First things first: I don’t really know James Smith or his wife Kirkland, though I’ve met them both over the years and had pleasant small talk.
I do remember running into Kirkland and their children during the time James was deployed to Afghanistan and expressing my support for his service and their family. The look in her eyes said it all when it comes to that combination of love and worry that military spouses feel when their loved ones are on active duty in a war zone.
Beyond that, my impression was always that James was a solid legislator and Kirkland a fine artist. Indeed, if you’re not aware of her art I urge you to visit her website at kirklandsmith.com. Good stuff.
Of course, James was not only a prominent Democrat in the Legislature for over two decades, he was also the prominent Democrat who took on Gov. Henry McMaster in 2018. And lost. Even with the off-year electorate and Democratic wave around the country, it wasn’t very close.
While part of that was McMaster’s underrated strength with voters (he crushed Gov. Nikki Haley’s hand-picked candidate for Lt. Governor in the 2014 GOP primary and was twice easily elected attorney general), part of it was also Smith’s risk-averse, reward-averse, low-key, low-impact campaign.
Both as an independent political commentator and someone who always liked Smith, I was disappointed in his approach. He ran pretty much as a national Democrat, something that was never going to win in South Carolina. While Joe Cunningham understood that in the First District Congressional race and openly broke with the national Dems on various matters, Smith just didn’t seem to get it.
I wrote this early on during the race: “It’s time for James Smith to decide whether he’s going to run to win or just run to run.” Sadly for his supporters, he took the latter route. His campaign was lackluster, never mounting a serious challenge to Gov. McMaster or even looking like it wanted to.
It was a Democratic establishment campaign, but Smith and his advisors didn’t seem to realize the Democratic establishment had fallen in South Carolina 40 years earlier.
But then came the controversy over the selection of retired Gen. Bob Caslen as the new president of USC. And whether it was inspired by the belated realization that blind loyalty to the Democratic party was not the path to power in South Carolina, or just the gut-level need to step up and defend a brother-in-arms military officer under attack by snowflakes and state senators, James Smith went rogue.
And I say good for him. I like people who can both make up their own minds and are willing to suffer the consequences. Or celebrate the consequences, whichever it may turn out to be.
Things moved quickly after Smith’s high-profile endorsement. Caslen was named president a few days later.
The question now is what happens next. And by next, I mean post-Caslen.
Assuming he survives the slings and arrows of those snowflakes and state senators (and I think he will), the 65-year-old Caslen will likely serve five or six years as president.
Fast forward to 2025, when the search begins for USC’s next president.
And there will sit James Smith, who may well have been Caslen’s right-hand man throughout his presidency.
And his key link to state house politicos, power brokers and pretenders.
And his gatekeeper for all things USC, from academics to athletics to advice and counsel on matters large and small.
Smith will be uniquely positioned to move up to the presidency, bringing both the State House connections that the politicos want and the on-the-job university experience that the academics want (rightfully so, in my view) to the table.
Couple that with Smith being both a USC and USC Law graduate, as well as being pretty much the ideal age for a new university president in 2025 (he’ll be 56, and in position to lead for at least a decade, maybe two).
Is this James Smith’s game plan? I have no idea.
But he might want to think about it.
Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.