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TO win a seat in your local government it is helpful to have distinguished yourself by doing something that a significant sector of the electorate wanted to see done. If getting that good thing accomplished means you consorted with radicals on the fringe, that's not a problem. But before the race goes off, you should demonstrate your responsible nature by moving into the mainstream.
Across America there are parks and hospitals that need building and shopping centers in the middle of nowhere and expressways through neighborhoods that need stopping. There are also many badly needed libraries, schools, paths, roads, and bridges. Spearhead one of those efforts successfully and you have taken a big first step.
Americans like their representatives to be tough fighters. It makes sense. When you get elected you have been chosen to represent a group of otherwise essentially powerless individuals against a potentially all-powerful government. You are their defender, one of their very few. While it can be good to be smart, if you can be only one thing, it's better to be a relentless advocate for your constituents, individually and as a group. There are plenty of smart folks in the political boneyard who spent their time being smart and not helping their constituents.
It's a plus to look good. It's a plus to speak well. It's a plus to know at least one of the issues in depth. But it is essential that you be perceived as tough. If you get knocked down, get up, brush yourself off with grace, stay in touch with your friends, wait quietly for the next election cycle, and come out swinging. The chances are you'll be stronger than you were before.
One of the most beautiful two-lane country roads in America runs seventeen miles south and east from Beaufort, South Carolina, across several of the Sea Islands, and out to the Atlantic Ocean. As it sets out from Beaufort, U.S. 21, as it is known, crosses an exquisite 1959 erector-set-style swing-span bridge over the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. From there, as it leaves the complexities of the city behind, the road meanders past saltwater marshes and along tidal creeks as it approaches a number of historic places. Crossing over Chowan Creek and its savannahs, at mile five the road passes on to St. Helena Island, the center of America's Gullah culture, where for hundreds of years people of West African descent have adapted their old world culture to the new world ways of the Anglo-Saxon Christians.
On our left a few more miles along is a two-story corner store that was the commercial hub of the Sea Island cotton boom from 1830 through the 1850s, and across the road is a one-story loft that was the island's first African-American co-op after the War of Northern Aggression, as it is sometimes called in these parts.
From that historic crossroads, U.S. 21 passes a giant live oak tree, known locally as the Emancipation Oak, in whose shade 135 years ago the slaves of the planters were gathered to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read for the first time. Then the road runs back out into the country-and back into time-and motorists are treated to the sight of grazing cattle with glimpses of the St. Helena Sound in the distance. At about mile twelve the road rounds a wide bend and reveals a mile-long savannah, passes a shrimpers' dock, crosses another swing-span bridge, and meanders among small inland islands and the barrier islands that mark the Atlantic, until at mile seventeen it ends at the gates of privately owned Fripp Island.
Early in 1991 the South Carolina Highway Commission announced that it would widen to five lanes the section of U.S. 21 that runs from Beaufort onto St. Helena Island, past the corner store and the Emancipation Oak. The Commission also declared that when funding was available they intended to make the road five lanes all the way to the beaches.
The tiny environmental community in Beaufort County knew that real estate development follows government-funded infrastructure improvements. Put another way, big housing developments don't get built where there aren't highways and where there isn't access to a sewage treatment facility.
The U.S. 21 corridor was already zoned for commercial development. Sanitary sewer access was already on parts of St. Helena Island. All that was missing was the highway. With the highway would come the housing developments, the Zippy Lubes and Burger Kings and drive-thru banks and dry cleaners that are such familiar fixtures on the outskirts of post-World War II American cities. When the Highway Commission widens that road, the environmentalists said to one another, St. Helena is finished.
There is a natural reluctance among those who have been around government for a while to step in the way of "progress." I had been around government for a while, and so I was reluctant. Moreover, I was a newcomer, having just moved into Beaufort's historic district three years earlier. The South Carolina Highway Commission had never been beaten. The local elected officials were lined up behind the project. The Good Ole Boys who are the establishment in small southern towns and who stood to benefit from the public investment were vigorously-even jubilantly-behind the elected officials. Here was big government finally poised to make a big investment in a place that a generation before had been the poorest place in the poorest state in the United States.
