Larry Grooms scores big for South Carolina: But will the senator’s hard work translate to traction gained for his gubernatorial campaign?
BY MICHAEL S. SMITH II, SCHotline Contributing Editor
“They found me last August and reported they would be leaving South Carolina if a different operating agreement were not reached,” S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms (R, Bonneau) advised when asked about the history of his role negotiating Maersk’s new arrangements with the State Ports Authority and labor unions whose members are employed at SPA’s facilities. Grooms is one of two Republican candidates lagging far behind higher-profile figures leading the money race part of the S.C.GOP’s gubernatorial primary. For him, Maersk’s October 22nd announcement that it has agreed to enter into a revised contract with SPA through 2014 is news the state senator is banking on for some much needed profile elevation.
As most people from the Lowcountry know, in an effort to cut costs at a time when the global economy was contracting – bringing with it reduced demand for the services of many major international shipping companies – and fuel prices were skyrocketing, late in 2008 Denmark-based Maesk Line shipping company announced it intended to withdraw its business from South Carolina.
Maersk’s decision to decamp from Palmetto State ports was made in lieu of foundering efforts to renegotiate its business terms with port labor unions represented by the International Longshoremen’s Association. The ILA’s terms for its business dealings with Maersk, a relationship of great importance to SPA’s and virtually all South Carolinians’ interests, were unalterable, at least late in 2008.
Its relationship with Maersk represented the largest of SPA’s contracts with any container carriers calling on South Carolina’s ports. The announcement of Maersk’s intentions to entirely discontinue its relationship with SPA jeopardized the job securities of thousands of South Carolinians whose employment is both directly and indirectly attributable to sustained and, ideally, growing container volume at the state’s seaports. Policy-makers in the State House knew something had to be done to facilitate meaningful dialog between Maersk and the ILA, dialog SPA’s representatives could not resurrect on their own.
“That was the beginning of my involvement,” Grooms recounts. “Since then I’ve met with several different representatives of Maersk, and the meetings have been held at my home, in Charleston and in my office in Columbia,” the senator tells of his involvement in the effort to reopen negotiations after they failed in 2008.
“I’ve met numerous times with ILA representatives here locally and with ILA officials from New Jersey. My role was to keep the talks ongoing, to make suggestions when things stalled. We were seeking to formalize some form of several variations of long-term contracts we’d almost signed on three previous occasions, but failed to produce due to changing market conditions.”
Ultimately, Grooms says the port restructuring bill he co-authored with senators Glenn McConnell (R, Charleston) and Robert Ford (D, Charleston) represented the game-changer for Maersk.
Ratified the 27th day of May, 2009, the stated purpose of Bill 351, a “General Bill, By Grooms, McConnell and Ford,” is:
“TO AMEND ARTICLE 1, CHAPTER 3, TITLE 54, CODE OF LAWS OF SOUTH CAROLINA, 1976, RELATING TO THE CREATION AND ORGANIZATION OF THE SOUTH CAROLINA STATE PORTS AUTHORITY, SO AS TO FURTHER PROVIDE FOR ITS ESTABLISHMENT AND ORGANIZATION INCLUDING PROVISIONS TO CLARIFY THAT THE POWERS AND DUTIES OF THE AUTHORITYARE EXERCISED BY A BOARD OF DIRECTORS, TO PROVIDE THAT CANDIDATES FOR APPOINTMENT MUST POSSESS CERTAIN QUALIFICATIONS, TO PROVIDE THAT CANDIDATES MUST BE SCREENED TO DETERMINE WHETHER THEY POSSESS THE REQUIRED QUALIFICATIONS BEFORE THEY MAY SERVE ON THE BOARD, TO PROVIDE THAT MEMBERS OF THE BOARD MAY BE REMOVED FROM OFFICE ONLY FOR CERTAIN REASONS, TO PROVIDE THAT THE BOARD MUST PERFOR MANANNUAL PERFORMANCE REVIEW OF THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, TO ESTABLISH THAT DIRECTORS HAVE A DUTY OF GOOD FAITH AND ORDINARY CARE WHEN DISCHARGING THEIR DUTIES AS A DIRECTOR, AND TO PROHIBIT CONFLICT OF INTEREST TRANSACTIONS; TO AMEND CHAPTER 3, TITLE 54, BY ADDING ARTICLE 2 SO AS TO PROVIDE THAT THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS MUST EMPLOY AN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF PORT