Elizabeth Colbert Busch may seem perfectly pleasant in person and be known as “Lulu” to family and friends, but overlook her scrappy side at your own risk.
She doesn’t back away from a fight.
That’s partly why this political newcomer is taking such an ambitious first step — attempting to be the first Democrat in more than three decades to win South Carolina’s 1st District Congressional seat.
She is seen as having a chance, partly because her famous brother, comedian Stephen Colbert, is helping her raise money, and partly because of the baggage carried by her Republican opponent, former Gov. Mark Sanford.
But her greatest advantage might be something else — an inner toughness forged growing up as one of 11 children; as a single mother reeling from a first marriage to a man who ended up on “America’s Most Wanted;” as a woman trying to earn a living on Charleston’s male-dominated waterfront; and as an American walking the streets of lower Manhattan, trying to escape the dust as the World Trade Center towers fell just blocks away.
“I’m pretty thick-skinned,” said Colbert Busch, 58, adding that her decision to run was based in part on the advice from her late father: “Take every legitimate adventure and don’t be afraid.”
Colbert Busch grew up in a large family and realized quickly, “You’re not always going to win.”
She was exposed to politics at an early age. At 6, her mother took her to see Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in his motorcade during a visit to St. Louis.
Shortly after her family moved to Charleston in 1969, her father, Dr. James Colbert, helped find a peaceful settlement to the Medical University of South Carolina’s hospital strike, one of the city’s most tense and volatile moments during the civil rights movement.
Five years later he died in a plane crash in Charlotte, along with two sons, Peter and Paul. She dropped out of school and returned home to live with her mother.
The following year, in the summer of 1975, she got a chance to intern at U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings’ office on Capitol Hill. She didn’t attend many high level meetings; her role was clerical. She was proud to master an early version of the fax machine, despite its smell.
She remembers her time in Washington fondly, partly because of the more cordial, less partisan tone.
“What you see today was not what it was like back then, not at all,” she said. “People talked to each other. They actually discussed things. They came to agreements.
“We’ve got to go back to those days.”
Coping as single mom
She married, had three children and divorced after eight years. She talks little publicly about her first marriage, but has said, “I got a divorce not because I wanted to but because I had to.”
Her first husband appeared on “America’s Most Wanted” in relation to a case about securities fraud.
She returned home again and got a job working at $6 an hour. The experience left her keenly aware of the struggles of working people.
“I got a raise to $6.25 an hour. How do you raise three children on $6.25 an hour?” she said. “Nothing motivates a parent more than putting food on the table.”
She was told she should consider a new College of Charleston program focused on logistics and supply chain and transportation. She was told the program was full, but she managed to get in anyway. She finished at the top of the class.
Still, she struggled as a woman seeking work on the waterfront. She contacted one shipping company several times and never got a call back.
For the following two decades, she had what she calls her “dream job,” working as the sales and marketing director for Orient Overseas Container Line. One of her first actions was to pursue the clients of the company that didn’t return her phone calls — and she succeeded.
“To this day, if I get a phone call from a young person asking for help, I return their phone call,” she said. “It’s a matter of survival.”
‘Got to play hardball’
Some say they want to see more fight from her.
Andy Brack, a journalist and former Democratic 1st District candidate himself, said her best chance will be to harp on Sanford’s being “absent without leave” in 2009, a reference to the former governor’s Argentina trip to visit his mistress, now his fiancee.
“South Carolina doesn’t need more fodder for her brother’s TV show, but if she wants to win, she’s got to play hardball,” Brack said. “Mark Sanford has a string of 12 victories in elective politics, and he knows how to campaign.”
Sanford has been more visible on the campaign trail so far. Colbert Busch’s only public Charleston event this week was a call into her West Ashley campaign office.
Speaking from Greenville on a cellphone switched to speakerphone, Colbert Busch told about a half-dozen volunteers that she would push for equal pay for women.
“Women make only 76 cents on the dollar for a man in South Carolina,” she said, as a few women booed.
“That’s a big ‘Boo!,’ ” Colbert Busch replied. “We’re going to do something about that.”
The call lasted just a few minutes, but Jim Pierson, a Colbert Busch volunteer from James Island, said he thought it was an effective message.
“Women have been turned off of the GOP to a degree,” he said. “I think she will attract more women than Sanford.”
Pushing past fear
One of Colbert Busch’s most recent formative experiences was a meeting in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.
She heard a bang as the first plane crashed into the World Trace Center tower. Her building shook. She looked out the window and saw dozens of people jumping to their deaths as the building burned. Her group stepped outside and could barely see. They walked toward Chelsea Pier, holding onto each other. Every sense was fully alive.
During the hushed trip, she saw a man emerge from a clowd of rubble covered in plaster. She saw another man in Army fatigues standing guard, and she tearfully thanked him.
The experience reinforced the futility of fear, and how difficult situations can be tackled simply by putting one foot in front of the other.
“I saw what this country is — people who are not afraid, people who have courage. It was the true essence of who we are,” she said. “I was so honored to be part of that. I would never give it back.”
Though these experiences have made her tough, she will need to draw on that toughness in the run-up to the May 7 election. The 1st District, which stretches from Berkeley to Beaufort counties, is heavily Republican, going for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama last year by a 3-2 ratio.
When Colbert Busch held a kick-off event this month at an assisted-living center on Johns Island, a dozen elderly residents sipped champagne as they listened to Colbert Busch give a cheerful, brief speech.
She didn’t talk about federal policies or campaign issues. Instead, she just celebrated her primary win, thanked them for inviting her back, and she said she would keep them in her thoughts.
“I’m looking forward to the campaign ahead,” she said. “Keep watching, because it’s going to be a vigorous campaign.”
Later, as she spoke to reporters outside, she declined to criticize Sanford, who had just won the GOP nomination.
“We’re going to focus on the difference between the two campaigns, and there are very big differences,” she said. “What we have in our campaign is the positive approach of what can be, where we are and where we can go.”
Asked if Sanford’s controversial past is something voters should consider, she replied, “We’re going to focus on job creation.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert came to The Alley on Columbus Street in Charleston on Feb. 23 for a fundraiser for his sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch. He will hold other fundraisers for her before the May 7 election.×