HOW CAMPAIGN CASH IS RUNNING THE FUTURE OF SOUTH CAROLINA’S PORTS INTO THE GROUND
FITSNews – January 4, 2007 - If anybody ever decides to put the term â€œPower Teat Sucklerâ€ into an illustrated Palmetto State Political Dictionary, Bill Sternâ€™s face would be the first thing youâ€™d see.
Come to think of it, thatâ€™s actually not a bad idea for a book.
Stern, the Chairman of the S.C. State Ports Authority Board of Directors has basically made a name for himself moving from one partisan nipple to the next over the past decade, cozying up to Governors David Beasley, Jim Hodges and most recently, Mark Sanford.
The consummate political insider, Sternâ€™s current duties include serving as chairman of Sanfordâ€™s second inauguration, transition task force member to Treasurer-elect Thomas Ravenel and campaign confidant to SCGOP Chairman Katon Dawson â€“ not a bad list of buddies.
So what is Sternâ€™s appeal to these power-players?
Not surprisingly, itâ€™s his ready access to cash.
Stern raises dollars by the hundreds of thousands for politicians, and then ingratiates himself into their inner circles with all the cunning of the Socratic torpedo fish – except the numbness he inflicts on them has nothing to do with virtue and everything to do with advancing his own agendas.
THE DREAM TEAM
Stern is also currently the mastermind behind the State Ports Authorityâ€™s no holds barred campaign to sink public-private partnerships at the Port of Charleston, currently one of only two major U.S. ports (and one of only five in the world) to insist on a â€œtotal state controlâ€ model of terminal operations that has cost our state billions of dollars in new infrastructure.
â€œNo holds barred,â€ you ask?
Considering the formidable talent thatâ€™s been assembled, â€œno holds barredâ€ is probably an understatement. This is a â€œDream Teamâ€ that would make O.J. Simpson blush.
First up, providing the legal counsel for the Ports Authority is Nelson-Mullins, the stateâ€™s largest law firm.
Moving into the area of governmental relations we have Dan Jones and Fred Allen, two of South Carolinaâ€™s priciest contract lobbyists.
Finally, managing the public relations fight are Bob McAlister and Chris Drummond, both former communications directors to South Carolina governors.
And those are just the outside hired guns.
The Ports Authority already has on its staff a full-time lobbyist (Barbara Melvin) and Director of Public Relations (Byron Miller).
Talk about some formidable ammunition.
Of course, the “fight” that this high-paid, high-profile Phalanx claims to be fighting is basically over already.
Public-private partnerships at the proposed Port of Jasper, like the one favored by its County government, are unlikely to ever materialize because the Georgia Department of Transportation owns the land on the South Carolina side of the river where the terminals would be built. To get that land back requires condemnation for public use, and that means public dollars will have to be spent on the facilities erected there.
Simple enough right? You donâ€™t really need an army to make that point, do you?
The bigger point missed by Stern and his high-paid legions, however, is that the requirement to use public funds in Jasper only intensifies the need to leverage private capital in Charleston, where there are no legal restrictions on using private investment.
Simply put, if public funds go toward port expansion in Charleston now, the likelihood that a Port in Jasper County will ever be built in our lifetime diminishes.
Then again wasting money and putting off for another Century what we could do in this one is pretty much par for the course in South Carolina.
Despite numerous statements from Gov. Mark Sanford expressing his support for free market port expansion, Stern and fellow board members Carroll A. â€œTumpyâ€ Campbell and Harry Butler (all three Sanford appointees) have soundly rejected all attempts to meaningfully bring private investment to bear on South Carolinaâ€™s pressing port infrastructure needs.
In fact, they rejected the governor to his face on this point during an emotionally-charged, high-profile private meeting during his first term.
Strangely, despite having the power to remove all three members from the board, Sanford did nothing, choosing instead to placate supporters of free market expansion by promising them that the Stern-Campbell-Butler trio would be â€œtaken care ofâ€ following his successful re-election.
That was 2005. By November 2006, as it turned out, Stern had raised the governor a boatload of money for his campaign.
Now, far from being â€œtaken care of,â€ Stern is actually consulting with the governor on new appointees to the Ports Authority Board.
All this while the governorâ€™s stated position favoring free market expansion supposedly hasnâ€™t changed.
Things got even more interesting when the news broke in early December 2006 that Allen and Jones had been hired as contract lobbyists for the State Ports Authority â€“ a practice Sanford specifically forbade his agencies from engaging in back in 2003 via Executive Order.
Stern defended the hiring, but declined to disclose how much either Allen or Jones was being paid.
And what was the governorâ€™s response?
His spokesman Joel Sawyer said the hiring of Allen and Jones was â€œnot the kind of contract lobbying arrangement we have traditionally opposed.â€
Except for the fact that it actually is. Amazing the kind of political insulation campaign money buys.
Not surprisingly, non-negotiable opponents of contract lobbying like House Majority Leader Jimmy Merrill were outraged. Merrill has, in fact, sent a strongly-worded letter to Sanford encouraging him to get his act together.
We understand that the governor is a big thinker with big ideas. And we respect that. He is also still pushing (albeit a lot less strenuously these days) for a number of things we believe in passionately â€“ things like income tax relief, spending limits and government restructuring.
Those are all important issues â€“ which is why itâ€™s such a shame that on this issue he’s exchanged his core principles (or two of them, anyway) for a wad of campaign cash.