Three years after guilty plea, Ken Ard at ease as talk-show host

Ard

FLORENCE — FOX radio news blares the latest on Obamacare and terrorism, teases a local TV station and introduces the 7 a.m. spot’s conservative host. To the uninitiated scanning by 95.3 FM in and around Florence, they’re in for a surprise.

Former lieutenant governor Ken Ard, whose name once punctuated sentences containing the words “ethics” and “reform,” now has a different kind of gig, dishing out politics at a machine-gun pace on “Good Morning Pee Dee.”

There is wonk, there is substance but most of all there are surprises to keep the FOX devotee shaking her head, chuckling and wanting more:

On Sarah Palin: “She’s crazy as a bat. And she ain’t as pretty as she used to be.”

On Dick Cheney: “Somebody lock Dick Cheney up and don’t let him talk about a war.”

On Hillary Clinton: “Hillary has a distinct political advantage.”

Ard, who was forced to resign as lieutenant governor after a guilty plea to campaign finance charges in 2012, is a libertarian-leaning conservative with a mix of other strains of thought who’s not afraid to say whatever comes to his mind. More often than not, it’s a trifecta of informative, entertaining and funny. He prepares for the show by looking through the regular news suspects, but says his primary sources these days are CBS Sports and ESPN. Even when he was a politician, he said, he was never much into politics.

Whatever the formula, it’s a potent elixir. Now a little more than two years in, the show has grown from one to two hours, commercial breaks are getting longer (too long, some think) and Ard hears about the show a lot more around town. The Miller Communications program doesn’t subscribe to rating services, but by every other measure, Ard’s mix of Republican populism and cheeky banter has drawn a crowd.

Ard said he doesn’t believe in talking about vindication. He owns up to what he did and paid his penance. He laughs off a question about whether this is part of a master plan for redemption in the public eye.

Believe him. Or not. He doesn’t care what other people think.

“We don’t take ourselves too serious,” Ard said after a recent Friday show. “What you hear is who I am, exactly who I am. I don’t make any bones, I don’t make any apologies. It’s kind of the way I see the world.”

It’s not a kind of success most would have expected after the events of March 2012. Ard, who had run for statewide office as a county councilman who outworked better-known candidates in the 2010 primary and election, stood before a judge, choked back tears and was sentenced for multiple campaign finance crimes. He had concocted a scheme to funnel his own money to friends and other “donors” who then put Ard’s own money back into his campaign.

It allowed him to appear as though he had a groundswell of support from a large donor base.

People got suspicious when Ard started to spend his campaign money on personal stuff that didn’t have much to do with being lieutenant governor: buying his family clothes, iPads, football tickets and billing his campaign during vacations. The (Columbia) Free Times unearthed it and the rest is history.

Ard said at the time he was simply trying to get some of his money back.

“Those mistakes are something I’ll live with forever,” he told the court, according to the Free Times. One woman, a prosecutor said, would meet others in a parking lot with a bag full of cash that totaled up to $20,000.

A witness said it felt more like a drug transaction than campaigning.

About five months after pleading guilty, a friend came to the former lieutenant governor with an opportunity: an opening for a radio show host. Ard was more concerned with getting his business back on track. An entrepreneur, Ard has been involved with different ventures, most recently development.

He also didn’t have much appetite for being back in what had been a harsh, unforgiving public glare.

As he put it, he’d still go to church but he wanted to sit in the back row for awhile.

“The big (issue) is your family,” Ard said. “When you’re going through a political (expletive)-storm, your family doesn’t understand it and they struggle with it and it hurts. It still hurts. Because you care about them. And you know you’re responsible for it. My wife or (three) kids didn’t ask for any of this. I did this and they’ve had to deal with it and that’s incredibly unfair to them. And if you’re a man and worth anything, you take that responsibility seriously.”

Ard was 40 when he cast his first vote, for himself. The first time he saw a session of the South Carolina Senate was when he led it as lieutenant governor. His first time in a courtroom, he pleaded guilty to a crime.

