Politics & Government

Former SC lawmaker Schwartz recalled as 'gentleman, a scholar and tremendous leader'

Ramon Schwartz
Ramon Schwartz Provided

In the days since his father died, Milton Schwartz has heard condolences from a former chief justice and a top United Nations official, along with many others Ramon Schwartz touched in his long public career as a state lawmaker.

Schwartz served his native Sumter in the S.C. House of Representatives from 1968 to 1986, in addition to practicing law for 68 years and belonging to various civic organizations. The Democratic representative spent his final six years in the House as the chamber’s powerful speaker.

Schwartz passed away on Friday at the age of 92.

Former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney, also a former legislator, called the late lawmaker’s son to offer condolences. Schwartz helped appoint Finney to the state’s highest court, where he became the first African-American chief justice since Reconstruction.

David Beasley – a former S.C. governor and legislator – also called. Beasley, who now directs the United Nations World Food Program, praised the “great South Carolinian” on Facebook.

“He was such a southern gentleman, a scholar and tremendous leader,” Beasley wrote. “He exemplified integrity and respect. I learned a lot from him as a young man.”

“It’s just been kind of neat to see in the last few days just how many people my dad had touched,” Milton Schwartz said. “He was really respected by all of them.”

Despite being held in wide regard, Ramon Schwartz did face some political opposition in the Legislature, former state senator and representative Larry Martin said, recalling a nickname for Schwartz’s supporters.

“I was one of Ramon’s boys,” Martin, a Pickens Republican, said with a laugh. “If you were very supportive of him, they would call you one of Ramon’s boys.”

Martin remembers Schwartz for his ability to balance competing factions of the Democratic Party that dominated the House at the time. He also worked well with Republicans, who were growing as a party, Martin said.

Camden’s Bob Sheheen, another former House speaker, appreciated the latitude Schwartz gave chairmen to run their committees, saying he was “old school” in the freedom he gave them.

“He was well-versed in any controversy,” Sheheen added, “and always willing to discuss an issue with anyone.”

That openness extended to younger members like Martin, who recalled the first time Schwartz asked him to preside over the House in his absence, where Martin was expected to decide an argument on a major bill.

“Ramon turned to me and said, ‘Well, Larry, I know you’ll handle it well. I’ll see you when I get back,” Martin remembers. “He had confidence in me, even though I don’t mind telling you I was scared to death.”

Schwartz’s grandson Michael Burchstead remembered taking an elementary school field trip to the State House and watching his grandfather preside from the “big chair.”

“But he never displayed any ego about it,” Burchstead said. “He really taught us by example.”

Burchstead followed that example into law school and then to his current job as general counsel to the S.C. Ethics Commission.

“Now, politics is often ‘my way or the highway,’ but for him, it didn’t matter what party you belonged to,” Burchstead said. “Sometimes it didn’t even matter if you liked the person. You were there for the public good, and compromise was not a bad word.”

Sumter attorney Gene DuRant, who was Schwartz’s law partner up until his death this week, said Schwartz was dedicated to his practice up until shortly before his death.

“He wasn’t active in the law the last few years, and he still came in every day and he beat everybody else into the office,” DuRant said.

Schwartz is survived by four children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Sumter.