The best governor in America - and you've never heard of him.
The needy have found some unusual sanctuaries recently--USA for Africa, Hands Across America--but none more peculiar than South Carolina, one of the most politically conservative states in the country: the state that fired the first shot in the Civil War, the state where a judge recently sentenced a rapist to castration, the state that historian C. Vann Woodward called the "historic firebrand of violent extremism,' the state whose chief justice is nicknamed "Bubba.'
In South Carolina, social issues such as education and health care have found an unlikely welcoming committee of business executives, community leaders, chambers of commerce, and even the state's conservative voters. In 1984, this coalition convinced the state legislature to raise taxes to fund a $213 million overhaul of its backward public school system. In 1985, a similar coalition pressured the legislature to allow an additional 42,000 of the state's poor onto the welfare rolls and to create a $15 million program to pay for the health care of those who can't afford insurance but make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.
Ask anyone around South Carolina who's really responsible for the change, and they'll tell you it's the Democratic governor, Dick Riley. Plagued in his twenties by a degenerative bone disease, Riley, now 53, was left with a fused spine that keeps him forever leaning forward as if he were about to fall. Although he is said to play a wicked hand of poker, he is a straight arrow out of a Frank Capra movie. In his nasal voice, he affectionately calls everyone he meets "Bud.'
A lawyer from Greenville, the governor is no cunning hick. Nor is he Huey Long. At a time when many governors resemble Phil Donahue, Riley is refreshingly dull. His speeches are filled with facts, goals, and timetables and topped with a little poetry, such as the last couplet from Robert Frost's "The Road Less Traveled.' He is Pat Caddell's worst nightmare.
His talents, both friends and enemies agree, are his unusual honesty and his tenacity; he is open but tough. Riley is not an arm twister. He tweaks people's consciences. He talks principle. And when he wants an issue to go his way badly enough, he gleefully wades into the swamp at which so many politicians balk: the voters.
As slick as cornbread
In 1984, the issue Riley badly wanted to have go his way was education reform. A year earlier, the legislature had voted down a reform package. So Riley reconsidered his approach and came up with a textbook strategy for how to pass progressive legislation in conservative times.
Armed with polls showing that South Carolinians were willing to pay higher taxes for education reform, Riley went to the state's top businessmen for support. He appealed to their pocketbooks: unskilled, often illiterate laborers are bad for commerce, the governor told them, and they scare away new business. After he found nearly three dozen business leaders who agreed with him, Riley put them on a commission. He asked them to come up with ideas, while a counterpart "technical' commission--mostly educators--worked out details. Some of those details required horse trading. For example, Riley wanted a merit pay system for teachers. The idea's natural enemies were the state teachers unions, the South Carolina Education Association (SCEA), and the Palmetto State Teachers Association. To gain their support, Riley knew he would have to offer salary increases, but they were opposed by the business community. Riley hammered out a compromise. In exchange for union support of merit pay, Riley got the business community to endorse a 16 percent pay raise that would bring the traditionally low South Carolina teachers' salaries in line with the regional average.
By the fall of 1983, the Education Improvement Act (EIA) was on paper but headed for the House, where anything associated with a tax increase faced immediate defeat. Even with the business community on Riley's side, only 13 of the 124 House members supported him. So Riley took his case to the voters, mounting an election campaign with EIA as the sole candidate. His staff mailed out thousands of copies of the plan and sent do-it-yourself letters-to-the-editor kits to the voters. The staff also set up a toll-free number so citizens could call in their complaints and ideas, and phone banks so constitutents could harass their representatives and senators. Supporters contributed $100,000 to pay for EIA ads; soon televisions in homes across the state were filled with images of pregnant mothers, bluecollar workers, and pin-striped executives confessing they feared for their children unless the state improved the education system.
In one three-week stretch that fall, Riley, the father of four, pushed his reform package in more than 100 speeches. At seven rallies in high school auditoriums around the state, Riley told 13,000 South Carolinians the ugly numbers: one-third of South Carolina's students couldn't pass the state's basic skills test; South Carolina ranked 49th out of the 50 states in spending per pupil; most South Carolina prisoners and unemployed were illiterate. "When you're dead and gone, what do you want to leave your children?' Riley asked at the end of one of his speeches, stirring the crowd with his home-baked cornbread rhetoric. "I say to you, as far as Dick Riley is concerned, I'd rather leave my children and their children the possibility of a quality education than the biggest house in South Carolina.'
Riley's political maneuverings were as sophisticated as his rhetoric was homey. He persuaded the General Assembly to consider EIA section by section, instead of trying to swallow the entire $213 million plan at once. He got legislators to agree to separate on the substance of the plan from that on its funding. If the plan were approved first, Riley figured, it would be easier to convince the legislators to raise taxes. "There was a big battle on the floor of the House,' says Dwight Drake, a former legislative aide to Riley. "But we had the telephone and letter operation. The people would call their legislators and give them hell. One by one we picked them off . . .. By the end, some legislators were promising to vote yes if only we'd stop the phone calls.'
