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Former Gov. James Edwards, trailblazer for S.C. GOP, dies at 87

James B. “Jim” Edwards, the affable oral surgeon who swept into history when he become South Carolina’s first Republican governor after Reconstruction, died Friday at his Mount Pleasant home. He was 87.

Edwards led the Medical University of South Carolina for 17 years as its president. While there, he was credited with raising the profile of the school through expanded research and massive construction of the campus.

Edwards also served a two-year stint in Washington as President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of energy.

He also supplied advice to a line of governors who followed him to Columbia.

“As someone who appreciated the opportunities and challenges of this office, Gov. Edwards always offered kind words of support and encouragement – and we are forever grateful for his friendship,” Gov. Nikki Haley said.

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Charleston Republican who was governor from 2003 to 2011, said he once asked Edwards how to bring about change in a state dominated by the Legislature.

“He said, ‘The years go by more quickly than you can imagine. Pick issues that are important to you and focus on a few,’” Sanford said. “I would have been wise to better heed his advice.”

The 1974 gubernatorial election earned Edwards a place in the history books and in the hearts of Southern Republicans.

That election laid the groundwork for the modern Republican takeover of the state, a conversion rooted in the turbulence of the 1960s and the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights and big government initiatives.

“He broke the ice in regards to the Republican movement in South Carolina,” said Sanford, who was among the four GOP governors who followed Edwards. “He paved the way for myself and many other Republicans.”

The race also involved a bit of luck. Edwards rolled up a GOP primary win against retired Army Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of forces in Vietnam from 1964-68 and a formidable figure in party politics. Edwards won in the general election largely through a combination of low statewide turnout and high voter turnout around Charleston, where he resided.

Edwards was not expected to win until the Democratic frontrunner, Charles “Pug” Ravenel, a Harvard-educated Charlestonian and Wall Street banker, had to drop out of the race because of a residency challenge. Edwards defeated the second-place winner in the Democratic primary, William Jennings Bryan Dorn.

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges said of Edwards: “In a lot of ways, he was the original in the Republican political party.”

But Edwards’ willingness to cooperate and his good nature earned respect from Democrats.

Richard Riley, a Democrat who served in the state Senate with Edwards before the pair would serve as governor back-to-back, said they had a positive relationship because Edwards was not a political ideologue.

“He was very conservative, but he was not one to push his views in conversations. He was a listener,” said Riley, governor from 1979-87. “He was honorable. He was a good person to represent the party.”

Edwards’ conservatism was rooted in the muscular politics of Barry Goldwater, the late Arizona Republican who lost the 1964 presidential election to Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Conservative” resonated with Edwards, a political neophyte who began working as a volunteer in the campaign.

“Goldwater lost nationally, and that broke my heart,” Edwards said in an interview with The State in 2011. “I knew when America elected a fellow like Lyndon Johnson over a fellow like Barry Goldwater that this country was in bad, bad shape. So I said to myself, ‘I’m going to devote any spare time to doing something politically to help.’”

Edwards said he eventually came to realize that the heartbreaking 1964 presidential loss cleared the way for the triumph of GOP conservatism in South Carolina. He lost a bid to Congress in 1971 but was elected to the state Senate two years later, an election that would help him gain insight into the arcane workings of the Democratically controlled Legislature.

As governor, Edwards appealed to the natural conservatism of the Democratic lawmakers and employed his genial charm to get things done. He worked to help poor school districts – including winning passage of the Education Finance Act – expanded industrial development, established the S.C. Energy Research Institute and reorganized state government.

State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said Edwards adopted the style of another of his heroes, President Reagan, to work across party lines. Edwards also held more moderate views on race and supported the state's gradual evolution away from its racially divided past.

By law, Edwards could only hold one term and left office in 1978, never to run again.

He was succeeded by Riley, a governor so popular the state Constitution was changed to allow for a second term. But Republican Carroll Campbell cemented the GOP’s hold after Riley’s eight years in office. Except for the 1998 election of Hodges, Republicans have remained in the governor’s seat.

Edwards’ work to build the GOP in South Carolina influenced a future generation of Republicans. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said that, as a high-schooler, he visited Edwards’ dental office for Goldwater materials. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and former Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell called Edwards a mentor.

“Dr. Edwards’ vision of an inclusive Republican Party came to fulfillment this month with the U.S. Senate victory in Louisiana, from his start with no elected statewide Republican officials in the five-state Deep South, and now all statewide officials are Republicans,” Wilson said.

MUSC came calling, and Edwards agreed to take on the presidency for one year. That one-year stint turned into 17 years; under the Edwards tenure, the institution flourished and became a powerhouse research and teaching hospital complex.

“(H)e had a personality that filled the room — truly he never met anyone that he did not like,” said Medical University of South Carolina President David Cole, who started working at the school under Edwards. “(F)rom Day One, he made me feel respected, included, and at times like I quite possibly was his long-lost younger brother.”

James Burrows Edwards was born on June 24, 1927, in Hawthorne, Fla., He served in the U.S. Maritime Service during World War II.

Following the war, he entered the College of Charleston, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in 1950. He earned his dentistry degree from the University of Louisville and completed post-graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to the Charleston area and opened a practice in Mount Pleasant after a two-year residency in oral surgery at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

On Sept 1, 1951, he married Ann Norris Darlington of Edgefield, who survives him. The couple had two children, James B. Edwards Jr. and Katherine Edwards Wingate.

During their time in Columbia, Ann Edwards began enlisting the state’s historians to help in the renovation of the Governor’s Mansion and its surrounding homes and acreage, returning South Carolina antiques and furnishings to the public’s home.

Edwards’ short career in Washington public life in 1981 and 1982 was marked by some controversy, as he went to the nation’s capital with the purpose of dismantling the Cabinet energy agency. The Washington Post wrote in an editorial titled “Farewell, Dr. Edwards,” that “he will be remembered here for a degree of cheery incompetence that, with the best will in the world, no successor is likely to equal.”

At the time of his retirement in 1999, Edwards told the Charleston Post and Courier: “The person who doesn’t make mistakes hasn’t done anything.”

Edwards largely remained out of party politics following his retirement. But when Republican Gov. David Beasley called for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the State House, Edwards joined former governors John West, Robert McNair and Carroll Campbell at Beasley’s side in a State House press conference.

And in 1999, near the end of his tenure as president of MUSC, Edwards authorized an official apology by the institution to black workers who had participated in a 1969 strike against discriminatory labor practices at the medical university.

In retirement, at his home overlooking the Charleston harbor, Edwards maintained his allegiance to the conservative principles that had guided his life. He said in 2011 he believed the rise of the Tea Party was the fault of both Democrats and mainstream Republicans, who continued to wobble on major issues.

“Most of those Tea Party members, I believe, are Republicans disenchanted with the party’s lack of standing firmly with the fundamental principles of patriotism and balanced budgets,” Edwards said. “All the Tea Party wants to do is get America back to complying with the Constitution, something President Obama and all the Democrats have ignored for a good many years.”

Former staff writer Jim Hammond contributed.

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