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Tags: governor | south carolina | reagan | republicans | Westmoreland

Ex-SC Gov. James Edwards Was True 'Conservative's Conservative'

John Gizzi By Monday, 29 December 2014 06:54 AM EST Current | Bio | Archive

Following the news Friday that former South Carolina Gov. James B. Edwards had died at age 87, perhaps the most unique development that followed was that obituaries did not focus on his accomplishments in office or on his later service as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of energy.

Instead, the resulting tributes to Edwards were almost universally about his election as governor in 1974 — a historic election of high drama that saw Edwards emerge from nowhere to become the Palmetto State’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Even more dramatic was that the Navy veteran and dentist, who had been a state senator for barely two years, emerged triumphant in the so-called "Watergate Year," the worst election in modern times for any Republican.

Like many conservatives of his generation, "Dr. Edwards," as he was known in the Charleston-area, became politically active after reading Barry Goldwater’s "Conscience of a Conservative" in the early 1960s. He volunteered for Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964. Six years later, Edwards was Republican chairman for the 1st U.S. House District at a time that the Republican Party was still in the proverbial "phone booth" in most of the South.

In 1971, Edwards caught the attention of party activists by placing a strong second in a special election for the seat of the late Rep. L. Mendel Rivers, a Democrat. That contest propelled the dentist-politician into a winning race for the state Senate in 1972.

When the governorship of South Carolina was open in 1974, many Republicans sensed a winner in retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland, former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam and Army chief of staff.

Time Magazine and The Washington Post likened Westmoreland to Dwight Eisenhower in the days when he was first mentioned as a presidential candidate. They barely mentioned his little-known primary foe, state Sen. Jim Edwards.

"But Jim came out of the trenches and he and [wife] Ann knew all the party activists," Dave Barron, a volunteer on Edwards’ campaign and later national chairman of the Young Republicans, told this reporter. In a low turnout, Edwards won handily over Westmoreland, in spite of a slicker campaign operation that included a young operative named Lee Atwater. The future Republican National chairman, Atwater wrote his master’s thesis on why Westmoreland lost.

In the fall 1974, Republican nominee Edwards was barely mentioned in national press accounts of the governor's race. All signs pointed to an easy win for Charles "Pug" Ravenel, onetime Harvard football great, investment banker, and magnetic "New South" Democrat already boomed for national politics.

But one month before the election, the state Supreme Court ruled that Ravenel, a former New York resident, had not returned to South Carolina in time to meet the residency requirement for seeking office and was thus stricken from the ballot.

When state Democrats tapped the runner-up for nomination, Rep. William Jennings Bryan Dorn, as their new nominee, a furious Ravenel offered little more than pro-forma support.
With Democrats sweeping offices nationwide, Republican Edwards won the governorship with 50.9 percent of the vote.

Carroll Campbell, Edwards’ top aide and a future South Carolina congressman and governor, recalled "a wonderful experience to be part of putting together a progressive administration that look toward a brighter and better future," wrote Wayne Grimshaw in "Elephants in the Cotton Fields."

Working with a state Legislature that was overwhelmingly Democratic, Gov. Edwards oversaw enactment of curbs on welfare fraud and the requirement of malpractice insurance for physicians.

In 1976, Edwards was one of two Republican governors in the nation to back Ronald Reagan for their party’s nomination over President Gerald Ford (the other was New Hampshire’s Meldrim Thomson). He helped deliver a near-unanimous South Carolina delegation for Reagan at the Kansas City convention, where Ford narrowly secured nomination after winning a battle on a rules change favored by Reagan’s forces.

One of the few South Carolina delegates for Ford, state Rep. Sherry Shealy Martschink, told reporters how family dentist Edwards joked that if she didn’t switch to Ford, he’d start pulling her teeth instead of cleaning them.

Like Sen. Strom Thurmond and quite a few South Carolina Republicans, Edwards backed John Connally for president over Reagan in 1980. Reagan’s easy win in the South Carolina primary finished Connally’s candidacy. But the Californian never held Edwards' split against him and tapped him to be secretary of energy in 1981.

Frustrated at being unable to put the cabinet department out of business as the GOP platform had promised, Edwards resigned in November 1982. For the next 17 years, he was president of the Medical University of South Carolina and helped guide the institution to acclaim in cancer research and treatment.

"Jim Edwards was truly a conservative’s conservative who came from the political trenches to help make Republicans a force in South Carolina," former Rep. John Napier (R-South Carolina) told Newsmax, "and he was a giant force for good in everything he ever did."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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Following the news Friday that former South Carolina Gov. James B. Edwards had died at 87, perhaps the most unique development was that the resulting tributes were almost universally about his election as governor in 1974 — an historic election of high drama.
governor, south carolina, reagan, republicans, Westmoreland
Monday, 29 December 2014 06:54 AM
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