E.W. Cromartie knew for weeks what was coming.
But not a hint, not a rumor preceded the federal government's filing of court documents saying the Columbia city councilman was going to prison for tax evasion.
Cromartie, 64, did not share the news with even his closest political allies before it broke Monday.
"I didn't know he was in trouble," said retired state Sen. Kay Patterson, who has spent the past 35 years in the thick of local politics and government.
"He just kept it to himself," said Franchot Brown, who grew up with Cromartie in Columbia's Waverly neighborhood and joins the Cromartie family for Christmas dinner each year.
Since joining Columbia City Council in 1983, Cromartie has never been one to keep his thoughts and opinions to himself.
He got where he was by being persistent and aggressive, maintaining an old-fashioned political network and delivering the goods to his downtown District 2 - a district that was drawn with his election in mind.
He could have held the seat for life, Patterson said.
People in his district were so devoted, they ignored his chronic problems paying property taxes and overlooked allegations that he was a slum lord.
"He produced things in his district - I'm talking about positive growth in his district, like Read Street," said Patterson, who has watched Cromartie since he was a teacher and Cromartie, a student, at W.A. Perry Middle School in 1956.
"Read Street - hell, it wasn't even safe to drive down the street. Now you can walk down the street, and live on the street, and be proud of the house you're living in," Patterson said.
"He did good things, but this bad thing just overshadowed all that."
AN INTEREST IN POLITICS
Cromartie grew up in a one-story stucco house in the 2100 block of Gervais Street at Pine.
His late parents, E.W. and Charlie Mae Cromartie, owned a number of rental houses - apartments and duplexes of cinderblock on concrete slabs - as well as two liquor stores, one across the street from their home.
Cromartie's mother was a nurse, too.
Brown said when they were boys, he and Cromartie would catch the bus and ride to Main Street just about every Saturday for the Mickey Mouse Club at the Palmetto Theater.
"It was segregated," Brown said. "We had to go upstairs. Then we would shop downtown Main Street ... and, invariably, we spent all our money and we didn't have money to catch the bus back, so we had to walk."
Cromartie grew up in "a helping home," said lifelong friend Mildred Weathers McDuffie.
Extended family members who sent their children to Allen University, around the corner, were assured the students would get a homecooked meal at the Cromarties' on Sundays.
Cromartie finished his public-school education at C.A. Johnson High School, graduating in 1963.
He went to Michigan State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in marketing, and then on to law school at George Washington University.
Returning home to Columbia, Cromartie got a license to practice law in the spring of 1973 from the S.C. Bar Association.
He wasted no time getting involved in politics, running for the Legislature in 1974 and for a citywide seat on City Council in 1978.
While he lost both of those races, Cromartie was gaining notice for his willingness to work hard on the campaign trail. He would go door-to-door, put out signs, talk to people. Look them in the eye and ask for their vote.
Once his candidate got elected, Cromartie didn't hesitate to call about issues and needs in the black community, said Democrat Dick Harpootlian.
"He's very much a retail guy, an out-in-the-community guy," he said. "He's old-timey, and it has worked."
'THEY LOVED OLD E.W.'
The way lobbyist Jim Quackenbush remembers it, Cromartie came into his own in 1978.
Dick Riley was running for governor, and Columbia was key. Most of the capital city's political establishment was backing Riley's Democratic primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Brantley Harvey.
Cromartie was among a group of young Democrats working for Riley, and he delivered the African-American wards that would become the core of his own political power.
"And they're still for him, solid," said Quackenbush, who worked in the Carter and Mondale campaigns for president. "They're very loyal."
Cromartie's parents were active in the community and attuned to political life, Quackenbush said. The family had a good name.
"It would be fair to say he was groomed," Quackenbush said. "E.W. had the support of the older black preachers. He was from a good, solid neighborhood."
When it became apparent that Columbia voters wouldn't elect black members to City Council without single-member districts, Mayor Kirkman Finlay and others threw their political weight behind the "4-2-1 plan," a combination of four single-member districts, two citywide seats and a mayor that survives today.
Quackenbush said the boundaries of District 2 were probably set to benefit Cromartie, from what was then Valley Park through Allen University and Benedict College and up through the subsidized housing projects that, under Cromartie's tenure, have been transformed from brick barracks to attractive single-family homes.
