The Buzz

Her husband came up short in SC governor's race. She's hoping she can do better

Florence Mayor Frank Willis with his  wife Marguerite Willis concedes the primary election for governor on June 13, 2006, during a press conference at Seibels House in Columbia. Willis was a Democratic candidate for governor.
Florence Mayor Frank Willis with his wife Marguerite Willis concedes the primary election for governor on June 13, 2006, during a press conference at Seibels House in Columbia. Willis was a Democratic candidate for governor. The State/File

This year is the first time Florence Democrat Marguerite Willis has run for statewide office. But it's not her first statewide campaign.

Willis, one of three Democrats seeking her party's nomination for governor in June's primary, is the wife of former Florence Mayor Frank Willis, who launched his own bid for governor in 2006.

At the time, Marguerite Willis says, she was less interested in politics than in her law practice, handling antitrust issues with the Columbia-based Nexsen Pruet law firm. Her involvement with Frank Willis' campaign primarily was playing the part of the "proud wife," Willis said.

But as she launches her own bid for the state's top job, she's looking back on the 2006 race, and considering how politics have changed since then.

The couple married after Frank Willis was mayor of Florence, where he rarely faced opposition. So his 2006 bid for the Democratic nomination for governor was the first competitive race his wife had the chance to see from the inside.

'I was a neophyte'

Marguerite Willis' first introduction to S.C. politics was traveling to events as her husband's surrogate.

"I was a neophyte to the whole county convention system," she recalled. "I thought they were all balloons falling from the ceiling, costumes, confetti."

For the first convention, Willis showed up with men in hard hats and signs that said "Willis Works" plus a "yellow dog" costume. Her husband's opponent, state Sen. Tommy Moore, "had a table with some bumper stickers."

Marguerite Willis, a Democratic candidate for SC governor, announces state Sen. John Scott (D-Richland) as her running mate for lieutenant governor.

At another event, Willis herself came under fire from a speaker for a $1,000 contribution she had made when then-first lady Laura Bush visited Florence. Willis remembers Bush being there to open a new library, and $1,000 was the cost of a ticket to a private luncheon.

"I figured I'm the first lady of Florence, and she's the first lady of the United States, so I should be there," Willis said. "It didn't occur to me that I was supporting (President George W.) Bush or that it would become an issue to attack my husband."

In the end, a legal case kept Willis from going to the luncheon.

In the end, Frank Willis ended up losing the Democratic primary to Moore by 45,000 votes. Asked what about her husband's 2006 race led her to want to run for governor a decade later, Marguerite Willis' answer is succinct.

"Nothing."

'I cried bitter tears'

In the years that followed, Willis said, she was approached more than once about running for office, but always rejected the idea. She was happy with her legal career and working outside the office as an advocate for women's rights.

Then came election night 2016. Willis fell asleep in front of her TV, expecting a Hillary Clinton victory. She woke up late that night to President-elect Donald Trump.

"I shook Frank awake and said, 'He won,'" she said. "Then I cried. I cried bitter tears. It felt like my dog died."

In the aftermath of Trump's election — despite allegations of sexual assault, followed by the growth of the #MeToo movement — Willis decided it was more important for women to take the lead in pushing for political and social change.

"I feel like a switch was turned on that I didn't know was there," she said.

Willis said the Democratic Party has become more open to women and other outside voices than it was in 2006.

"People see the old system was not working," she said. "Tommy Moore was the pick of the legislators and the party, so he got the nomination. Then, he really didn't do anything and lost the election."

Now, it is Frank Willis' turn to play the "proud husband" on the campaign trail, although Marguerite Willis says she also will be looking to her husband for his expertise in local government and economic development.

"Frank would have been a great governor, but this is a different moment in history," she said. "This is a moment not only for all women, but for all the folks who have something to say, nothing to lose and want to see a change."

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