GREENVILLE - Tom Ervin wants to be the next governor of South Carolina. There are more than a couple of problems with that: He basically has no staff, little time, little money and a cadre of political experts who say it simply can't be done.
So why is the long shot in such a good mood?
"Call me Tom," he said before lunch at The Bohemian Cafe, a restaurant down the street from his law office near downtown Greenville. This is a place Ervin, a former judge and now trial attorney and radio station owner, never expected to be. If he makes it onto the ballot as an independent, the choice to cast a vote for Ervin, a reluctant candidate, won't change the race much, experts say. At the very least, he should make it interesting - and there are a few emerging reasons not to write him off.
'Whatever it takes'
The hurdles will be high. No independent has been elected governor in the Palmetto State. The year 1984 was the last Ervin held office, as a House Democrat when South Carolina was a one-party state. When the now 61-year-old left politics to become a judge, he figured it was for good.
Ervin said he approached numerous Republicans to challenge Gov. Nikki Haley, a mostly popular incumbent who has detractors within the party - Ervin included. They probably were too smart to say yes. Haley has everything Ervin does not: name recognition, a sizable - enviable - campaign war chest, and a reputation for creating jobs and improving the economy.
Even one of Haley's staunchest and most vocal critics, conservative activist and Republican donor John Rainey, sees the governor as a likely shoo-in.
"It's about the economy, stupid," said Rainey, using the oft-repeated phrase about what matters in politics. He added: "You'd have to be almost suicidal to run against an incumbent."
But what gives Rainey and others some pause about writing off Tom Ervin is the money he said he's willing to commit. Ervin said he will spend millions from his retirement savings to defeat Haley. No matter what, it could markedly affect the race. "Whatever it takes," Ervin said. "We're determined to get our message out."
Ervin believes he could eke out a victory by revealing what he contends is the real Nikki Haley, who he says is a governor who has failed to lead on key issues and prioritize the state's needs. A few missteps from the GOP wouldn't hurt, either. He paints an unlikely scenario: The four candidates in the race, including Libertarian Steve French and Democrat Vincent Sheheen, splinter the vote. Those dissatisfied with Haley vote for him and he's the most unlikely governor in South Carolina's history.
But that November day is far away, and it's not what had Ervin in a good mood on a recent sunny day in Greenville.
Ervin decided at the last minute - making it official about 36 hours before the filing deadline - that he would run. He stumbled out of the blocks. He first filed to run in the Republican primary, then quickly backed out, saying that the eight weeks before the June primary was not enough time to get his message out.
A few days before he entered, he called Texas-based political consultant John Weaver, best known for his work on Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. Weaver, who is now consulting for Ervin, said he'd never met the candidate but remembered his name because he had tried to recruit him as a backer for McCain. (Ervin backed Mitt Romney in 2008).
"I'm always game for something different," Weaver said. Ervin is campaigning as an "independent Republican." Weaver thinks the independent streak in conservative South Carolinians will warm to a Republican who wants to challenge the establishment. "It's not beyond the realm of possibility for this to happen at all," Weaver said. "Leave it to South Carolina to break new ground in politics."
Weaver doesn't yet know what the roadblocks will be. "It's like asking Lewis and Clark what . they anticipate to be the hardest part of their journey," he said. "It's not been done before."
Ervin said he prayed and thought long and hard about the decision to enter the race after others declined. He knows that his late entry means that his campaign will likely have to be mostly self-funded, as donors shy away from someone viewed as a long shot. He hopes for $5 and $10 donations.
He said he entered the race because of Haley's leadership, or lack thereof, on the Department of Social Services, which has been accused of wrongdoing in child deaths and injuries.
He blames the alleged department mismanagement on Haley, and said he knows they are mishandling child abuse cases. "I used to prosecute those," he said. "I know what the problems are and I know how to fix them. What they have done to those poor kids is just unconscionable. (DSS director) Lillian Koller should have been fired when all this came to light. Instead of doing the responsible thing of getting new leadership at DSS, Gov. Haley has backed her."
Ervin has hit DSS and other controversies during Haley's tenure. He said he will continue to do so and promises to bring more issues about Haley's leadership to light.
Haley's team isn't worried. "Gov. Haley takes every opponent seriously, but we are just as comfortable running against two trial lawyers who support Obamacare and higher taxes as we were when it was just one," said Rob Godfrey, a campaign spokesman. Koller and Haley's team have said that DSS has improved under Koller's leadership. Ervin called the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, "flawed beyond repair" and believes it should be repealed. He said he would support a gas tax dedicated to improving the state's crumbling infrastructure. He thinks the state's individual income tax should be done away with completely; he does not favor other tax increases.
There's a reason that criticism hasn't yet affected Haley in a major way, said Republican strategist Chip Felkel. "It was screwed up long before she ever became governor," Felkel said of DSS. "(Haley) ran as a jobs governor, she can lay claim to jobs."
Political experts said that a few questionable decisions by Republicans have put Ervin in a better position than he might have hoped. The Republican Governor's Association has run advertisements criticizing Democrat Sheheen, a state senator and Camden attorney, for representing clients who abused women. They have prompted widespread outcry from the legal community.
"I've been hanging around electoral politics since the early '50s; that's one of the toughest negative ads I've ever seen," said Neil Thigpen, a retired politics professor and well-known South Carolina politics watcher.
Felkel said it might hurt Haley. "Those are people (lawyers) who have the wherewithal to write checks," he said. "I don't understand the timing of those ads and I just wonder if it's not creating some discontent with people who would be inclined to go with the winner."
Ervin said he plans to hire staff to ensure he gets the required 10,000 signatures before the July 15 deadline. For now, his primary campaign contact other than himself is also the co-anchor and sales manager of a radio station he recently bought. He said he doesn't have handlers and won't need them. He started in journalism - his mother was a well-known newspaper reporter for years around his hometown in Anderson County - and he is happy to write his own press releases. No spokesman needed, either. He hands out his cellphone number to reporters.
And on a recent Thursday, the unlikely, reluctant, long shot candidate got some good news in the form of a letter from the state GOP. The party said he cannot refer to himself as a Republican in campaign advertising since he dropped out of the GOP primary. The issue fired up Ervin and led to statewide media coverage.
The day after, the story was still percolating. Ervin bounded around his office getting ready for a second day of interviews on the issue. Weaver, his political consultant, called the GOP move "Christmas come early" for the campaign because it gave them wide media exposure and he thinks showed the candidate was being taken seriously.
Ervin grabbed his glasses as he worried about being able to read his statement. When he was in his 30s, he was the youngest person ever appointed to the bench in South Carolina. He thought back to the first time he ran for the S.C. House at the age of 28. No glasses necessary then.
"I'm still young at heart," he chuckled.
Outside stood the good news: all three Greenville television networks, a statewide radio network and a newspaper reporter came to the news conference he had called.
TV reporters began to place microphones on his shirt as he glanced over his statement. With no aide to hand a stack of papers interfering with the microphone process, he tossed them down in a flower pot next to him.
"Beautiful day, isn't it?" he said.