Former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Nick Theodore has a new book chronicling his decades in the political limelight and suggested his 1994 gubernatorial campaign might have been doomed from a choice he made a few years earlier -and from a tragic Upstate murder.
Theodore's "Trials and Triumphs: South Carolina's Evolution 1962-2014," includes a chapter on his narrow loss to Republican gubernatorial hopeful David Beasley, a loss notable in part because Theodore lost in the Upstate, even though Greenville was his hometown.
"There may have been an unusual reason," he writes, noting the infamous Susan Smith saga played out in the two weeks before Election Day.
Smith, a Union County mother, claimed a black man hijacked her car with her two young children inside, but she eventually confessed to letting the car, with her children, roll into a lake near her home.
"Coverage of that tragic event had understandably captured the media's attention and had occupied considerable time," he said. "It had also diverted the attention of many people from the climax of the political campaigns."
However, Theodore also noted his loss came during a national Republican wave, a backlash to Democratic President Bill Clinton's first two years in office.
Theodore's book recounts an earlier meeting he had with Republican leader Barry Wynn a few years earlier. Wynn and an unnamed GOP official tried to convince Theodore to change parties before his 1994 gubernatorial bid - a change that would have allowed Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell to resign and run against Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings. Theodore called the offer "enticing," but he said it didn't sit well in his gut.
"In the years since, I have often thought of how a different response could have affected South Carolina's political scene - as well as the lives of those involved - for years to come," he wrote, "but I have never questioned my response."
Theodore, 85, said he felt it was important to write the book to offer his perspective on a half-century of the state's history, one that saw dramatic economic, educational and political shifts.
Theodore said he never felt politically handicapped in South Carolina because of his family's Greek heritage. "Initially, in 1962, I would hear certain comments on the campaign trail," he said, "but once elected, all of that went away."
The book, published by Faith Printing Co. of Taylors, talks little of Beasley's four years as governor, but Theodore noted that had he won, he would have pushed for an education lottery much like Beasley's successor, Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges, did.
Theodore remains the only politician to ever defeat Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who narrowly lost the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial runoff race to Theodore, his former House colleague.
"I always had great respect for him. I hope it was the other way around, too," Theodore said of Riley. "Unfortunately, when you get into a campaign, it's like two guys trying to date the same girl. They get into it."
Since leaving politics, Theodore has watched South Carolina Democrats go from a period of total dominance to becoming a minority party that mainly holds just a few safe legislative seats.
"I don't think it's good for either party to be so overwhelmingly in charge," he said, "but that's something the voters make a determination on."
Theodore said he is more concerned about the near constant political campaigning and legal fights in Columbia.
"We have difficulty getting out of the mode of campaigning," he said. "When you are trying to run government by the weather vane, there will always be poor results. ... These lawsuits and accusations and things of that type are certainly not boding well from the standpoint of quality of leadership."
Theodore, who served as a Democrat under Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell, was not among those who voted two years ago not to elect a lieutenant governor directly but to have the governor and lieutenant governor run on the same ticket beginning in 2018.
"I feel we've diluted government representation to some degree," he said. "We'll survive it, but I was disappointed to see it pass."
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