By Paul Gable
The next 14 months are going to provide interesting political times in Horry County. During that period, the cities will hold elections this coming fall and county and state primaries will be contested in June 2022.
Electioneering has already begun.
Horry County School Board Chairman Ken Richardson is already making a strong bid to replace Tom Rice as the South Carolina District 7 representative to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Two people have been spreading the word around the county that they intend to challenge Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner in the June 2022 primary.
Mark Lazarus, who Gardner unseated in 2018 with what is probably the biggest upset in Horry County political history, reportedly is telling supporters he wants a rematch with Gardner in the 2022 Republican Primary.
Johnny Vaught, the current County Council District 8 council member, and Dennis DiSabato, the current county council member for District 3, have also been broadcasting they will be candidates for the Republican nomination for county chairman in the 2022 primary.
What is interesting about these announcements is Vaught was a major spokesman for Lazarus’ reelection. Whenever Lazarus needed a surrogate to speak for him at a meeting or other campaign event in 2018, Vaught was the chosen spokesman.
If Vaught and Lazarus both contest the chairman primary, it will bring up another interesting dynamic. Both have used Crescent Communications, the political consulting firm of state Reps. Russell Fry and Heather Crawford and county council member Cam Crawford in past campaigns.
Heather Crawford and Fry will have their own political races to consider for the June 2022 primary. Fry has been mentioned as a possible opponent of Richardson and Rice in the U.S. House race but will probably opt for reelection to his statehouse seat. Both Crawford and Fry will likely face primary opposition for the S.C. House Republican nominations.
The Lazarus campaign was a particular low point for the Crescent Communications crew as Heather Crawford labelled county fire and police personnel as “union thugs” in local media and Lazarus doubled down on her comment within 24 hours. The union reference was both absurd and calculated misinformation as neither the county police nor fire personnel are unionized as Crawford and Lazarus well know.
However, those “thugs” make up a considerable percentage of Republican primary voters, have long memories and were instrumental in giving Gardner the vote margin necessary to defeat Lazarus in 2018.
Lazarus may choose to use James Wiles as his consultant. The Lazarus campaign paid Wiles on a weekly basis in 2018 for “campaign services.” The question must be asked did those campaign services extend to helping leak a story alleging Gardner was involved in a corruption scheme that was the subject of numerous emails between Lazarus, former county administrator Chris Eldridge and county attorney Arrigo Carotti? Was it a final attempt to keep Gardner from taking office?
A SLED investigation completely cleared Gardner of any such actions, ultimately cost Eldridge his job and documented what appeared to be an attempt by Carotti to interfere in the investigation.
DiSabato was a primary defender of the story alleging corruption by Gardner and a defender of the actions of Eldridge and Carotti to the point of denying the findings from the SLED investigation.
It is unlikely that Lazarus, Vaught and DiSabato will all ultimately oppose Gardner in the 2022 primary. But, if they do, many issues that appeared to be over will inevitably be revisited.
What role, if any, will the American Industry Project PAC play in any or all of these elections. The American Industry Project is ostensibly headquartered in Washington, D.C. but lists Horry County Council member Tyler Servant as its president. The AIP played a role in negative ads against Catherine Templeton when she ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 2018 and against John Gallman when he ran for the 2020 Republican nominate for S.C. Senate District 33.
Servant will have his own reelection to county council to consider in 2022. AIP and Servant have been named as defendants (along with a host of others) in a defamation lawsuit filed by Gallman in February 2021 over the negative ads in the 2020 campaign. Servant was served with the complaint at the April 6, 2021 county council meeting.
The parking lot of the law firm where Fry works was host site for a press conference which broadcast the false claims about Gallman.
The 2022 election season is already heating up. In Horry County, politics is a sport and, with the carryover issues from 2018 and 2020 could well prove to be a full contact sport this time around.