Activists seeking to sway public opinion about Lexington County’s proposed sales tax increase surfaced even before County Council approved the ballot measure this summer.
Talbert Black began working to prevent the tax in early 2013, and Mike Green followed suit later that year. Both soon created Facebook pages and began rallying other conservative activists.
Earl McLeod and Tiffany Boyce Heitzman emerged as leaders of the protax side; the two were elected as co-chairs of the Penny for Pavement Coalition, which organized this spring to begin campaigning for the tax.
The four have campaigned for months, focusing in and around the town of Lexington, the county’s political center, while also coordinating outreach to other voters across Lexington County.
Talbert Black: Veteran conservative activist
The 44-year-old from Lexington is a software engineer for a vending machine company.
But after work, Black kicks his conservative activism into gear, sending out mass emails, attending committee meetings and typing up fliers and social media posts with talking points on the latest issues.
This isn't his first crack at political activism, and Black traces his political leanings to his conservative, workingclass upbringing near Pelion. He said his parents taught him and his five sisters the importance of patriotism, civic involvement and independence from government.
In the late 1990s, a few years after graduating from Clemson University, Black attended a concealed weapons permit class and wound up joining the now-inactive Grassroots Gun Rights.
It fascinated him, he said, to see how ordinary people working together could affect policy-making. He joined the South Carolina chapter of Campaign for Liberty in 2008 and became the group’s state coordinator a year later. Soon after, Black started the Palmetto Liberty PAC and joined Palmetto Gun Rights.
He’s also worked as a citizen reporter for The Nerve, a publication of the S.C. Policy Council, which promotes limited government, free enterprise and individual liberty. Communications manager Barton Swaim marvels at how Black juggles it all.
“He just has this endless source of energy to push things on the political front,” Swaim said. “You could be forgiven if you thought there were two or three Talbert Blacks.”
Some of Black’s fellow conservative activists say they saw his tirelessness and efficiency at his weekly meetings this spring to coordinate opposition to the tax increase and to Lexington County Councilmen Bill Banning and Frank Townsend, who had backed adding the referendum to the ballot.
When Banning and Townsend were ousted in primaries this summer, Black took it as a victory.
Conservative activists in Lexington say Black’s veracity helps make him a go-to figure for people who don’t know what to make of the proposed tax increase or want to get involved.
“If he tells you he's going to do X, Y and Z, he’s going to do X, Y and Z,” said Rich Bolen, a Lexington lawyer who has worked with Black to oppose the tax increase. “That’s very valuable in the political world.”
Black says the principles his parents taught him, such as self-reliance, are what motivate him today. He wants limited government and worries the tax increase’s proponents are looking out for government contractors who could benefit from the projects, not for taxpayers.
Mike Green: Unabashedly ‘ultraconservative’
Green, a 43-year-old real estate investor from West Columbia, has also become a go-to person for information and insight about the proposed tax increase as well as reasons to vote against it.
“If I need information about that penny sales tax, that's who I call, Mike Green,” said Wilma Storey, a Lexington business owner who met Green roughly four years ago at a county Republicans meeting.
Green lists his politics as “Ultraconservatism” on his Facebook page, views he says stem from his Winfield, West Virginia, upbringing. Green says his parents didn’t drink or smoke but often took the family to church three times a week.
His interest in politics, he said, comes from his grandmother, who lived nearby and worked for former West Virginia Gov. Arch Moore Jr. and the Republican Party.
Green moved to South Carolina to attend Bob Jones University and became involved with the GOP in 1994 as the director of outdoor advertising for David Beasley’s successful gubernatorial campaign. He estimates he’s worked on about 20 campaigns, some as a project manager for Starboard Communications, a Republican political consulting firm in Lexington.
Green began opposing the tax increase in September 2013, right after he learned that not all the money would pay for road improvements. He calls it “millions for pork,” rather than Penny for Progress – later changed to Penny for Pavement – because of what he sees as frivolous projects on the final ballot.
“I’m against all the pork that’s in this,” Green said. “What else would you call a cultural center in Pelion?”
Earl McLeod: Mr. Home Builders
McLeod hates being stuck in traffic. He says it's gotten to the point where “it’s simply miserable.”
The executive director of the Home Builders Association of Great Columbia lives near Lake Murray and commutes along U.S. 378. But he often finds himself in logjams, chewing a straw to ease his frustration.
“I waste a tremendous amount of time just sitting in traffic,” he said.
McLeod said that to avoid Lexington’s notorious congestion he leaves home some days as early 6:30 a.m. for his downtown Columbia office and waits until after 6 p.m. to return.
McLeod said Lexington has had traffic problems since he moved there about 15 years ago, and he expects they will only worsen as the county grows.
Those concerns, McLeod said, led him to join the pro-tax campaign in its infancy this spring; the potential benefits of the other projects, like sewer system modernizations and expansions, solidified his support.
“It’s hard to build a house without a bathroom,” he said.
The Florence native also is an experienced campaigner. He holds a political science degree from Francis Marion University, worked on U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond’s successful 1978 campaign and managed John Napier’s successful 1980 campaign for Congress.
Mike Crapps, who chaired the Penny for Progress Commission and supports the tax, says he admired how McLeod kept local home builders upbeat during the recession.
“Those kinds of people are going to be the ones that say yes when they see something that can really make a difference, Crapps said.
Tiffany Boyce Heitzman: Looking to leave a legacy
Heitzman, who runs the Greater Irmo Chamber of Commerce, has lived most of her life in Lexington County. So have her parents and grandparents.
If any of her three children want to move away as adults, that’s fine, said Heitzman, 34. “But I would love for my kids to grow up in Lexington County just like I did and build their families here.”
The proposed tax increase would help deal with Lexington County’s growth so they want to stay in the area, she said.
“This could be the most important thing that I see in my lifetime,” she said. “This might be our one chance to change our county for our children.”
Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall said the pro-increase side was looking for the most respected and trusted names in the county to help lead the campaign. Heitzman said she doesn’t consider herself influential but that she just wants to provide the facts so voters can decide for themselves.
“Telling the truth will take you a long ways in life,” said Heitzman, who says she works about four hours a day on the campaign. Much of that is spent preaching the tax increase’s potential benefits to civic groups and community leaders across the county.
The goal, Heitzman said, has been to show that the increase will be “transformational for Lexington County” and to clear up misconceptions about things such as its cost and duration.
“It’s about my family and the future of Lexington County,” Heitzman said. “This is where I was born and raised.”
This article was produced as part of this semester’s J-471 Intermediate Reporting & Production class at the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications.