RNC delegate spotlight: Sally Atwater

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Each day of the Republican National Convention, The Post and Courier will feature a profile of a different delegate representing the Palmetto State in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND – For years, Sally Atwater had her late husband — Lee Atwater — to thank for her front-row seat to all the major political events in the Republican Party.

This week, she is in the middle of the action in her own stead.

Though she has attended countless Republican National Conventions as the spouse, then widow, of an infamous GOP operative and one-time Republican National Committee chairman, Atwater is now a voting convention delegate for the very first time.

“I knew this was the time,” said Atwater, who won a national delegate slot this year after an unsuccessful 2014 bid to be South Carolina’s superintendent of education. “Even when Lee was chairman, I knew the real power belonged to the delegates. So when I had the opportunity to run (for delegate), I jumped at it. I feel like I’ll be a pretty good delegate. I listen to the people of South Carolina.”

During the last decade of Lee Atwater’s life, Sally Atwater worked in the Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan. After Lee succumbed to cancer in 1991, Sally stayed in Washington, D.C., holding positions at the National Institutes of Health, and Health and Human Service. Now she’s a special education teacher in Walterboro.

Atwater campaigned for former Jeb Bush leading up to the South Carolina GOP primary, citing his work on education and disability rights during his time as Florida governor. But said she was now looking forward to supporting Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

“I actually like him,” Atwater said.

She said she didn’t get a chance to speak with Trump during his swings through the Palmetto State earlier this year but remembered meeting him in the late 1980s when her husband was RNC chairman. It was during a party exclusively for top donors to Republican candidates, a telling detail given some efforts by detractors to characterize Trump as a flip-flopper.

“He mesmerized people,” Atwater recalled of Trump. “He really does have that. He has that same quality — I laugh when I think about it. He reminds me so much of Lee.”

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.