"That's a tough neighborhood, but they loved old E.W.," Quackenbush said.
"His election on City Council gave Afro-Americans the feeling that they had someone who cared, someone who was sitting at the table.
"Before, they had nothing."
USING HIS INFLUENCE
Over the past 27 years, Cromartie has relied on his advisory committee, 100 to 250 people who he called together regularly to talk about issues and concerns throughout the city.
Everybody calls it a political machine, an old-fashioned and intensely personal organization.
McDuffie said the advisory committee met every three or four months, often at Cromartie's law office on Harden Street.
"He would feed you," she said. "Not cookies. It would be food."
Cromartie also seemed to ignore the chain of command that is supposed to keep council members at arm's length from city employees to avoid political influence.
For example, on Aug. 7, a crowd of 243 people jammed a nightclub in the Vista to hear R&B artist Brian McKnight. Someone called the Fire Department; the club, Rust, has a posted occupancy limit of 125 people.
A fire official ordered people to leave. At some point, according to an incident report, Cromartie "appeared on the scene" and pulled aside Deputy Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins.
Jenkins decided to issue a warning instead of a citation.
A police officer objected, prompting an internal investigation by Public Safety director Mike King. According to a report dated Oct. 19, King concluded Jenkins was not influenced by the councilman.
Still, McDuffie and others said constituents have benefited from Cromartie's connections in city government.
"You could call him any time of day or night," McDuffie said. "And it didn't matter, he would always return your calls.
"If you told Cromartie that there's water running down Read Street, and I don't know where it's coming from, within an hour or so there was somebody there to see about it. Because he would call the people who were supposed to see about these things."
Though Cromartie has a BlackBerry, he always communicated with constituents by phone or by visiting people in their homes, "person to person," McDuffie said.
Cromartie was motivated to serve by the decay that he saw in old downtown neighborhoods like Read Street, McDuffie said.
"He said, 'That was his neighborhood, and he didn't want to see it go down like that,' " McDuffie said of Cromartie, who lives with his wife, Raynette, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. They have two grown children, son Ernest William Cromartie III and daughter Antoinette Cromartie.
Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, part of the second generation of black leaders on City Council, said she remembers an early meeting she attended to learn the ropes.
Cromartie had called out district residents who came to the podium, one by one, to tell council that they wanted a modern wellness center to replace Drew Park.
"It was clear to me that the pressure was on the rest of the council to go with what he and his people wanted," she said.
At first, Devine said, she thought Cromartie was "kind of a bully." Then she became accustomed to his commanding political style.
"He felt the need to make up for years of past neglect" in District 2, she said. "His heart is in the right place, but his style is getting things done, and you can take it or leave it."
IT ALL SLIPPED AWAY
The rental properties that made E.W. Cromartie Sr. a wealthy man have been a millstone around the neck of his son, who inherited dated property that isn't marketable, said Brown, a lawyer who also inherited property in Waverly.
At one time, Cromartie had 30 pieces of property on the tax rolls, a handful of them cited by the city for being substandard.
Over the years, he failed to pay taxes on time for several rental properties he owned. In 1995, he ran up nearly $45,000 for delinquent taxes dating back two to three years. He eventually paid off his debts and now is current on his local property taxes.
Said Columbia NAACP director Lonnie Randolph: "From the dealings I had with him, he was a decent man. But I think you can walk across thin ice one time too many."
Though federal prosecutors won't discuss the case, Cromartie is prepared to plead guilty in U.S. District Court to tax evasion and dividing up payments for legal fees to avoid reporting them to the government.
He agreed to pay $58,075 in back taxes and to resign from City Council, which he did Tuesday.
He also lost his license to practice law.
This past week, community leaders were reluctant to speculate on what might have happened - or to even speak about the man they have relied on for so many years. Calls to Cromartie himself went unreturned.
His friend Brown turned it over in his mind.
"I've asked him many times, 'E.W., how the hell can you practice law when you're on City Council practically full time?'
"That might have been part of the reason why he lost control of his finances. All these houses he had to deal with, and being so involved with City Council, and practicing law - I can see how it might have slipped away from him."