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The Road to Nowhere

One of my favorite well-worn political promises is when a candidate announces that they will “run government like a business.” Sounds good, carries meaning to the voter, and rarely happens. Why? A business is composed of people with a shared set of goals working together to accomplish them. Government is composed of competing interests and power bases that are not upended easily. Unlike the CEO of a business, a governor needs the support of a legislative body with its own agenda. The Founders designed our system of government to be rife with conflict to prevent a concentration of unchecked power. Pick any state capital in the country, and this debate is alive and well. In every case, it is a tug of war over power: working toward or away from a balance between the two branches.

State governments are designed on one of two models: tradition or crisis. In South Carolina, our brand is crisis. From its beginning, South Carolina’s government was premised on a diffused Executive Branch. A myriad of separately elected officers, boards, and commissions managed small parts of government. South Carolina established the cabinet form of government in 1994, the final year of Governor Carroll Campbell’s administration. The impetus for this reform: an FBI corruption probe known as “Operation Lost Trust” where scores of lawmakers, lobbyists and others were convicted of taking bribes for appointments and other political favors. When Mark Sanford took office in 2003, there were nine constitutional officers, 200 boards and commissions, and 13 cabinet agencies. By the time he left office, three more agencies would be added to the Cabinet, each one born out of a crisis that finally forced change. One of those, the Department of Transportation, would be partially reformed. Given its past, it was unbelievable to even see some change.

1929 Bond bill signing

The signing of the 1929 Highway Bond Bill

The battle over the Department of Transportation has gone on since the creation of the Highway Department in 1929. There are two critical issues: control of the agency and the equitable distribution of funds around the state. The first attempt by a governor to reform the agency embraced both issues and included an armed takeover of the agency. Ironically, this move not only failed, but it set back Executive Branch power for six decades.

South Carolina’s New Dealer

Johnston and Patterson

Olin Johnston with his daughter and future Congressman, Liz Patterson

In 1934, Olin D. Johnston was elected governor on the “New Deal” platform of Franklin Roosevelt. Johnston was originally from Honea Path, SC, in Anderson County, dotted with textile mills like much of South Carolina’s Upstate region. The greatest concentration of South Carolina’s working class claimed the Upstate as home. As governor, Johnston set out to be the working man’s hero, but like many before and after him, he met head on with the “legislative state.”

Johnston served in the South Carolina House of Representatives for three terms. While in the legislature, Johnston developed an agenda to improve the standard of living for his neighbors in the Upstate. In Columbia, he encountered the influence of the “rings” – that era’s equivalent to today’s “swamp.”  Johnston first ran for governor in 1930, but lost narrowly in the Democratic primary, which in those days was the General Election. He ran again in 1934, defeating former South Carolina Governor and U.S. Senator Coleman Blease to secure the Democratic nomination. His margin of victory was large enough for him to believe he had a mandate coming to Columbia.

Johnston Button

When Johnston took office, he declared an end to the “ring rule” of South Carolina and
promised reforms. By the end of his term, he would claim as successes the creation of a rural electrification process, pushed for the first workers’ compensation act, creation of the South Carolina Ports Authority, and the state’s first Department of Labor. While those initiatives had broad support around the state, his efforts to help the textile workers from the Upstate met with stiffer resistance, particularly in the Senate.

The Highway Ring

Johnston knew he needed more leverage in the form of patronage to build a lasting legacy. The “highway ring” as he called it had to be broken so he could win key votes in the legislature. Given the relative weakness of the Governor’s Office and the enormous size of that agency – 3,000 employees around the state – it was his best bet. Upon taking office, Johnston demanded the resignation of the Highway Department commissioners appointed by the previous governor. They refused. He attempted to forcibly remove them from office, but the Supreme Court, elected by the General Assembly, refused him. He pushed reform in the legislature, but the commissioners, led by Chief Commissioner Ben Sawyer, lobbied to stop Johnston from gaining more control. Out of options, Johnston made one last desperate effort to change the balance of power.

A State of Emergency

Johnston Columbia Record
In October 1935, Governor Johnston declared a state of emergency to stop “a state of insurrection” within the Highway Department. Johnston’s logic was that governors had used the National Guard to impose order during strikes in the mills. Surely the same defiance in government could be met with the same brute force. So, a unit from Orangeburg, SC was dispatched to take over the Highway Department, sealing off the building and posting two machine gun nests to ensure order. The commissioners were barred from the building, and Johnston’s appointees were installed.

Johnston’s opponents cast him as a dictator by trying to take control with the barrel of a gun. A legal battle ensued, while Johnston took his case to the people, casting it as a battle between the elites and the working man. While legislative leaders condemned him, thousands of mill workers wrote letters, appearing at rallies and lobbying legislators to back Johnston’s play for the Highway Department. He was “their guy,” and he should be running the state, not those blue-bloods from Charleston. The simple effort to balance power in South Carolina exposed the sharp regional and socio-economic divides of the state.

Johnston fared better in the court of public opinion than in the Supreme Court. In December, the court ruled that Johnston overstepped his authority and had to withdraw the National Guard. As a result of that ruling, there is a law restricting the governor’s state of emergency powers that remains in effect to this day. Johnston refused to remove the soldiers without assurances that he would get his reforms. A stalemate played out until a compromise of sorts was arranged, creating a supervisory board until a permanent solution could be enacted.

The Return of the Ring

Johnston Greenwood Index

The following January, the legislature met and considered reforms. Even pro-Johnston legislators had lost faith after the armed confrontation, and in the end, the legislature passed what was known as the “Triple Road Bill,” stripping away any power the Governor had over the Highway Department. His support had weakened so much that he could not muster enough votes to sustain his veto.

Johnston did what any governor would do, take the fight to the voters. If the members of the legislature were going to defy the will of his mandate, they should be returned from whence they came. He recruited candidates to run for office and campaigned around the state. Supporters wrote to demand the identities of those who betrayed him, and Johnston responded to each one with a list. In the 1936 election, a dozen House and three Senate pro-Johnston candidates were elected, improving his outlook for the last two years of his term.

At the beginning of 1937, Johnston’s handpicked candidate for Speaker, L.C. Wannamaker, took on Sol Blatt of Barnwell County, the preferred candidate of the “Establishment.” Given the electoral successes in 1936, observers believed the race would be close, but the influence of the “highway ring,” the conservative senators, and the lasting effects of the armed showdown, most of Johnston’s allies to support Blatt. In the end, Blatt was elected Speaker by a vote of 74 to 8, making the governor the unifying enemy among even the most strained legislative factions. The governor as a unifying force for the South Carolina General Assembly has become a familiar theme many times since then.

With a clear defeat in hand and a fully unified legislative state, the General Assembly proceeded to strip the weak governor of even more power – from budget authority to appointment powers and more. Little would change until “Lost Trust” brought change. Even then, the idea of reforming the Highway Department, now known as the South Carolina Department of Transportation, was considered unthinkable.

Seven Decades Later…

To understand the significance of reforming the agency, it’s important to understand the far-reaching political implications in South Carolina history. In 2007, control over the South Carolina Department of Transportation shifted slightly back toward the governor after a study of mismanagement and waste were made public. The hero of that story is not an elected official, but an appointee with a business background and a willingness to dig deep. The battle was never supposed to go public, but when it did, all hell broke loose. More on that in the next post.

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