Port Controversy Running Away from Gov. Haley

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a PR guy.  I am fascinated by the mechanics of spin and enamored with the nuance of damage control and crisis mitigation.  I often advise clients about the merits of “perceptional thinking” with regards to many of the matters and issues confronted in my still-new foray into the day-to-day practice of family law.

I live for that rush of adrenalin and involuntary grin when a crisis is averted, or cast back upon an adversary.  There is little better than the feeling that comes from watching the other party to a debate writhe and twist in their seat when they have been bested by the better argument.  There is little worse than witnessing a cringe-worthy self-destruction brought about by a person’s abject unwillingness to engage in, well, perceptional thinking.

That being said, when it comes to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and the developing quagmire that is her possible role in the subordination of the Port of Charleston to the Port of Savannah thanks to a recent decision by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) which itself reeks of pay-to-play and political wrongdoing absent clarification of the contrary, I find myself starting to cringe.

Here’s the story.

Separated by roughly 110 miles, the beautiful southern cities of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina are both thriving port cities, the latter more so than the former.  With its five terminals spread across Charleston Harbor and further up the Wando River, the Port of Charleston is the fourth busiest container port in the United States.  In 2008, for example, the Port of Charleston moved 62.4 million tons of cargo, including 40.1 million tons of imports and 22.3 million tons of exports.  Every day, I pass part of the port facility on my drive to work, and every day I see hundreds of South Carolina-produced vehicles–such as BMWs produced in the Upstate and Mercedes Benz Sprinter vans produced a few miles from my home in Ladson–awaiting transport to points overseas.

A five-billion-dollar widening and deepening project currently taking place at the Panama Canal, however, will allow for larger ships to gain passage to the eastern seaboard of the United States where such passage was earlier impracticable.  Recently, proposed dredging of Charleston Harbor to accommodate such ships has morphed and expanded into a national discussion, with one South Carolina senator–Lindsey Graham–in favor of deepening the port by nearly any legislative means available and another South Carolina senator–the traditionally earmark-opposing Jim DeMint–in favor of doing so through dedicated, specific legislative action.  A September 19, 2010 Charleston Post & Courier op-ed by Sen. DeMint presents a fair assessment of the controversy between the two lawmakers.

Currently, the shipping channel in Charleston Harbor stands at 45 feet deep, with band-aid dredging projects keeping it around 47 feet.  To accommodate larger ships, a depth of 50 feet is needed.  A few of these larger ships already come in and out of Charleston Harbor, mostly by way of the North Atlantic or the Suez Canal.  As these ships are becoming the standard, the infrastructure needs to be modified in kind.  As it stands now, those ships that require 48 feet of depth must wait until high tide to arrive and depart.  Due to the competitive nature of shipping and shipping infrastructure, that’s simply not good enough.

So, what’s the problem?

Well, the Port of Savannah wants some of this New Panamax business, too.  (“New Panamax” is the nickname for the larger ships capable of transversing the widened and deepened Panama Canal starting in 2014.)  Roughly nine weeks ago, however, South Carolina DHEC denied the State of Georgia’s request to deepen Savannah’s harbor to 50 feet over concerns regarding water quality in the Savannah River, which makes up most of the border between the two states.

According to Gov. Haley, after the initial denial Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal asked that South Carolina DHEC take another look at the proposition, and she merely asked the DHEC chairman to honor the Georgia governor’s request.  The Charleston Post & Courier asserts that Haley stated that she was “extending a courtesy” to her fellow state chief executive.  On November 10, 2011, South Carolina DHEC approved the Savannah River deepening proposition.

Now Democrats and Republicans alike in the Palmetto State are crying foul, claiming among other things that Haley exerted her influence over DHEC and sold out the Port of Charleston in exchange for campaign funds.  Critics have latched onto Haley’s expected refusal to attend a South Carolina State Senate hearing on the matter on Tuesday, shiftily citing separation-of-powers issues, as well as an October fundraiser in the neighboring Peach State hosted by a law firm that specializes in, among many other things, environmental issues surrounding seaports, harbors and terminals.

To be honest, as much as I like Gov. Haley and the nearly 20,000 jobs she has brought into the Palmetto State, when it comes to public relations and perceptional thinking, her message on and containment of this issue needs serious work.

At a press conference Monday, the governor addressed the issue without addressing it.  She held fast to the idea that she merely asked DHEC to hear the State of Georgia’s appeal, but denies that she exerted any influence.  She also half-heartedly tried to get out of a story that will have serious legs in the days and weeks to come if not hobbled before then, stating simply that “I stand by everything and I know it’s unfortunate that in this political world everybody likes to think there’s something behind everything,” and that, with regard to insinuations being made by people on both sides of the aisle, “there’s nothing here.”

She then launched into a free-market argument of sorts in favor of her decision to ask DHEC to hear Georgia’s appeal, stating that “you don’t undercut people in order to beat them, you beat them by winning.”

She also addressed the idea that, regardless of whether South Carolina DHEC provided its approval, the State of Georgia could leapfrog the Palmetto State agency and gain federal support.

“So, if they fair and square got a permit, that the feds basically  said that they didn’t need our authorization to give them anyway, if they got the permit we’re gonna have the best, most vibrant ports because we’re gonna win,” the governor said.  “I have said I’m not scared of a 48-foot one-way Savannah when I know we’re gonna have a 50-foot dual-way, dual-rail Panamax ship running port in Charleston.”

