Back during his first stint as state Democratic Party chairman, when he was grappling in the mud with Republicans for the title of king of vitriol, hyperbole, obfuscation and exaggeration, Dick Harpootlian used to send me a dozen roses every time I wrote about him.
It wasn’t because the columns were flattering. It was a protest, delivered with an implicitly obscene note.
This column is unlikely to result in roses. This column is about the surprisingly positive beginning to Mr. Harpootlian’s second iteration of himself, this time as a state senator who is taking on some of the back-scratching, business-as-usual practices that make people on both the left and the right hate politicians.
Mr. Harpootlian, a 70-year-old former Richland County Council member and Midlands solicitor, is finishing his first year back in public office since he lost a race for attorney general to Charlie Condon in 1994, in the biggest clash of egos that office has ever seen. And what a first year it has been.
His questions about an effort to secure the Carolina Panthers’ relocation to Rock Hill has triggered what could turn out to be a ground-breaking re-evaluation of the way the state doles out economic incentives. His courtroom-style cross-examination of former Rep. Mike Pitts scuttled the popular former legislator’s effort to log-roll his House seat into a cushy six-figure job running a state agency, and put other legislators on notice that they could expect similar treatment.
He also dressed down a county election commission that’s known for botching elections and being controlled by his fellow Richland County Democrats — resulting in Gov. Henry McMaster firing the whole board the next day. And he launched an attack on the local airport commission — largely but not entirely controlled by Richland Democrats — for squandering money. While those local efforts don’t matter much outside of the Midlands, they could help chip away at the archaic legislative delegation system, which gives the legislators from each county powers that should belong to their county council or the governor.
Although Mr. Harpootlian has always been a disrupter, this isn’t the type of disruption many people feared when he was elected last year to fill the seat vacated by John Courson’s resignation in the wake of the legislative corruption probe.
You’d expect such an articulate and outspoken Democratic senator to win applause among Democrats. Indeed, Marguerite Willis, the Florence attorney who ran for governor last year as a liberal alternative to James Smith, recently tweeted “Harpootlian for Governor, 2022.”
But the applause is playing in stereo.
Well-connected conservatives are going out of their way to tell me how Mr. Harpootlian is transcending party labels and ideological assumptions, about their hopes of finding common ground on a host of anti-corruption issues.
This viewpoint was articulated in a column last month in The Wall Street Journal by Barton Swaim, opinion editor of the now-defunct neocon magazine The Weekly Standard and author of a book about working for then-Gov. Mark Sanford, “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.”
The column, “South Carolina’s Unlikely Crusader for Good Government,” began thusly: “Conservatives in South Carolina aren’t supposed to like Dick Harpootlian, the state’s two-time chairman of the Democratic Party (1998-2003, 2011-13). He is a reliably acerbic critic of any Republican gubernatorial administration, a flashy defense attorney with a talent for winning massive sums in civil litigation cases, and a boldly foul-mouthed liberal provocateur.”
After chronicling Mr. Harpootlian’s Senate crusades, the piece concludes: “I like to think I am not won over easily, especially by trash-talking Democrats, but by the end of our 90-minute conversation I am a reluctant fan of the man I abominated for years. Which leads to the obvious question: Are we really so irreparably divided? Maybe, but once you leave aside the stupid partisan point-scoring and contemplate the things that directly affect ordinary people — bogus government promises, incompetent local officials, basic corruption — there are acres of middle ground.”
At a time when elected officials are more interested in appealing to the most partisan voters than governing, when parents live in fear that their children will marry someone from the “other” political party, I can’t think of anything more important than that for politicians and ordinary citizens to recognize. And if Dick Harpootlian can actually help us get to that point, maybe we ought to send him a few dozen roses. Without the obscene notes.
Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @cindiscoppe.