Rob Groce spent June 8, the day of the South Carolina primaries, cruising the 1st Congressional District with Democratic congressional candidate Robert Burton. They had been planning this day for months. By midnight, Burton would be the Democratic First District nominee; Groce would run his campaign, and they would be ready to go after whichever GOPer won the Republican nomination.
That evening, Burton, Groce, their friends, and their supporters sat in a Mexican restaurant in Summerville, watching the returns come in. And they were stunned as they realized that all their plans and hopes had come to naught.
In the aftermath of that notorious primary, much has been said and written about Alvin Greene, who came out of nowhere to defeat Vic Rawl for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. Not so much has been said about Ben Frasier, the man who defeated Burton for the congressional nomination.
In the bizarre history of Palmetto State politics, Frasier holds his own. Born on Wadmalaw Island, he has lived for years in Maryland, where he owns a home and several businesses. But he also owns property on Wadmalaw, has a South Carolina driver's license, and claims state residency. This gives him the right to run for office in South Carolina, and he has done that — repeatedly.
Through 10 election cycles, Frasier has sought the 1st District Democratic nomination. In each of those campaigns, he has been an absentee candidate, not making public appearances or giving interviews and not participating in debates or returning phone calls — not even from local Democratic Party officials. In his few statements over the years, we have learned that he defended the Confederate flag atop the Statehouse, challenged a woman's right to an abortion, and wanted to keep gays out of the military and prayer in the public schools. This strange behavior has never been explained, and throughout those campaigns he was invisible and largely ignored, especially on Election Day.
This year was different. For reasons we can only guess, the mysterious and elusive Frasier actually defeated Robert Burton, a retired Air Force colonel who was the party favorite and had campaigned hard. Like the mysteries of faith, the mysteries of South Carolina politics defy explanation.
Watching the 1st District returns come in that night, Groce had a drink and then another. Sometime before the evening was over, he muttered that if Ben Frasier was all the Dems had to offer for the 1st District, then he would run for the office.
He woke up the next morning hoping nobody heard him say it, but before he could consider the consequences, the phone was ringing and Erin McKee of the Working Families Party was asking if he was serious about running. And that's how this smart, self-employed, 42-year-old marketing consultant became a candidate for Congress.
Make no mistake: Groce is running on the Working Families ticket, but he is a Democrat at heart. The Working Families Party and the Democratic Party are both fighting for better jobs and higher wages, good public education, affordable healthcare, and paid family leave and other public policies that support American families — not Wall Street, not oil companies, not defense contractors. Families are the basic building block of society, yet American families have been squeezed and hammered from every side in the last 30 years, as wages have stagnated and jobs have been off-shored, the cost of healthcare skyrocketed, and unregulated Wall Street operators wrecked the economy.
It is only the vagaries of the voters and the Byzantine protectionism of state election law that prevent Groce from running as a Democrat, but his Democratic credentials are pristine. He has been working for Democratic candidates since he was a teenager in New Orleans, and he was a John Edwards delegate in 2008. He has received the endorsements of Linda Ketner, who came close to winning the 1st District race against Republican Henry Brown two years ago; Vic Rawl, still a leading figure in Lowcountry politics; and former candidate Burton.
"Democrats represent a wider section of the people," Groce told me in a recent interview. "Republicans represent a select few, specifically the wealthy, who get elected by lying to working-class people."
Groce expects the November election will go to a runoff between himself and Republican Tim Scott. Scott is tying himself more and more closely with the Tea Party crowd, which is alienating a lot of mainstream Republicans, he said. Many of them will sit out the election, he said, and a few will cross over to vote for him.
"What you need to know is that I am here to win," he told me. "I'm the only real Democrat in this race."
See Will Moredock's blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.