether it’s a good thing for South Carolina.

The jury in this case will be the voters of S.C. Senate District 46 in Beaufort County. Tom Davis, formerly chief of staff to Mr. Sanford, will oppose Sen. Catherine Ceips in the Republican primary in June. I have no idea which should win; we’ll have our hands full on the editorial board just trying to endorse in primaries for Midlands districts.

But Tom dropped by our offices on his way out of town last week, and I thought I’d share with you some observations from what one might term this “exit interview” — less for the light it sheds on a Senate contest, and more for what they tell us about the guy who’s been the governor’s point man for most of his time in office.

You will have gathered from previous columns that I am, shall we say, disappointed in this governor. But Tom Davis has always impressed me with his passionate support of his boss. He is so earnest and so insistent in his faithful advocacy — from taking flak from lawmakers without resentment to sending me e-mails so intensely detailed in their rebuttal of criticism that I have to set them aside until I can find the time — that you can’t help but respect and like the guy, even when you disagree.

The five issues he says he most wants to address distill some of the best things the governor has at least theoretically stood for (with a hint here and there of the worst). They also remind us how little has been achieved under this governor, despite Tom’s efforts:

1. Education funding. He would take all the money from the bewildering array of sources we have now — the EIA, the EFA, the whole EIEIO — and put it all into one stream, “so you can see where the money’s going and what it’s doing.” He’d have the money follow each child rather than districts and programs. This, of course, brings to mind the governor’s voucher and tax credits crusade. But it also points to the work that Tom has done reaching out to Education Superintendent Jim Rex. I’ve often been frustrated at the governor’s slowness to work personally with Mr. Rex on reforms they agree about, but Tom has definitely been the good cop on this one. Tom praises Mr. Rex’s efforts at public school choice, and says what’s needed to make the plan work is the funding reform he advocates.

2. “The way we tax.” Rather than get bogged down with the governor’s obsession with the income tax, Tom clearly advocates the comprehensive tax reform that our board has pushed for what seems like forever.

3. Government restructuring. The main reason we endorsed Mr. Sanford in 2002 was his embrace of our restructuring agenda — and his fecklessness on the issue played a role in our not endorsing him in 2006. Tom wants to try working for these crucial reforms from the very citadel of resistance, the S.C. Senate. And he understands that the state’s systemic problems extend far beyond just reducing fragmentation at the state level — he would stress prying the state’s fingers from the throat of local governments (my terminology, not his) so that the governments closest to the people can do their jobs.

4. Quality of life. One purpose of restoring the promise of Home Rule would be empowering local governments to fight sprawl. This is a natural outgrowth of the uncontrolled growth he’s seen in the Lowcountry, and an area where he and the governor have a lot more in common with Theodore Roosevelt than too many modern Republicans.

5. “The Ports.” One of the subjects of some of Tom’s most recent e-mails has been his fierce insistence that I am wrong when I say the governor hasn’t accomplished much. His evidence is the deal that he, Tom Davis, has helped engineer between our governor and Georgia’s over a new Jasper County port. He acknowledges this has been his “silo” at the governor’s office and perhaps looms larger in his mind than other people’s. But he maintains, with some justice, that there are few things more important to South Carolina’s economy than the health of its ports.

Tom argued a bit with us about vouchers. He says that movement has led to such promising developments as Mr. Rex’s open enrollment initiative. I say it’s brought any efforts to improve public schools to a grinding halt, consuming all the political oxygen that could be going to fight for such things as merit pay for teachers and district consolidation — things the governor has said he favors, but has done little to promote.

Tom said that if elected, he would actively push those things. That would be good. It would be even better if Mark Sanford would.

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