Known as an earthy wisecracking politician, Dick Harpootlian, a candidate for Chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, suddenly found himself at the superheated center of a swirling political scandal that now threatens to end his long and pockmarked political career.
Unexpectedly, Jamie Sanderson, a political blogger, discovered that Harpootlian gave tens of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates.
When the scandalous charges hit him, Harpootlian did not deny his contributions to a list of radical Republicans:
1. Jake Knotts (“Obama is a raghead!”)
2. Henry McMaster (radical extremist on the Republican right-wing) and
3. Walt Wilkins (staffer for the segregationist, Strom Thurmond).
Following Sanderson’s searing charges, Harpootlian was stung by a call from his main opponent, Phil Noble, who issued an eloquent plea urging him to withdraw.
At that point, Harpootlian made a huge miscalculation. Instead of denying the charges of covert collaboration with Republicans, Harpootlian struck out against his chief opponent, Phil Noble, with the charge that he had contributed to Phil Crane, a Republican candidate in 2002. To support his charge, Harpootlian produced a document naming Noble as a contributor to Crane.
Phil Noble immediately denied categorically all substance in Harpootlian’s charges. To make matters worse for Harpootlian, Former FEC Commissioner Scott Thomas swiftly issued a statement pointing out that the document Harpootlian put forward as evidence to frame Noble was a forgery by a self-confessed felon, Christopher Ward. Accused of fraud, Christopher Ward served as the Treasurer of the National Republican Campaign Committee.
From 2001 till 2007, Ward stole over $844,000 from Republican coffers by forging reams of fake contribution documents. Ward’s high profile case was common knowledge in political and legal circles, the very circles that Harpootlian knows well – circles that know him equally well.
Longtime Harpootlian watchers are now in shock and dismay, so swift has been the disintegration of a man who once led the South Carolina Democratic Party. One Columbian insider said, “Harpootlian’s pants have been taken off in public.” Another quipped, “Harpootlian is toast.”
In 1998, Harpootlian assumed the office of Party Chair. That year, there was a strong backlash against the Republican excesses of Kenneth Starr whose determined pursuit of impeachment over the claims of Monica Lewinsky boomeranged and defeated a lot of Republican candidates. In that tempestuous year, Jim Hodges was elected governor in South Carolina. But, over the course of the next five years, Harpootlian presided over the systematic disintegration of the Democratic Party in South Carolina. Along the way, Harpootlian did make quite a name for himself.
When he issued a formal press release from Party headquarters criticizing Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Harpootlian coined the homophobic slur, “light in the loafers.”
In another awkward and insensitive quote, Harpootlian responded to a question about the minority vote with the breathtaking comment, “I don’t want to buy the black vote, just rent it for one day.” Harpootlian’s casual racism did not sit well with the African-Americans who make up the heart of the Democratic constituency in South Carolina.
Over the intervening years, the Democratic Party apparatus in South Carolina has visibly deteriorated. During 2008, the Party experienced a resurgence driven by Obama’s coattails, but 2010 was practically apocalyptic.
While Harpootlian represents the Columbia-centric ethos of political back-scratching in a private gentleman’s club, his leading opponent is running as an outsider. Phil Noble, a businessman from Charleston with a long and strong record of top-level work for the Democratic Party, put it well,
It's a choice between change or more of the same. It's a choice between Columbia insiders and the grass roots. ...It's the same small party clique that's run the party for years, and they're running the party into the ground.
Noble was one of Obama’s earliest supporters in South Carolina. When Obama disembarked from the plane and first set foot in South Carolina, Noble greeted him at the foot of the ramp and presented him with a Palmetto tie. While accompanying Obama to a fundraising reception held at an ante-bellum home in the Battery, Noble counseled him to include the state motto in his remarks: “While I breathe, I hope.” Smiling up at Noble, Obama responded warmly, “Yeah, I can certainly work with that.”
On election night in November, Noble felt a transcendent surge of energy when Obama delivered his victory speech in Grant Park, and he recalled the beginning of his campaign from, “the front porches of Charleston.” At the end of Obama’s speech, Noble was nearly overcome with the ringing coda that echoed their bond in South Carolina:
This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope.
In the race between Dick Harpootlian and Phil Noble, South Carolina faces a stark contrast: it’s the Old South versus the New South. The election takes place on April 30. For the next few days, South Carolina can steel itself with its motto: While I breathe, I hope.