Charleston’s conservative gadfly
John Graham Altman III had one of Charleston’s highest political profiles for years, more due to his ability to readily articulate his conservative viewpoints with a barbed wit than by the offices he held.
Mr. Altman liked to point out that the Charleston County School Board received a prestigious national award for its educational reforms in 1984, when he served as chairman.
But he got the public’s sustained attention when he assumed the role of gadfly on the board, regularly raising questions about educational and spending policies — and in the process, raising the hackles of his opponents.
His memorable description of the district’s administrative headquarters as the “Taj Mahal,” in particular, resonated at a time when many schoolchildren attended classes in trailers.
And his further characterization of the building as the “Calhoun Street Palace” had a special resonance because of the King Street Palace, a structure of similar bulk that long served as a local venue for popular entertainment.
As a school board member, and later as a state legislator, Mr. Altman was entertaining to his allies and maddening to his adversaries.
He was willing to challenge his opponents in the public arena and on talk radio, where he gained a ready audience for his political views, blithely and sharply expressed.
His comments could be over the top, too — he once described schools that routinely failed to make academic progress as “brain dead.” And he airily dismissed a major arts magnet project as the “singin’ and dancin’ school.”
At one point, his fellow school board members even tried to shut him up by passing a policy editorially decried by this newspaper as the “Altman gag rule.”
After 20 years on the school board, Mr. Altman advanced to the state House of Representatives, where he joined the Republican majority that supported cutting state government and taxes.
Though he had his moments in the Legislature, something was lost when he was no longer called upon to maintain his adversarial role as an embattled maverick fighting for the taxpayers of Charleston County. He clearly relished the battle of ideas — and wits.
Indeed, Mr. Altman was the rare political figure who almost always preferred to wage his fights in public than to work behind the scenes to advance his agenda.
His death this week, at 79, leaves the local political arena a more sedate, less interesting place.