As a newspaperman by training, I knew there were two sides to the story. But as a husband and father and new citizen of my newly adopted hometown, I couldn't stand to think of this beautiful road turned over time into just another suburban-anywhere streetscape. The beauty of the road was just the beginning. Development would inevitably drive up land prices and taxes, and the escalation would change the whole area. Poor people whose families received their land from the Lincoln Administration would be forced off it after 130 years. Farmers would quit farming and try to become developers of their crop land, at least until they discovered the vast sums that must be amassed to push large developments forward. Then they would simply sell out to the big boys from Atlanta. A beautiful and unique place was about to lose its character. As someone who wanted to see my new hometown thrive, there was a further consideration: the widened road would inevitably draw economic vitality out of the city.
The Ledger covered the story, but to me it just wasn't enough. While a newspaper can sound the alarm, activists must answer it. But they didn't. My first call was to Dana Beach, a founder of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, based in Charleston, seventy-five miles north of Beaufort. Not only are these people the best environmental group in South Carolina, they are the best at what they do of any group between the Chesapeake Bay and Miami. But as a group they were only three years old, and had never gotten involved in Beaufort County politics. Beach was reluctant, but he came down to Beaufort and we sat in my living room and cooked up a strategy that did not involve him in its initial stage.
In the same way that in an election you can't beat somebody with nobody, in a public policy controversy you can't stop a project without a viable alternative. And even then it's a long shot. Sometimes, however, you can get the proposal changed. That was the direction we took.
Viewed most broadly, there were three parts of U.S. 21. There was the part in the city: a city street running through the heart of the city. There was the part the Commission proposed to widen, from the swing-span bridge across Lady's and St. Helena Islands to the Emancipation Oak. And there was the part from the tree to the beach. We focused on the seven-and-a-half-mile middle part from the bridge to the Oak. We decided if we could draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and say "no widening on St. Helena," then we could stop the widening of not only the several miles of the proposed widened road that crossed St. Helena Island, but also all of the future project to widen the road from the Oak to the beach.
At the same time, we focused on the U.S. 21 city street that runs through Beaufort. On the other side of the city, as U.S. 21 comes in from the west, the street is a five-lane strip mall. As it approaches the city's national landmark historic district, however, the road regains its scale, that of a four-lane boulevard, and as it enters the district it narrows to two lanes, changes its name to Carteret Street, and sweeps around a dramatic ninety-degree turn at the edge of the Beaufort River before proceeding past the college, and out toward the islands.
A quaint city street with a five-lane highway on either end is a recipe for disaster: a one-mile bottleneck in the middle of a thirty-five-mile-long five-lane expressway. Moreover, were it to be widened into an expressway, it would run highway traffic through, and thus divide, the city's historic district, the source of much of Beaufort's charm and much of its livelihood. If we could call attention to the threat posed to the historic district, Dana and I reasoned, we could begin to mobilize public opinion against the project. Carteret Street had many more friends in high places than did the stretch of the road out closer to the ocean. Suddenly the residents of the historic district would see the widening as a threat to their tranquil neighborhood, and their property values. Once enlisted to "Save Carteret Street," we hoped they would keep marching on behalf of keeping U.S. 21 a two-lane road out to the islands.
A grassroots effort like stopping a highway or a shopping center, at its essentials, is just like getting a bill passed. The bill's advocates try to tailor the bill to benefit as many constituent groups as possible. This is what lobbyists get paid millions of dollars to do every year in Washington. The money gets paid because the benefits to various business groups are so great, and because the terrain is relatively complicated. But basic "consensus building" work is pretty simple, especially at the local level. Only a working knowledge of your community is required. "Who stands to benefit from what we are trying to do?" is the basic question. "If we do it this way, will it benefit so-and-so as well?" "Are we willing to do that to get his, her, their support?" "Who's against us?" "What can we do to temper their opposition?" "Under what circumstances can their group be divided?" Those are the secondary questions.
