By Paul Gable
State Rep. Russell Fry, an announced candidate in the upcoming SC 7th Congressional District Republican primary, has been deafeningly silent during the last week’s controversy over funding for the Interstate 73 project.
When Fry announced his candidacy, he said, like incumbent Congressman Tom Rice, he strongly supported the construction of I-73.
During the last week, we have seen an eruption of controversy surrounding a promised visit tomorrow by Governor Henry McMaster to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce headquarters to make an important announcement on I-73.
First, it was reported by local media that McMaster would announce he was giving $300 million to the I-73 project. Local politicians who want Chamber associated funding for their campaigns such as, county council members Johnny Vaught and Dennis DiSabato, state Rep. Case Brittain, state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch and Rice himself, quickly committed to attending McMaster’s Chamber announcement. All praised McMaster for committing money to I-73. Fry was conspicuous by his silence.
Vaught and DiSabato went one step further. After a DiSabato authored resolution for the county to dedicate $4.2 million per year for 30 years to I-73 was deferred until October 26th by the county’s Administration Committee, which is chaired by Vaught, a special meeting of the committee was called by Vaught for this coming Tuesday to again attempt to pass the resolution. The excuse given for the special called meeting was with the governor bringing $300 million for I-73, it was time for the county to step up with local funding for the road.
However, the two most important people for state appropriations and local appropriations for I-73, Speaker of the House Jay Lucas and County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner, will not be at the Chamber/McMaster event, according to sources I have spoken to.
There are additional problems with the above narrative. The governor cannot commit any funding for I-73. The best he can do is request the SC General Assembly to do so. The county committee can only recommend the entire county council vote to approve funding for I-73.
The $300 million announced is $200 million short of the $500 million a group, reportedly consisting of Brittain, the Chamber, DiSabato and city mayors Brenda Bethune and Marilyn Hatley, said they would seek from the state two weeks ago. The group also requested local governments, primarily the county council along with Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach city councils, to commit a total of $250 million in locally collected tax and fee revenue to I-73. That number is now being reported in media as closer to $180 million.
The concept was the $750 million raised by the above-named group would be taken to Washington to request the remainder of funding needed for I-73 from the federal government. It is estimated the feds would need to kick in at least another billion to build I-73 from Horry County to a connection with Interstate 95 in Dillon.
The $750 million goal is now reduced by over 33% and does not include any funding from state revenue. The $300 million to be requested by McMaster comes from a pool of money the federal government created out of thin air (as only it can do) and given to states in grants to help recovery from losses suffered by the states during the Covid crisis. And currently, none of that approximately $480 million is actually appropriated.
Maybe Fry has been so silent during the above, constantly changing announcements because, despite being advertised as the number three man in the majority leadership of the SC House of Representatives, he and his cohorts in the local legislative delegation have been totally unsuccessful in obtaining any appropriation of state collected revenue for the I-73 project.
However, Fry’s reasons for silence probably go even deeper and are totally associated with his current Congressional campaign.
According to reports about tomorrow’s gathering at the Chamber, Rice will be in attendance. It will already be awkward for Trump impeachment voter Rice and Trump supporter McMaster to be together on the stage, common in their support of I-73.
Fry, reportedly, is seeking endorsement by Trump and campaign contributions from PACs and other groups in the Trump camp to allow his Congressional candidacy to become competitive. Therefore, sharing any stage with Rice would not be good for Fry’s hopes for help with his candidacy.
Add to that consideration the fact that the overwhelming majority of voters in the 7th Congressional District do not support construction of I-73 and Fry is faced with a real conundrum – how does Fry, like Rice, support I-73 when the voters don’t?
The only candidate in the Congressional race who has publicly stated he does not support local funding for I-73 is Ken Richardson. Richardson asked a group of several hundred 7th district voters to raise their hands if they support I-73. The picture accompanying this article shows their response. The picture also directly contradicts the results of an alleged Chamber poll that showed support for I-73 at over 80% among 405 voters supposedly polled throughout the state.
Richardson told the crowd that if McMaster does get money for I-73 it will be because of Ken Richardson. He said the Chamber and its cronies are “scared to death” of the Richardson candidacy and was promoting this latest I-73 funding push in response.
To date, the Chamber and its cronies support reelection of Rice despite Rice’s vote to impeach President Donald Trump. Rice’s candidacy for reelection seems to be stuck at 22% support among voters included in recent polling. Fry hopes to be the beneficiary of Chamber support should the Chamber and its cronies conclude Rice can’t be reelected. But, Fry also hopes to be supported by Trump voters.
With obvious naked political calculation to avoid taking a stance on a hot issue, Fry remains silent on Rice’s main goal to build I-73, a goal Fry has strongly supported in the past, hoping the voters will not realize Fry is silent on I-73 only because he is hoping to draw both Rice supporters and Trump supporters to contribute to his campaign.