OPERATIONS AND TO ESTABLISH THE DIRECTOR’S DUTY TO OPERATE THE PORTS IN AMANNER CONSISTENTWITH THE MISSION, POLICIES, AND DIRECTION OF THE BOARD; TO AMEND SECTION 54-3-140, RELATING TO POWERS OF THE PORTS AUTHORITY, SO AS TO PROVIDE THAT THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS MUST ADOPT AN ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE FOR AUTHORITY OPERATIONS, TO REQUIRE A LONG-RANGE PORT DEVELOPMENT AND CAPITAL FINANCING PLAN, TO PROVIDE THAT THE AUTHORITY MUST CONSIDER PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS FOR CURRENT AND FUTURE OPERATIONS, AND TO PROVIDE THAT THE AUTHORITY SHALL TAKE REASONABLE STEPS TO ESTABLISH RAIL ACCESS TO PORT FACILITIES…”
Discussing the significance of this legislation, a bill whose tenets were loudly contested by S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford, days before S.351 was made law by the S.C. General Assembly Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer explained: “Outside of keeping taxes low, the substance of this legislation represents the most important thing the legislature can do to attract new business to South Carolina in the decades ahead.”
On the day S.351 was ratified by the senate the governor’s staff signaled a gubernatorial veto was imminent, which it was.
In a June 16 oped published in The State newspaper’s Online Extra section titled “Sanford’s criticism of ports bill doesn’t add up,” I noted Sen. Grooms projected there might be just enough votes cast in favor of overriding the governor’s veto to make S.351 law that day.
As it turned out, there were, in fact, more than just enough members of both the Senate and the House on board to deliver the legislative coup sought by the bill’s coauthors, despite the stalwart efforts to dissuade such outcomes articulated by Sanford-ally Chip Campsen during the debate in the Senate.
“With a vote of 35 to 9 in the Senate, followed by a vote of 102 to 2 in the House, 137 members of the S.C. General Assembly voted to strengthen their state’s economic competitiveness at a pivotal point in history – a time when every corner of the globe was, and remains today, confronted by a terribly challenging economic environment,” Grooms says.
Debating this bill’s merits in the Senate on June 16, another of Grooms’ colleagues noted that when compared to Georgia’s ports South Carolina’s suffer a comparative disadvantage in that Georgia’s government encouraged the creation of warehouses and other inland transshipment facilities used to store freight entering its ports. In effect, Georgia’s government grew volume capacity at its state’s ports because there is now more storage space available for freight than the facilities surrounding the ports’ docks alone.
In Orangeburg County some 1,300 acres has been zoned to become South Carolina’s first “inland port.” This site’s owner, Dubai, UAE-based Jafza International, intends for the property to be converted into a massive transshipment point for freight entering South Carolina’s ports, particularly cargo delivered to the Port of Charleston. This freight will otherwise be trucked to nearby Interstate 95. This project’s completion will dramatically expand volume capacity at South Carolina’s ports, dually, according to some, reducing the volume of tractor trailers traveling on the stretch of I-26 between Orangeburg and Charleston. Meanwhile, the plan’s supporters say this venture will create hundreds, if not thousands of new jobs in one of the most economically depressed areas of our state.
Sen. Grooms believes what S.351 will do to ensure ground is broken soon on that site is another value-added aspect of his efforts to strengthen South Carolina’s economic outlook, one that will only bolster Maersk’s and other major shippers’ desires to do business in the state for decades to come. “You needed something that would guarantee rail will be used to ship freight from our ports, which the bill does do. That site’s development depends on a rail connection to the port at Charleston, which can now happen,” he explains.
“For Maersk,” Grooms says, “my port restructuring bill’s passage into law means they no longer fear abrupt policy changes that could impact their profitability. They have confidence that SPA’s board of directors will honor the commitments that have been made. They also are confident in our ability to grow as, per our restructuring bill, SPA is required to post its strategic business plan and its capital plan.”