At that first meeting in my living room, Dana and I determined that two grassroots advocacy groups should be formed: the Carteret Street Association and the Sea Island Scenic Parkway Coalition. Dana then put me in touch with Ken Driggers at the then two-year-old Palmetto Conservation Foundation in Columbia, which specialized in working side-by-side with neighborhood groups, land trusts, and governments to help them do good planning.
After organizing a handful of my neighbors into the Carteret Street Association, we passed the hat among concerned merchants on Carteret Street. With their $50 and $100 contributions came their unwavering support. We also received larger contributions from individuals who were more affluent and who just loved beauty, many the residents of the antebellum homes in the historic district who had chosen to live in Beaufort for its combination of natural and urban beauty.
Funding the Sea Island Scenic Parkway Coalition's plan promised to be a more difficult proposition. The merchants' group, the Lady's Island Business and Professionals Association, was deeply divided on whether widening U.S. 21 to five lanes was in their financial interest; some of them stood to benefit directly and others feared that opposing the Good Ole Boys might be bad for business.
For their part, the hundred or so African-American families whose community would be divided by the new highway were generally people of enthusiasm, but also of limited means.
How could we get the money to pay Ken Driggers for an alternative plan? Finally we decided we'd try to get the county government to fund it. There was no assurance that if the county ended up favoring a design that was at variance with the highway commission's that the commission would yield to the county.
But that was a problem for a later day.
Now we needed a spark to light a fire under the county council, a Sam Adams to stage a Boston Tea Party. Here was the opportunity for the extremists to play their traditional role.
The best carpenter in Beaufort is a guy named Howard Mills. Howie sailed into town on his cutter, The Bear, in 1988, and stayed, never once cutting off his beard and ponytail. He is so good with wood that he can pick his jobs and write his own ticket, both of which he does with thorough independence. He grew up in San Diego, so he had seen the future and he knew it wasn't pretty. Moreover, Howie lived on St. Helena Island, so he rode U.S. 21 virtually every day.
Shortly before the county council was to consider the matter, Howie hit upon a simple scheme. He got a roll of orange plastic surveyor's marking tape, and late one night he drove along a particularly fragile portion of the highway and marked every huge live oak tree within a hundred yards. After wrapping tape around perhaps a dozen majestic oak trees, he drove home.
The next morning the marked trees were the talk of Beaufort. People said they "had no idea the road was going to be so big, that so many live oaks would have to come down." It was, of course, assumed that the highway commission's surveyors had put up the markings. That afternoon, when questioned by a reporter, the commission's spokesman denied their having had anything to do with it; and once he'd denied their involvement, the commission couldn't very well send crews out to take the ribbons down. So the orange ribbons stayed and the line in the sand was drawn. The County Council said they'd fund the Palmetto Conservation Foundation's study. Our plan would become their plan.
Now we waited, it seemed forever.
The Carteret Street Association's plan was completed first. It called for historic-looking streetlamps, new brick crosswalks, and young trees, all of which would have to be torn up if the road were widened.
Up in Columbia the highway commission was miffed that the county council had hired an independent consultant to second-guess them. The highway commissioner who represented Beaufort was a neighbor of mine in Beaufort, former lieutenant governor W. Brantley Harvey. Brantley, as he is known throughout Beaufort, is the son of a prominent politician, and he was also one of the two lead partners in the biggest law firm in Beaufort. A true son of the South, he is a wonderfully articulate genteel Southern gentleman, with a fiery tenseness evident just below the surface.
Excerpted from Politicking by BILL RAUCH Copyright © 2004 by Bill Rauch. Excerpted by permission.
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|Part 1||Gaining Power|
|2.||Show Your Teeth||19|
|5.||Coming from Behind||34|
|Part 2||Holding Power|
|12.||Clear the Table||80|
|13.||Find the Capitals||91|
|17.||The Direct Threat||139|
|18.||The Indirect Threat||142|
|25.||Dancing with the Wolves||201|
|Part 3||Losing Power|
|27.||Running from Behind||215|