One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the controversial selection of Robert Caslen as president of the University of South Carolina is the prominent, ongoing role of former S.C. House minority leader (and 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee) James Smith.
The only prominent Democrat to support Caslen, Smith has emerged in the aftermath of this bitterly contested vote as the retired Army general’s most visible aide-de-camp at the university. Along with Caslen’s armed security guard, Smith accompanies him to meetings and has moved into an office in Caslen’s suite at the Osborne administration building.
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Smith’s new position with Caslen (above) – which he has yet to fully define (or explain) – has enraged the new president’s liberal antagonists. More ominously for the new president, it has angered conservative state lawmakers who originally supported Caslen’s nomination by governor Henry McMaster.
McMaster is the Republican incumbent who decisively defeated Smith in the 2018 gubernatorial election. Worth recalling? Both politicians were affiliated with the political empire of veteran GOP strategist Richard Quinn – whose network of fiscally liberal Republicans (and liberal Democrats) effectively governed the state prior to being ensnared in a major corruption scandal two years ago.
We wonder … did the Quinn disciples “put the band back together” to get Caslen elected?
Molly Spearman, another member of the Quinn empire, wound up casting the deciding vote in favor of Caslen’s candidacy – capping a cravenly political process which has resulted in the university starting down serious accreditation issues as well as the likelihood of a lawsuit contesting the legitimacy of the search process.
Spearman previously opposed Caslen’s nomination, one of the reasons it was temporarily scuttled in the spring.
The politicization and dysfunction of the South Carolina presidential search process has been detailed via a trove of text messages and emails released in connection with an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) campaign. This campaign is “ongoing” because the school has failed to promptly and completely turn over all of the documents sought by the media and other interested parties.
What does that have to do with Smith?
Take a look …
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This incriminating text message – which is reportedly part of the latest document dump by embattled trustees – was sent by a yet-to-be-named individual to South Carolina board member Thad Westbrook (a top Caslen supporter).
As you can see, it clearly stated “J Smith wants a big role” – and was allegedly told “deliver the Dems and we can consider.”
Smith did not deliver Democrats, though. Virtually the entire state’s liberal establishment was opposed to Caslen’s selection – as were university faculty, staff, students and the school’s biggest donor.
Despite failing to “deliver,” though, Smith got his “big role” – even after pro-Caslen trustees assured Republican state lawmakers that Smith would have “no role” in the new president’s office.
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Shortly after losing the 2018 election to McMaster, Smith took a nebulous $140,000-a-year (not including benefits) position at the university – a move we slammed as “cronyism run amok.”
His job? “Military outreach.”
Was it just a placeholder, though?
Right around the time Smith was getting his six-figure taxpayer-funded gig, McMaster was installing two new members on the South Carolina board – including one who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his reelection victory (over Smith).
The goal of these appointments? To take control of the South Carolina board, install Caslen and (ostensibly) chart a new ideological direction for the school.
“The Democrats hate us. We took their castle,” McMaster’s chief of staff Trey Walker wrote in a text message to Dan Adams, one of the McMaster donors appointed by the governor to the South Carolina board last December.
Indeed … but like most “red team” versus “blue team” battles, this “hostile takeover” strikes us as less about ideology and more about control of the money spigot.
“We are just the popcorn peddlers in this particular drama … using the entire sad episode as a reminder of the need to privatize higher education in the Palmetto State sooner rather than later,” we wrote recently.
While the politicians bicker and argue over Caslen and his hyper-political selection, our focus will continue to be on soaring tuition increases, skyrocketing debt and out-of-control spending on non-core functions of government (including a spectacularly failed “economic development” scheme).
Oh, and the four-alarm dumpster fire currently enveloping the school’s athletics programs …
WANNA SOUND OFF?
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