Ard is the first to admit that his greatest strength as a candidate was his biggest weakness as an office-holder. Ard doesn’t make notes or deliver speeches. Win or lose, he prizes authenticity and doesn’t try to hide his roots or his thick Pamplico dialect. His campaign strategy is to back-slap, schmooze and outwork the other guy.

Ard, as they say, was a pure natural out on the hustings. He’s also not afraid to say that he contradicts himself and doesn’t stay consistent. The unabashed conservative is an equally unabashed Bruce Springsteen fan. Another thing you won’t expect to hear on conservative talk radio: “The Springsteen side of me says we have a moral obligation to one another to make sure people are not hungry, homeless; to take care of the needy,” Ard said.

The son of a self-made businessman from the no-stoplight town of Pamplico in Florence County, Ard figured if he could run a business, he could run a campaign. It was the same can-do attitude and story — the son of a man who had started a successful manufacturing business — that had vaulted him from virtual unknown to party leader. Key Republicans liked his no-frills style and pro-economic development message.

At points, Ard’s campaign was as simple as the country boy running it.

“The guys who should really be embarrassed are the guys that we beat,” Ard says, laughing, reflecting on the early days of his campaign when he was a lesser-known in the Republican primary. “Early on, man, we were amateur hour at the opera. We were Keystone Cops. And it was me directing it.”

Ard remembers being handed a list of names. Campaigns are expensive, he was told, so get started. Ard had run his campaign as someone who hoped to get government out of the way when it came to economic development, to let the free enterprise market flourish in South Carolina.

He didn’t like asking for money. So Ard came up with a pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, free-market solution to his fundraising problem. Funnel his own money to donors.

“In my self-justifying way (I said) … ‘That’s my money; I can do with my money what I want to,’ ” Ard said. “That’s a terrible, terrible way to think and that was wrong. Because you can’t do that. But it was the only thing I knew to do. I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. And that’s absolutely 100 percent my fault.”

He said there is no part of him that believes in self-loathing. But he worried about his three children and wife. And he wondered whether anyone would return his calls on business deals. Could he make a living?

His supporters want him back in the political ring. Eddie Floyd, a physician and well-known Republican financier who was Ard’s earliest big supporter, said he partly blames himself for what went wrong in 2012.

He had pushed Ard to run after the Republican showed ability on the Florence County Council.

“I should have insisted at that time he get somebody that would manage the campaign and keep all the finances straight,” Floyd said. “That’s where he got in trouble. I am kicking myself a little bit. I gave him advice to get into the lieutenant governor’s race but I didn’t give him stronger advice and financial management.”

On Friday, Ard’s radio show features a popular political roundtable held live in a booth at Victors Bistro in downtown Florence. The regular panelists are Gavin Jackson, a reporter at the Florence Morning News; Neal Thigpen, a right-leaning retired political science professor; and Rod Jernigan, a lawyer who plays the panel’s liberal foil.

They say the segment is Ard at his best. “He was born for this sort of roundtable,” Thigpen said.

The segment has a continual roar of laughter in between subjects that range from the inane to impressions of state politicians (Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. John Courson have much-imitated dialects).

Ard’s past is the spoken-of elephant. In one segment relating to campaign finance, Ard said: “Who am I to talk about campaign finance?”

In the wake of his political downfall, Ard said it might have bothered him more if politics were his end-all, be-all. He said lieutenant governor was what he did, not who he is.

His friends still continue to urge him to get involved. “It was stupid stuff,” said Jernigan, a friend. “But it wasn’t criminal. It was stupid.”

He adds: “If Mark Sanford can get elected to Congress?”

Ard isn’t interested in returning to politics at the moment. Maybe someday, he says. Besides, there are more important things, and that’s not the sort of vindication he needs.

“Even in my darkest days, man, even when I knew that I’ve done something I shouldn’t have done and I had to be held responsible, I was always comfortable with who I was.”