Size matters. While not always decisive, this truism comes to mind whenever I recall a drunken encounter I had with S.C. senator Harvey Peeler in early 2003 at a restaurant known as ‘Meritage’ – located at the corner of Lady and Gadsden streets in the Vista area of Columbia, South Carolina.
My encounter (which I probably should have saved for my book) began at the urinal trough in the men’s room at Meritage …
At the time of our encounter, Peeler – now one of the two most powerful politicians in the state – was a middle tier “Republican” member of the S.C. Senate. I was in my third year as spokesman to then-governor Mark Sanford.
As I pulled up to the bank of urinals, Peeler and another Upstate state senator were lamenting the outcome of the previous year’s gubernatorial election – in which Sanford soundly defeated Peeler’s brother, lieutenant governor Bob Peeler, in the Republican primary en route to vanquishing incumbent governor Jim Hodges in the 2002 general election.
“I sho’ wish we had gotten yo’ brother in the governor’s office,” the senator told Peeler as the two relieved themselves.
“We got close,” Peeler responded, mid-stream. “We got close.”
Wait … close? Sanford beat Peeler by more than twenty percentage points.
As regular readers of this news outlet are well aware, I find it difficult (if not impossible) to hold my tongue in certain situations. Especially in the face of demonstrably inaccurate statements. Two decades ago – still in the throes of alcoholism and having consumed copious quantities of brown liquor on the evening in question – my mouth had an even more pronounced predilection for preceding me into a room.
So I fired back …
“Close?” I responded to Peeler. “We beat your brother’s ass by twenty points.”
After a final jiggle of the lizard, I flushed the commode and left Peeler and his colleague to ponder the less-than-genteel fact-check I had just dropped on them.
Peeler didn’t ponder for very long …
Presumably apprised by his colleague as to my identity as a Sanford staffer, the lawmaker from Gaffney, S.C. – who had also consumed copious quantities of alcohol evening – decided to introduce himself in his “own particular idiom.”
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Grabbing my arm, he jerked me around in the middle of the restaurant – initiating one of those moments where everyone in the establishment falls silent and looks on as the proverbial shit is about to hit the fan.
“I don’t know if you know who I am,” Peeler said, still gripping my right bicep. “I’m Harvey Peeler. I’m different.”
Wait … different?
I remembered thinking at the time, what in the hell does this guy mean, “different?”
I responded by telling Peeler I didn’t think he was “different” but more likely inbred, which was basically an invitation for him to administer what I have no doubt would have been one of the more savage ass-whippings of my life (one which I clearly had coming).
Peeler stands 6-foot-5, people. And he’s a thick 6-foot-5, too. Broad shoulders. Fit torso. Long wingspan. Were he in possession of even a rudimentary understanding of the basic principles of pugilism, I was a dead man.
“I thought you were going to die that night,” one former Senate staffer told me later. “I still don’t know why he didn’t kill you.”
Many of Peeler’s current and former colleagues still wish he had …
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At one point during our exchange, Peeler predicted precisely such an outcome – to which my only rejoinder was that he would “know he had been in a fight” the next morning. Pure fluff and bluster, people. Pure fluff and bluster. The guy would have mopped the floor with me.
Following some serious chest-puffery and dramatic circling, Peeler and I were eventually separated from one another – and somehow we emerged from the exchange as somewhat tolerable acquaintances. I wouldn’t say we are necessarily friends, but I think the incident somehow created a camaraderie between the two of us.
In the intervening years, I have been a tough but respectful critic of Peeler – who has had a few similar scrapes with critics. I plan on maintaining that “tough but fair” approach as the veteran lawmaker prepares to engage on what is arguably the most important issue facing South Carolina right now: Tax relief.
Given his newly minted status as Senate finance committee chairman, no one in the upper chamber has more influence over policy than Peeler. And sources close to the legislative leader say he is looking to “make his mark” after ascending to this post following the death of fiscal liberal Hugh Leatherman, who reflexively opposed tax relief.
As I noted in a column last month, governor Henry McMaster has unveiled an utterly impotent plan to return $177 million (out of what could be a $36 billion budget) to taxpayers this years. Meanwhile, Democrats are moving forward with their own tax cut proposal under the leadership of state representative Spencer Wetmore.
Democrats have yet to quantify their proposal, but they did beat the GOP to the punch in suggesting it …
How will Peeler respond?
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Sources familiar with his thinking tell us he is mulling a “massive” tax cut, although again … this is where size matters. Peeler’s definition of “massive” may not be the same as, say, John Warren’s. Warren, of course, is the Upstate businessman who has been pushing lawmakers to adopt tax relief – and whose political organization has been heavily involved in recruiting and supporting challengers to fiscally liberal “Republican” incumbents.
Frankly, I believe anything short of an immediate two percentage point reduction in the state’s onerously high top marginal rate is going to be insufficient in light of the massive tax cut North Carolina is currently implementing.
South Carolina has a lot of ground to make up, and it is going to take more than half-measures to get the state into a competitive position that will raise income levels and lift our anemic employment indicators.
If Peeler truly wishes to “make his mark,” then his tax relief plan must aim high … and he must deliver the votes in support of it.
Unfortunately, we are now more than a month into the legislative session with no plan in place … and no indication that the fiscally liberal GOP House is coordinating with Peeler on getting something passed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including that Chicago Blackhawks’ lid pictured above).
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