Legislators ask SC officials to nullify county GOP convention

COUNTY — The South Carolina Republican Party is considering a request to nullify last week’s Pickens County GOP Convention after political infighting marred the event, leaving dozens of potential delegates disenfranchised, according to local lawmakers.

In a formal protest letter addressed to the state party’s executive committee and chairman Matt Moore, Sen. Larry Martin, Rep. Neal Collins, Rep. Gary Clary and Rep. Davey Hiott allege the convention, held last Thursday at Liberty High School, was marked by “misapplications of state party rules and gross errors of judgment.”

Among the issues listed in the letter, “the most important error was disenfranchising 52 certified voters at the door of the convention,” the legislators claimed.

According to an update Collins sent to constituents via email on Sunday, a coalition opposed to county GOP chairman Phillip Bowers — a Pickens County School Board member — has formed “to portray what is positive about our county and officials.

“This coalition includes many different Republicans from all walks of life,” Collins wrote. “The county party is there to grow the party and assist Republicans. The Pickens County GOP, instead, has been there to attack its own members and keep membership to the ‘real Republicans.’”

The convention issues apparently began last month, when the county party had its reorganization on March 19 — a meeting the lawmakers claim was improperly advertised. A little more than 70 delegates were in attendance at the meeting, and no more than 15 attended a makeup meeting, which was not advertised at all, according to the letter.

Lawmakers claim county GOP chairman Phillip Bowers was several days late in submitting a list of delegates to state party leaders, and the list submitted included 200 names — 128 more than were in attendance at the original meeting.

Delegates are allowed to vote on county officers at the annual convention, and Collins said Bowers’ delay in submitting the list of delegates “burned days the coalition could be adding names once the tactic (of adding names) was revealed.”

In response, according to the letter lawmakers submitted to state party leaders, state officials said anyone could sign up with the state party until five days before the convention.

“During the week of April 6-11, 52 forms were submitted to the state party,” the lawmakers wrote.

However, the additional delegates were denied entry into the convention, as Bowers claims he did not receive the list until April 16 — the night of the convention.

Bowers said he had no way of verifying the delegates with such little notice.

“By the rules, this list of the voting members of the convention — or the delegates as we call them — should have been provided to the county five days before the convention,” he told The Courier during an interview this week.

Bowers said he not only has to verify if the delegates are registered voters, but which precinct they are registered in and whether they are Republicans.

When asked whether the state party would have verified the information before submitting the list to the county party, Bowers was unsure.

“I don’t know — it was all done behind our back,” he said. “That’s what’s so disturbing about it.”

Bowers said state party official Hope Walker told him she had received the applications before the five-day deadline but had not had time to send them to him.

“It all seems a little fishy,” he said. “It could have all been avoided. … It’s not a problem adding delegates, as long as it’s done properly.”

According to Collins, the state party chairman was in attendance and encouraged Bowers to allow entry to the newly added delegates.

Bowers said he told Moore, “I’m not adding delegates tonight.”

Once the convention got underway with the 155 delegates in attendance, Collins made a motion to allow entry to the other delegates who had been denied access, but the motion failed by a 72-59 vote.

According to the letter submitted to the state party by local lawmakers, the number of delegates in attendance prior to the election of officers did not constitute a quorum. In addition, the legislators claim, the ballots were incorrectly received prior to the “ballot collection” time on the agenda, making nominations from the floor impossible.

The lawmakers said the election results should be nullified because of the issues.

Bowers was re-elected as party chairman at the meeting.

Bowers also made a point in noting three of the legislators who collaborated on the letter — Collins, Hiott and Clary — were running for county party offices. He said Collins was challenging him for the chairman position.

Collins, however, addressed the issue in his email to constituents.

“I volunteered to be the point man on this, but the coalition and the goal is much, much larger than me,” he wrote. “I have happily decided I will not seek chairmanship should we have another convention. This has never been about me, and I’m going to make it obvious it’s not.”

Bowers said the entire situation boils down to a difference of philosophy among members of the same party.

“This party is very vocal, and we don’t mind holding elected officials’ feet to the fire when they don’t abide by the platform,” he said. “Most of the folks who are involved in the party regularly want the platform upheld. Our platform specifically says we encourage elected officials to reject tax increases at all levels.”

A vocal contingent of Pickens County residents has recently been advocating raising taxes to increase money for school district operations, a move Bowers says is unnecessary as “money is pouring into Columbia.” In addition, Bowers said, members of the same group of residents are upset with him because he advocated a recent school board prayer policy that was voted down.

“It’s a lot about just me,” he said. “They subscribe to death by a thousand cuts. They did it to (former school board member)Ben Trotter, they did it to (former school board member) Jimmy Gillespie and they’ve done it to (current school board member) Alex Saitta for years.

“They want to do anything they can to discredit me, and I haven’t done anything wrong. I have done exactly what I think I should have done, and I’ve got lots of support.”

In their letter, the lawmakers ask state party officials to nullify the county convention’s proceedings and results.

Bowers said that would be “a terrible precedent” to set.

“If they do, we’ll deal with that,” he said. “I think conservatives win either way. If a group can come in and recruit a bunch of unverified voters to take over the convention, then that’s a real morale booster for the conservatives. Conservatives, it just boils their blood that someone can force undocumented voters.”

The lawmakers, however, envision a different outcome from nullifying the convention.

“We believe this is the only way to not only ensure trust, but restore trust lost in the system,” they wrote.