According to Sen. Grooms, because of the port restructuring bill South Carolina’s economy is starting to regain some much needed momentum. “We have hired a world-class operator to oversee SPA’s day-to-day operations, and companies are responding favorably to what we’ve been doing since S.351 became law,” said Grooms, a member of the Senate’s transportation committee.
“When it comes to business development, more recently we were able to land a deal with Tire Kingdom, North America’s largest tire distributor.” Tire Kingdom, Grooms explained, will serve as the anchor tenant for a large-scale logistics hub whose developers may now move forward with construction.
“These large ‘inland port’ and shipping logistics facilities will give South Carolina an extremely valuable competitive edge. I’m pleased to be able to tell voters my hard work, be it securing Maersk’s contract with SPA, or helping to attract companies like Tire Kingdom to the state, has helped make our state’s economy stronger at a time when we need that most,” Sen. Grooms said of his efforts.
Recently it was announced S.C. Atty. Gen. Henry McMaster won South Carolina $45 million through his office’s tort claim filed against Eli Lilly. With this high-profile news arriving on the heals of Maersk’s big announcement it remains to be seen whether Sen. Grooms’ successes retaining Maersk’s business for SPA will deliver his campaign the steam it needs to position him as a serious contender for a primary victory. In any event, Candidate Grooms says his prospective and current supporters may rest assured there is still more good news to come.
According to Grooms, voters may soon be hearing about even more jobs that will be created in South Carolina due to his efforts on a few other fronts. “I don’t think money is going to win this race for anybody in traditional political terms. At the same time, I do believe helping the people of South Carolina make money won’t hurt my chances of becoming their next governor.” He then added: “Hey, I’m not the candidate whose recent big win offers some insights of what voters shouldn’t expect to be part of this so-called ‘conservative’ candidate’s agenda if he’s elected governor – tort reform. I hope The Wall Street Journal is still paying attention to him because I think their recent editorial only highlights the tip of the iceberg for any interested journalists out there.”
Asked about the other candidates, Grooms explained: “Without violating Reagan’s 11th Commandment: I’m not the candidate who supported the Obama administration’s clearly failing philosophies regarding how to ‘fix’ America’s economy, throwing around hundreds of billions of dollars like politicians in D.C. won the lottery and Americans won’t have to pay for their stimulus bill of 2009 one day. I’m not the candidate whose campaign consultants are out wasting their time on such tactics as spreading sordid rumors about that candidate – as if his voting record alone hasn’t already sabotaged his campaign. …
“I’m not the candidate who lost my ‘silver bullet’ when Mark Sanford hosted his ‘press confessional’ in the State House on June 24. I’m certainly not a candidate whose political career, whose legislative decision-making, has been in lock-step with the governor’s agenda.
“Please tell me one thing any of these people have done in the way of demonstrating legislative leadership that has improved things economically for South Carolinians. Show me one bill that will stand next to the latest one I coauthored. I’m sure that in their hearts these people want to be leaders, but they’ve yet to do anything to demonstrate to me that they’ll actually be able to become such if elected governor.
“Hey, I am convinced, especially after what’s come to light about the governor, a lot of South Carolinians are thinking the same thing right now: ‘We’re tired of wannabes and phonies. We want the real deal.'”
Asked about what distinguishes him most from the other South Carolina Republican candidates for governor, Grooms enthusiastically replied: “I’m the only real conservative running on the Republican ticket. But I guess I’ve got to work harder to help enough people figure that out, however and wherever possible.”
With less than $40,000 in his gubernatorial campaign chest, and a little more than $80,000 in his senate campaign coffers that could be converted for use in his efforts to win the top office in the State House, Larry Grooms is trailing mightily behind even the third-place Republican candidate in terms of dollars raised.
In terms of campaign strategy, Grooms says he is working hard to build relationships in the upstate that could be key to a successful primary bid. Still, he concedes the Lowcountry is the natural place for him to cultivate his campaign’s true base. “Money or no money, my campaign is truly going to be a grassroots focused effort,” he noted. “I know that when South Carolinians get to know me they’ll recognize, like I said before, Larry Grooms is the only real conservative running to become their governor.”
Time will tell if all of his hard work will catch the attentions of enough prospective supporters and voters to land the small town senator from Berkeley County another major coup in Columbia. Meanwhile, for the time being, this underdog is looking, and sounding, very upbeat.