Politics & Government

Like Nikki Haley? SC gov candidate Templeton hopes you'll give her a shot

This is the first in a series of articles on the candidates vying to be South Carolina's next governor.

A younger woman who is not well-known statewide decides to run for governor as a conservative outsider. She takes on a field that includes the sitting lieutenant governor and longtime S.C. Republican stalwart Henry McMaster. And she manages to come from behind to win the GOP primary and, ultimately, the governor's office.

That is how it played out for then-state Rep. Nikki Haley in 2010. And it's what Catherine Templeton hopes will happen this year, starting with the June 12 Republican primary.

Trying to recapture the momentum that propelled Haley into the state's top job eight years ago, Templeton is riding the former governor's coattails. On the campaign trail, Templeton frequently mentions how Haley picked her to lead two state agencies.

A pro-Templeton campaign ad shows then-Gov. Haley praising Templeton when Haley introduced her for one of her appointments. A quote from the same speech tops Templeton's bio on her campaign website and is featured in other campaign materials.

"She is a fighter, she is strong. She is a mother. She is a wife," Haley said at the time. "She's a great professional who hasn't just been good at anything, she's been great at everything."

Now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Haley can't offer an endorsement in the race to fill her old job, as Templeton competes with Gov. McMaster, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill and Greenville businessman John Warren in the race for the GOP nomination.

But at a recent early-morning stop at Tommy's Country Ham House in Greenville, that didn't stop Templeton from drawing the comparison herself.

"Gov. Haley brought me to the dance," Templeton told a group of diners that happened to have gathered at the restaurant that day for their 59th high school reunion. "She did so much for this state, and now I want to carry on what she started."

Haley named Templeton, a labor attorney, to head the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation in 2010, and in 2012 asked her to lead the Department of Health and Environmental Control. The jobs didn't exactly make Templeton a household name, but they did set her up for the most distinctive catchphrase of her future bid for governor.

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Templeton's aggressive staffing cuts at the agencies she ran inspired a newspaper to describe her as a "buzz saw." Templeton didn't like the description at first, but has embraced it now, using it in campaign ads and opening her West Columbia headquarters by cutting a ribbon with a small buzz saw.

"What I hear the most is 'buzz saw, buzz saw, buzz saw,' " she said. "I'm concerned that ... when we get to June 12, if I don't legally change my name to Buzzsaw, they won't know who I am. Everyone's like, 'you're the buzz saw, you've got my vote,' and I'm like 'Catherine Templeton.' "

Eating breakfast at the Ham House, Sarah Wells of Easley said she liked Templeton's "buzz saw" ads, saying she "took something that had a negative connotation and turned it into a positive."

Breakfast patrons also were quick to draw comparisons between the former governor and the candidate.

"My daddy thought Nikki Haley hung the moon," said Pam Lowry, who was visiting her hometown from her home in North Carolina. "If I could, I'd vote for (Templeton). She's a staunch conservative."

Wells said she sees even bigger things in the duo's future. "I think that would be a good ticket," she said. "Haley and Templeton for president."

Her friend Faye Jordan said she likes Templeton's "feistiness."

"If you've got a woman in office, she has to stand up to people who try to run her over," Jordan said. "And she doesn't come across as abusing it."

The old Haley playbook

Templeton has attempted to run to the right of her primary opponents, particularly McMaster. She praised her Confederate ancestors while defending Civil War-era monuments, talks about her choice not to have an elective medical abortion in one campaign ad and fires a gun at a rattlesnake in another.

That's similar to the strategy used by Haley, who won in 2010 as a backbench opponent of the Legislature's leadership at the height of the tea party wave. Haley even snagged an endorsement from the conservative darling of the time, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Late last year, Templeton introduced Steve Bannon, the controversial former adviser to President Donald Trump and present-day conservative insurgent, when Bannon visited South Carolina.

That wasn't her only brush with the Trump administration. After the 2016 election, there was talk of Templeton getting a cabinet post in the new administration when she visited the president-elect in Trump Tower.

"I was in Trump Tower before Kanye and Carly," she said at a recent campaign stop, referring to fellow visitors Carly Fiorina, a former presidential candidate, and rapper Kanye West.

Templeton described Trump as a "good listener," and said the president-elect told her, "You're much more beautiful in person than you are in your picture."

Trump is supporting McMaster, an early supporter, in the governor's race.

Serving 'people,' not 'bureaucrats'

Despite her buzz saw moniker, Templeton says she recognizes there are areas where the government needs to add employees, such as when the state faces a shortage of teachers in public schools and a lack of corrections officers that contributed to a deadly prison riot last month.

"You don't take a hammer to things to fix them. You take a scalpel," Templeton said, adding the "buzz saw" refers to her desire to cut spending, regulation and the size of government where there is "mission creep."

However, she said, "there are some fundamental things that government is supposed to do: education, safety, infrastructure. Those are the three things where you have to make sure it's right-sized."

Templeton insists that funding for all those areas can be found by moving money from administration and bureaucracy to front-line positions, without the need to raise taxes.

"When I was at DHEC, I took $7 million worth of administrators and got rid of them, downsized and reinvested $5 million of it into nurses, septic tank inspectors, restaurant inspectors — people serving the people of South Carolina, not government bureaucrats," she said. "You don't cut just to cut. You find the money where it's being wasted and you put it where it's needed."

Templeton herself has come under fire about whether she's been a good steward of taxpayer dollars.

Immediately after Templeton left her post as DHEC chief in 2015, she was hired by the same agency as a private consultant under her firm Brawley Templeton LLC. Later that year, she also was hired as a consultant for the state Department of Revenue. She was paid $124,000 in five months to do work for which the agencies have little written record. She also worked briefly for the S.C. Ports Authority.

Templeton has declined media requests to release information on the firm's private clients, how much they have paid her or connections they may have with her former government departments.

The lack of disclosure has drawn criticism from McMaster's campaign, which said Templeton's plan was "to keep the public in the dark about how she has made a living" as a consultant.

"Absolutely every contract I've ever had and every dollar I've ever made from the state of South Carolina is now and always has been public record, so there's not anything else to release," Templeton said.

But with her private clients, she argued, there's a relationship "like a lawyer" that precludes her disclosing their information.

"There are so many things that they ask appointees that they don't ask politicians," she said. "There's more out there about me than there is about anybody else that's running."

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With four weeks to go in the primary campaign, polls suggest Templeton has some work to do to catch up with McMaster. So she intends to spend that time out on the trail meeting as many voters as possible.

"The consultants will tell you you cannot do this one at a time, but I think it's important to do it one at a time. I think it's important to talk to people, let them ask questions," she said, comparing the campaign trail to her first job out of college in an Upstate textile mill.

"If you're sitting in your office in a weave mill, you're not doing your job. It's called walking the floor in old manufacturing South Carolina. You walk the floor, and that's how you know what's going on."

Bristow Marchant: 803-771-8405, @BristowatHome

Catherine Brawley Templeton

From: Mount Pleasant

Age: 47

Family: husband Morgan Templeton, 3 children

Job: Attorney, consultant for Brawley Templeton LLC; director of S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, 2010-12; director of S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, 2012-15; labor attorney; textile manager

Education: B.A. in political economics and philosophy, Wofford College, 1993; J.D. from University of South Carolina Law School, 1998.

Money raised: $​3,342,478.18

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