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How winning a seat on The Citadel Board of Visitors is a lot like an election campaign

Bill Connor

Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor is using election campaign-style tactics to convince alumni to vote him onto The Citadel board. Provided 

Bill Connor has gone through two statewide political races for lieutenant governor and U.S. Senate, but now he's mounting a national campaign.

His latest bid could take him to Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Pensacola, Fla. The Orangeburg attorney has created an election website and posted his platform on Facebook.

Connor is running for a Board of Visitors seat at The Citadel that's chosen by members of the school's alumni association.

"It is a campaign," said Citadel board member Bob Lyon, who was elected by alumni in 2019. "You want to get a message out like a campaign."

Connor is trying to sway some 12,000 members of the alumni association from South Carolina's military college. He said the website and social media campaign were suggestions from previous candidates, including Lyon.

"It makes getting your message out easier," said Connor, the only formally announced candidate for the seat. "You can send links, which is good when half the alumni live out of state." 

A few other major S.C. colleges have trustees chosen by alumni.

The University of South Carolina's board includes a seat for the alumni association president. The Winthrop University alumni association elects two trustees. The College of Charleston alumni association recommends a trustee who is named by the governor.

But The Citadel has the most alumni-chosen board members with three — befitting of one of only two colleges in the state that requires all of their trustees be graduates of the school. (The other is the College of Charleston.) Most Citadel board members are elected by state legislators, like at other S.C. colleges.

As with any other campaign, Citadel Board of Visitors candidates try to win key endorsements.

Lyon said he hosted football tailgates for graduates from his son's class of 2004 to have them recruit more recent alumni for his bid. Citadel board Chairman Fred Price said he reached out to graduates from the 1940s to the present when he ran for an alumni-elected seat in 2006.

"I went after major names that people would recognize — football players, regimental commanders — and asked if I could use their names in letters for a mass mailing," Price said.

Price also visited a number of Citadel alumni association meetings both inside and outside South Carolina.

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That's why Connor plans to travel from the Florida panhandle to the nation's capital, as well as alumni clubs across South Carolina, months before alumni are expected to cast votes.

Connor is touting ways "to cut unnecessary operating costs wherever possible" and having time to serve at the Charleston school since he is retiring from the military after 30 years. (The Army colonel served briefly with England's Prince Harry in Afghanistan in 2007-08. "I was a bit taken aback and a little disappointed," Connor said of the recent news Harry and his wife, Meghan, planned to step away as senior members of the royal family.)

Like other Citadel graduates, Connor wants to balance recent changes with keeping longer-standing traditions at the 178-year-old college that build lifetime bonds.

Connor said he likes the heighten emphasis on academics for first-year students, like his son, who can go through rigorous military-style rites of passage as "knobs." (Connor said he lost 40 pounds and a lot of sleep as a knob in 1986.)

Still, Connor wrote on his website, "Cadets, like my son, have the right to expect their rightful inheritance from The Citadel. The Citadel heritage is both the experience within the culture and the 'brand' of The Citadel."

He would like to see a return to the assigned seats at meals rather than cafeteria-style dining adopted in recent years to prevent overcrowding in the dining hall.

Connor is not a fan of the so-called "sophomore shuffle" slated to start later this year that would move most freshmen to a different company rather than keeping them with the same group of classmates for all four years. The administration sees the change as a way to curb hazing.

"Taken together, we are losing some the heritage that makes the school special," Connor said.

The travel for the alumni-elect board post could cost a couple thousand dollars, Connor estimated.

But that would be much less than the $80,000 he spent out of pocket to run twice for statewide political office. He lost a Republican primary runoff to Ken Ard for lieutenant governor in 2010 and finished sixth in the 2014 GOP primary against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Connor acknowledged that running for the Citadel seat is a "micro-version" of those campaigns.

"I learned to get out early and get my name out there," he said, "and I learned the importance of retail politics. People want to see, are you willing to take that effort."

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