The General Assembly then approved a 25 percent sales tax increase to cover, among other things, $60 million in teacher pay raises, a $58 million building program, and a $60 million remedial system aimed at steering potential dropouts toward graduation. Three merit-pay plans are now being tested in nine of the state's 92 school districts. The "campus model' plan measures overall school progress--grades, graduation rates, reading scores--and awards all teachers if there is improvement. The "bonus model' rewards individual teachers with a $3,000 bonus, based on a personal evaluation that looks at teaching skills and the extent to which the teacher has taken on additional responsibilities, such as revising curriculum and helping beginning teachers. They also set up a "career ladder' model that is similar to the "bonus model' except that deserving teachers can receive from $1,000 to $3,000 in bonuses. A statewide advisory committee of teachers, administrators, parents, and businessmen is working to fine-tune the plans and implement one or more of them in 25 school districts, affecting one-third of the state's teachers. All teachers in South Carolina will be included in a merit pay plan by 1988.
The EIA package also gave cash bonuses to schools deemed most improved and set up a probation system for substandard schools. If they don't improve, the governor can intervene, with full powers to fire personnel.
In the two years since EIA has passed, state officials have been fielding about a dozen phone calls each month from educators around the country asking for advice. A RAND Corporation study pronounced EIA "the most comprehensive single piece of legislation' improving education to come out of any state.
General Sherman's canons
The progressive reforms Riley has pushed through can be traced to his New Deal roots. He comes from a family of politicians sympathetic to the New Deal and tied to the Roosevelt administration. South Carolinian Jimmy Byrne, Roosevelt's close aide and one-time secretary of state, appointed Riley's father assistant U.S. attorney.
At the same time, however, the governor is a fiscal conservative, not only because he works for a tight-fisted state but because that's his per sonal practice. Riley sold the governor's stretch limousine and bought a Pontiac. He writes a $1,000 check to the state each year to cover personal calls made on state telephones. He saves money on the mansion staff by using 13 prison inmates to work on the grounds and clean.
Before 1980, governors did not really control the 147 agencies on which most executive responsibilities rested. Members of the agency boards are usually appointed by the governor to staggered terms, so it invariably took a governor's entire term to get a team in place. In 1980, Riley convinced both the voters and the General Assembly to amend South Carolina's constitution to allow the governor to be reelected for a second term. Riley won and was thus in a position to move the agencies toward his policy objectives. Moreover, he created umbrella committees, such as the Children's Coordinating Council and the Coordinating Council for Economic Development, to bring together directors of related agencies to synchronize their efforts.
Throughout most of South Carolina's history, political power coalesced in the hands of a few titans in the General Assembly. Legislative giants like Marion Gressette, Edgar Brown, and Sol Blatt ran the state with an obstinacy exceeded only by their longevity. When Blatt died in May, he had the distinction of having served longer than any legislator in American history. Blatt first ran for office when Herbert Hoover was president, and he served for 53 years, 33 of them as House speaker.
When Ernest Hollings was governor in the 1950s, he wanted a state network of technical schools to train laborers as an enticement to industry. Hollings went to Edgar Brown's house one night with a fifth of bourbon under his arm. When he left, the story goes, the bottle was empty and South Carolina had a new system of technical schools.
A former legislator who fought to reform the moss-backed power structure, Riley is now the most influential governor in the history of South Carolina. He is more than simply tenacious. Like many South Carolinians, who take pride in the fact that the blue granite walls of the State House still bear the marks left by General Sherman's cannons 120 years ago, he is a rare mixture of stubbornness and kind-heartedness. During one tough House fight, his staff had proof of the opposition's drinking and womanizing. The staff wanted to go public; Riley nixed the idea. "It's just not his style,' says Bill Prince, a former aide. Another aide admits, "I once suggested the ancient and honorable political tradition of saying one thing and doing another, and he looked at me as if I were from Mars.'
Riley stays judgment on the least self-restrained of his fellow politicians, quite a feat in South Carolina. One roguish senator, notorious for hiring secretaries with one talent, complained, "God dammit, Dick, I'm getting blamed for fucking everybody.' "Oh,' said Riley, "I'm sure there's some you're not getting blamed for.'
"Riley is not the kind of guy who enjoys that kind of banter,' said Drake, "but he can get along with them without seeming like a prude or a wimp.'
One aide ascribes Riley's equanimity to his "Boy Scout, tenth-grade, civics-class view of government. He passionately believes government can do good. He is patient, doesn't hear the word no, and when you screw him over in the assembly, he comes back and does you a favor.' Riley's approach has served him well. He is the most popular politician in the state. Polls show he could defeat either incumbent senator, Thurmond or Hollings. When the National Governors Association polled itself recently on who was the most effective governor, Riley came in third. Mario Cuomo came in twelfth.
Riley's friends and acquaintances trace his Zen patience and his mulishness to his bout with a back disease. One day in 1955, aboard ship in the Navy, Riley sneezed so hard he was thrown to the floor. His back rippled in spasms. The doctors diagnosed it as spondylitis, a degenerative disease that can be treated only by letting in run its course.
