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Charleston GOP chair quits after 11-minute tirade: 'I cannot work with my executive board'

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Kuhn (copy)

John Kuhn resigned as chair of the Charleston County Republican Party on Tuesday night. The former state senator cited differences with his executive committee and other squabbles as the reason for his departure. File/Staff

The chairman of Charleston County's Republican Party abruptly resigned Tuesday night, creating a leadership gap at the top of a prominent South Carolina county that's at the center of a battleground U.S. House race.

The resignation of John Kuhn came just minutes after he opened the party's first meeting of the year with a nearly 11-minute tirade.

Kuhn, a former state senator, said he was resigning immediately as chair and also as a committee member for Charleston's Precinct 2, effectively cutting his ties with the GOP group.

He outlined the reasons for his departure and nearly all of it boiled down to internal squabbles, including one that Kuhn claims happened last week during an executive committee meeting.

"I feel like at this moment that I cannot work with my executive board," Kuhn said, reading from a prepared statement.

In his speech, Kuhn tore into the men sitting to his left and his right at the meeting: Treasurer Cameron Brown and First Vice Chairman Russ Leach.

Kuhn claimed Brown had verbally "attacked" him for about an hour during the party's executive committee meeting and that Leach did not defend him.

"You've not hardly put in any work, comparatively," Kuhn said, turning to Brown. "I have actually had to hire a Republican secretary that is my own law clerk, on my own money, to make the deposits that the treasurer should have been making for the prior three months."

Kuhn said he trusted the clerk because she is "a strong Republican and worked for Trump when she was in college." Then, he turned on Leach.

"You knew that I was getting upset and you did nothing," Kuhn said. "Moreover, Russ you did not stick up for me when I was publicly being attacked by Pete Barnett."

Barnett was one of two Charleston County Republican Party officials who resigned in October.

In Barnett's resignation letter, which circulated in Republican circles and was later published on a right-leaning blog, Barnett wrote that he left partly due to "my own disagreements with the chairman (Kuhn) in terms of his work ethic, level of respect, engagement with the party, and ability to carry out campaign promises."

When Kuhn finished his speech, he grabbed his papers and briefcase, stood up and left.

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Stunned board members called for a 10-minute recess and later went into executive session, forcing many members to process the news while standing in the hallways of North Charleston City Hall.

After the meeting, both Leach and Brown said they did not expect Kuhn's resignation. Leach chalked it up to personality differences. Brown said he appreciated Kuhn's contributions and said the party remains focused on winning back South Carolina's 1st Congressional District.

Joe Bowers, who ran unsuccessfully against Kuhn for chair in April 2019, said he, too, was shocked.

"I talked to him on the phone for 30 minutes earlier today. It was the usual stuff. 'You coming to the meeting? OK see you there.' He didn't say anything about this," Bowers said.

Bowers said he was already worried about the long-term impact of even a short-term leadership gap.

"There's a lot in jeopardy with 2020: Keeping Republican control of County Council and our county legislative delegation, not to mention county courts and, of course, SC-1," he said. "We need someone who knows this county backward and forwards, and with this House race, we have a long way to go and we can't afford to already be behind."

The 1st District spans much of the South Carolina coastline from Charleston south, with boundaries wrapping around parts of Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton and Beaufort counties. The seat is held by Democrat Joe Cunningham. Republicans nationally have made it one of their most important 2020 targets.

But Charleston, the most populous county in the district, has shown some movement to the left in recent years, morphing from red to purple in voting preference. In 2018, the district elected its first Democrat in nearly 40 years when Cunningham defeated Republican Katie Arrington by a narrow 3,982-vote margin.

Arrington won Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton and Beaufort counties. Where she lost was Charleston County — making it a must-win battleground for Republicans this cycle.

State GOP Chairman Drew McKissick said the state party will do what it can to make sure their plans to win back the 1st District seat are not impacted.

"We look forward to continuing to work with our great grassroots leadership team in Charleston County to ensure that there is consensus on leadership that will continue to work with the SCGOP’s Victory program and make sure that Republicans win up and down the ballot come this November," McKissick said in a statement to The Post and Courier.

When the Charleston County GOP's executive session ended, the party took a vote to accept Kuhn's resignation.

No one objected and the meeting continued.

A vote on the future chair of the Charleston County Republican Party is expected at next month's meeting.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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