Will Cabal Money Overcome Citizen Interests?

By Paul Gable

The main story of the 2022 Republican Primary election campaigns in Horry County is going to be one of how the developers and tourist interests of the Myrtle Beach cabal pour money into campaigns of their preferred candidates in hopes those candidates will defeat the candidates who represent the interests of the citizens first.

Several stories have been written in local media over the past few days detailing donors to cabal favored candidates Jenna Dukes, Mark Lazarus and Carla Schuessler.

Dukes is challenging Harold Worley in Horry County District 1. Worley is the longest serving member on county council and one whose signature is to often urge the council to “Do the right thing for the people of Horry County.”

Lazarus, a former Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce board president, is challenging Horry County Chairman Johnny Gardner, who took the chairmanship from Lazarus four years ago, a defeat that Lazarus has yet to get over.

Schuessler, a former Chamber board president, is vying with Conway businessman John Cassidy in the new House District 61 seat in the county.

All three cabal candidates, Dukes, Lazarus and Schuessler were the recipients of the campaign donation largesse of cabal members and associates in the development and tourism industries as the stories in local media documented.

Dukes and Lazarus tried to paint their fundraising as coming from a broad range of donors who are anxious for change from the respective incumbents they are running against. In neither case is that narrative true. Neither has support that extends beyond the limited numbers of cabal members who can’t get their own way with Worley and Gardner and want them replaced.

As was carefully documented in the media last week, Benji Hardee contributed $9,000 to Dukes through nine different business entities he controls. The limit one donor can give to a candidate for county council in one election cycle is $1,000. Hardee and Dukes went to great lengths to claim all nine donations are legal, according to state law, because they come from separate businesses.

However, state law is murky at best on the question of what constitutes a ‘separate and distinct interest” that allows each business to contribute when all nine of the Hardee businesses are essentially controlled by one or two people.

Dukes and Lazarus were both beneficiaries of multiple donations through various llcs and other business entities tied to individual donors to their campaigns, all documented in various stories.

The Supreme Court order in the case of local attorney and former Chamber board chairman Shep Guyton appears to establish if different business entities are used for donations all ordered by a single person, anything beyond the first $1,000 exceeds legal contributions under state law.

The legality of those donations is a question that will probably have to be argued and decided in a court of law to establish a clear ruling, should anyone decide to challenge it.

More interesting, however, is the care Dukes apparently took to downplay her relationship to Hardee. She was said to tell one reporter that she knows the Hardee family and has ‘crossed paths with the developer because they both own businesses in the same area.’

According to a public record SEC filing, Dukes’ husband, Curtis Dukes, was one of two brokers on a land sale where Waterbridge Investments LLC, a company with Hardee and Doug Wendel as the principals, sold 226 lots in the Waterbridge area of Carolina Forest to Harbor Custom Development, Inc. of Gig Harbor, Washington.

According to the purchase and sale agreement dated June 10, 2020, Curtis Dukes and Ashley Gardner of Strategic Real Estate Advisors of Mt. Pleasant, SC were the two named brokers who would split 50/50 a “collective commission not to exceed $660,000.”

That sounds like a bit more interaction between Hardee and the Dukes than ‘occasionally crossing paths with the developer.’

Lazarus statements that his donations are ‘an indication that people want his leadership’ are disingenuous. It is true that the developers want his presence in council because he has faithfully represented their interests (ie. County tax money for Interstate 73, no impact fees on development, nearly $12 million in county tax dollars to purchase 3,000 acres of swampland, at $4,000 per acre, in the Carolina Forest area from a Virginia developer for an alleged county wetland mitigation bank).

In this election cycle, Lazarus has raised $138,000 in campaign donations. He has run for county council chairman on four other occasions beginning in 2006, winning two and losing two. In each election, Lazarus raised between $115,000 – $138,000 from the same development and business interests and many of the exact same donors.

Far from indicating widespread desire for change, Lazarus’ donations demonstrate he has not expanded his base in the 16 years he has been winning and losing the chairmanship.

Schuessler has been mum on her fundraising to date. However, her ties to the cabal as a recent former Chamber board chairman are well known and many of the same names that appear on campaign disclosure reports for Dukes and Lazarus also appear on the Schuessler report, albeit less total donations and amounts.

Two other candidates are worth mentioning as cabal preferences, Johnny Vaught, also running for council chairman and incumbent county council District 2 member Bill Howard.

Vaught received a modest sum of donations while Howard has done no fundraising to date. However, Vaught was Lazarus’ surrogate in the 2018 campaign against Gardner often appearing at events to speak for the Lazarus candidacy and Howard donated to the Lazarus campaign in both the current and past election cycles.

Much like the SC 7th District Congressional race, where the cabal has its preferred candidate, incumbent Tom Rice, and backup candidate, Russell Fry, the county chairman race will also have the cabal preferred Lazarus and backup Vaught both ready to represent its interests at the expense of the average citizens of the county.

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