Victims of spondylitis suffer intense pain as boney spurs slowly grow out of the vertebrae and fuse. Fever, clammy skin, and bouts of vomiting occur daily. The back discomfort can be relieved by bending over, so some victims allow their spines simply to curl, crushing internal organs, sometimes fatally. Riley refused all medication, including aspirin, watched his weight drop below 100 pounds, and pushed back against his spine despite the pain. Eventually the disease ran its course--15 years later.
"When you lose some physical attribute you substitute another for it,' says Alex Sanders, chief judge of the state appeals court and one of Riley's oldest friends. "The backbone that the force of nature took away, he found in his head.'
Building on what's right
Riley's critics say his success at pushing through the education reform package is the result of his success at passing out the pork. As they see it, he wins over the opposition with a wink and some money. They say Riley bought off the retail merchants' opposition to a sales tax increase by promising to support the abolition of the inventory tax. And, they say, he bought off the auto dealers' opposition by putting a $300 cap on the sales tax on cars. "It's nothing but good ol' boy politics,' says Alex Macauley, a Republican state senator. "It's the oldest trick in the book. Any rendeck politician knows about that.'
Riley claims he always supported the merchants on the inventory tax and says he fought the auto sales tax cap until the end, when, he admits, he conveniently caved in. "All my supporters know I opposed that,' he says. "but the [General Assembly] was convinced it was important and I went along with it.'
Dick Riley's stubbornness is not consistent. He has refused the leadership role on some though issues like the death penalty, school prayer, and gun control. Earlier this year, Joseph Carol Shaw, convicted in a gruesome multiple-murder case, was scheduled to die in the electric chair. While Riley is personally opposed to the death penalty, he refused to stay Shaw's execution. South Carolinians may accept his progressive vision in areas like education reform, but they remain extremely conservative on law-and-order issues. Asked about his lack of leadership in these areas, Riley was uncharacteristically vague: "Leaders can either bring out good instincts in people and make progress or bring out bad instincts and regress.'
Despite its reputation for conservative extremism, South Carolina has a tradition of pragmatism. The state's religious, law-abiding, no-frills reputation is the base for both its reactionaries and its pragmatists. This dichotomy thrives today in Congress in the come-hell-or-high-water statesman Strom Thurmond and the pragmatic compromiser Ernest Hollings. And the voters who clamor for the death penalty might, with a little prodding, also support education for children and health care for the poor. To South Carolinians, it's all a question of "what's right.'
Riley used his understanding of this tradition to push through generous health care legislation in 1985. The statistics on health care in the state were as grim as those on education: a family of four making more than $2,748 a year--one-fourth the proverty level--was not eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and, therefore, not eligible for Medicaid. Newspapers had published horror stories of poor, uninsured patients who were shunted from hospital to hospital, some dying on the circuit. Riley argued that not just the patient, but everyone was losing--insurance companies were raising their rates and the counties and the hospitals were losing money because of nonpaying patients.
Any state can raise or lower AFDC requirements. Riley argued that South Carolina should raise its eligibility level to $4,500--about 50 percent of the proverty level--which would add 42,000 people to the AFDC rolls, all of whom would be eligible for Medicaid. Riley appealed to the pocketbooks of the politicians and the hospitals. Most state constitutions, including South Carolina's, require county governments to provide medical care for the poor; counties across America are, therefore, paying hospitals for unionsured patients. Despite this subsidy, treating the uninsured is not profitable for private hospitals, so they dump patients on public hospitals. Riley argued that by granting insurance to 42,000 potential charity patients, those hospitals with large numbers of these cases actually might start making money treating the poor. Riley even turned South Carolina's poverty to its advantage: for every dollar South Carolina--one of the nation's poorest states--spends on Medicaid, the federal government generously pays 73 cents.
Riley convinced county governments that it would be cheaper for them to help pay Medicaid costs than to continue bailing out local hospitals. He told the business community that by reducing the number of nonpaying patients his plan would slow the rise in medical insurance rates.
With another coalition in place, Riley easily won passage of Medically Indigent Assistance Act, making South Carolina the poorest of the 15 states that have raised the income level for Medicaid eligibility in the past four years. Riley also insisted on state funding for those who do not qualify for Medicaid. Riley convinced both hospitals and counties to each contribute half of a $15 million fund to pay for preventive care for pregnant women and children whose income is between 50 percent and 200 percent of the property line, the group that often falls through the crack between Medicaid and private insurance.
Dick Riley's message is one that democrats anywhere could promote: education and health are not like the other boxes on the budget score card. If neglected, society pays for that neglect over and over. If the message Riley is trying to get across succeeds in South Carolina, it certainly has a chance elsewhere.
There is only one month left in Riley's term, and the campaign for Riley's replacement is in full swing. As if to confirm Riley's success, no Democrat or Republican dares question his programs. The candidates argue only about how to fine time what's in place. Riley has been offered teaching jobs, and, of course, law firms call. He says he would be happy to return to the plow, but he won't rule out anything, including possible federal posts. Yet it is clear that his true love is the governorship. "I thoroughly love this position,' he says. "If I never get into another public office, it's not going to bother me.' So, maybe his 1980 amendment to the state constitution allows him to run again in four years?
"Well,' he says, "we've already checked that out.'
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|Title Annotation:||Richard W Riley|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1986|
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