I MET CATHERINE Templeton when she was mopping up after DHEC botched the tuberculosis outbreak at an elementary school in Ninety-Six. Although I wasn’t 100 percent convinced that she handled the situation 100 percent correctly, I was extremely impressed with … her.
“New sheriff at DHEC tackles TB and … DHEC,” announced the headline to a column I wrote about Ms. Templeton. She was, I gushed, “the first director who isn’t entangled by webs of allegiance to the way things always have been done. The first director whose reflexive reaction to criticism isn’t to defend the agency — or to attack the critics — but to acknowledge fault. The first director who walks that thin line between gratuitous government bashing and disarming candor.”
Maybe I was taken in by a master manipulator — as several people told me at the time. Indeed, some of the things that impressed me about her look different through the lens of the lawsuits the state had to settle with the nurses she fired. But I still think she was what the Department of Health and Environmental Control needed at that time: an outsider who wouldn’t take “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” for an answer at one of the state’s most insular and byzantine agencies. Just perhaps in smaller doses.
Today, though, I don’t think she’s what our state needs. In any dose.
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It’s not Ms. Templeton’s policy preferences that worry me; there’s barely any difference in the Republican gubernatorial candidates’ positions on issues that most voters care about.
What stands out about Ms. Templeton is her “say anything” approach to campaigning.
There are countless small examples — from her promise that “we will have an energy secretary who will make South Carolina ratepayers the top priority” (only the Legislature can make that happen) to her demand that lawmakers conform the state’s income tax code to the new federal law because, “If they do nothing, it will result in state government retaining one billion dollars over five years” (if lawmakers do nothing, nobody’s taxes increase). From insisting that her ancestors didn’t own slaves (at least one owned a lot) and declaring that she had never donated to a Democratic candidate (she did).
There are also two huge examples. Both are well-documented (and yes, I know Ms. Templeton is going to label this “fake news,” because some people will believe that). But I’m bringing them up now because our cynicism has made it easy to miss the vital distinction between “I really disagree with that” and “that was nowhere near the truth” statements. The second should never be tolerated. And certainly not more than once. What it says about character aside, it makes it impossible to believe anything else that candidate says. About anything.
First, the simple example: her claims that Gov. Henry McMaster signed “the largest tax increase in modern history.” I assumed she was claiming he signed the 2017 gas tax increase that he actually vetoed. In fact, as The State’s Jamie Self reported, what she was referring to wasn’t even a tax increase. It was the pension-reform bill that will cost taxpayers a ton of money but did not raise a single tax by a single penny.
Now, there is a theoretical possibility that the Legislature will someday raise taxes to pay for that law. More likely: It will limit spending elsewhere to pay for it. If Ms. Templeton had said that Mr. McMaster signed a law that the Legislature could one day raise taxes to pay for, fine. But she didn’t. She said he raised taxes. She said it repeatedly and deliberately and unapologetically. And if you’ve forgotten the details, please go read that story again. It’s simply astounding.
The other example is Ms. Templeton’s claim that she was urged to carry a concealed weapon because she was firing so many people as head of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. It’s central to her narrative that she was a bold and courageous agency director who saved taxpayers money where politicians just squander it. And it doesn’t hold water.
The Greenville News reported in March that Ms. Templeton had “offered slightly varying versions” of the story, ranging from some unnamed someone at SLED telling her “we need you to start carrying a gun” to the most provocative: “I actually got a call from the chief of the state law enforcement division … ‘Catherine, you need to come get a gun.’” (She did quickly correct that to “concealed weapons permit.”)
When the newspaper checked, it got unqualified denials. A spokesman said SLED Chief Mark Keel “has never called or suggested” such a thing. The previous SLED chief, Reggie Lloyd, told the paper: “I never had that conversation with her. I never had that conversation with anybody.” That wasn’t the only thing that fell apart about Ms. Templeton’s narrative of the dangers she faced, and if you haven’t read that article — or you’ve forgotten the details — I urge you to read it as well.
The closest the SLED spokesman could find to Ms. Templeton’s claim was when she herself expressed concerns for her safety: An agent said if that was the case, she should consider getting a concealed-weapons permit.
Let’s just let that sink in.
Would you find it difficult to distinguish between the chief of SLED calling you to say you need to arm yourself and one of his agents saying that if you’re scared, you could consider carrying a concealed weapon?
Would you feel comfortable with a governor who can’t tell the difference?
Or who says whatever sounds good, apparently confident that nobody will care whether it’s true?
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.