The free market, we’re-gonna-beat-’em argument is all well and good–rah-rah! and all that–but the fact remains that the ongoing allegations of pay-to-port-style backroom deals, especially such deals that advance Georgia at the expense of South Carolina, is an issue that is not going to go away.  It must be hobbled, and the governor did nothing of the sort today.

A rather profane piece by Chris Haire at the Charleston City Paper popped up this evening on the issue.  And, while you know how I feel about profanity’s relationship to credibility and in spite of the language and tone used by Mr. Haire, the commentary brings up a good point (censorship mine):

Look, it’s pretty clear that something funny went down with this whole Savannah Ports deal. Vincent Sheheen and Leon Stavrinakis wouldn’t be FOIA-ing documents relating to all of this if there wasn’t. These are not two kneejerk kind of guys. These are not two sh*t-starters. If they were, Sheheen would have been relentlessly attacked you leading up to Election Day 2010. But he didn’t. He played nice. Pu**y. And because of his timidity we’re now stuck with you.

But today, you had your chance to set the record straight. To prove to the world that all of this Savannah Port business was bullsh*t, that you didn’t take a few donations from a few Georgia donors and then force the DHEC board, each one of them your appointees, to flip-flop on an earlier ruling forbidding the Peach State to dredge the Savannah River, thereby putting your own state’s interests at risk, both financially and environmentally. And yet you couldn’t.

Instead, you stepped up to your podium and you lied.

You had to go and say this: “No one related to the ports gave. These are people like Motorola and GE. And companies that we do business with. There were no ties to the ports.”

I mean, didn’t you realize that a even a half-drunk journalist like myself — and believe you me, I’ve been pounding them since I got off work — would hop on the internet and check your facts?

Didn’t you realize that someone would discover that the firm that hosted the fundraiser at their offices, McKenna, Long, and Aldridge, specializes in port-related legal activity?

Didn’t you realize that even a guy whose seeing double would discover that a partner at that firm, Keith Mason, was a former Chairman of the Board of the Georgia Port Authority?

Didn’t you realize that the donation that you received from the firm’s political action committee would be seen for what it is?

Why, I ask you God, why have we, the good people of South Carolina, been burdened with such rank incompetence?

And then, and then, and then …. oh … it gets even worse.

But before I get to that, I want you to read Nikki’s statement one more time: “No one related to the ports gave. These are people like Motorola and GE. And companies that we do business with. There were no ties to the ports.”

Well, here’s the thing: neither Motorola nor GE donated squat to Haley at the Georgia fundraiser. Nada. Zilch. Zip.

In spite of the manifestation here of his longstanding personal animosity toward the governor due to her stance on a separate port issue referenced below, Mr. Haire raises a good point.  Haley absolutely, positively should have gotten out in front of this story.  I call it “putting the skunk on the table” — if there is anything undesirable, get it out in the open and confront it.  At the very least, use the same sort of defense used by Texas Gov. Rick Perry when confronted by allegations of backroom dealing in connection with the Gardasil issue: “I would never accept money for influence, but if I did, it would take a whole lot more than $5,000.”

Here, however, the governor chose to not even substantively address the controversy at all, save for the “Motorola and GE” quote above and the aforementioned “there’s nothing there” statement.  That’s not good enough.  If I had my way, Governor Haley would have acknowledged the confusion surrounding DHEC’s about-face and done her best to express her own confusion as well.  She would have reassured Palmetto State residents like myself that under no circumstances would she put any other state’s interests in front of her own.  And she would have acknowledged the unfortunate timing and subsequently addressed the proper context under which the Georgia fundraiser took place.

The thing is, however, that there may very well be another side to this, and the very questions critics like Mr. Haire are insisting that the governor answer may not be meritworthy questions at all.  Just like there is no doubt whatsoever that I am a conservative-libertarian blogger–I would never purport to call myself a “journalist,” nonetheless a “half-drunk” one–there is no doubt whatsoever that Chris Haire has his own political motivations and bias.  That’s fine, and I suspect that the truth may be found somewhere between what Haire is saying, and what I am saying.

I believe that many of the questions Mr. Haire would like the governor to address are not grounded in enough reality to merit an answer.  While I agree that the governor could have done a better job of explaining this burgeoning controversy away quickly, asking her to answer questions based upon egregious jumps to conclusions is simply a waste of time.  Consider the following:

First, the “Motorola and GE” comment could have been the governor’s way of saying that the donors were of a generic nature.  As in, “gee whiz, Congressman, who was at your fundraiser?” … “Oh, golly, I don’t know — Goldman Sachs and BP types, I guess.”  From the sound of what she said at the presser when asked about the fundraiser–click HERE to hear her answer–it certainly sounds like that could have been the case.  That she went so far as to promise to produce the donor list, and then said that the donors included “companies like” Motorola and GE, it tells me that those two indeed weren’t among the donors, but that the donor list will feature a lot of ho-hum quasi-revelations showing donors that likely give heavily to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Second, to say that the law firm that hosted the fundraiser “specializes in port-related legal activity” is wholly unfair.  This is an international firm that employs nearly 500 attorneys and public policy advisors.  It’s a firm that helps businesses navigate an increasingly complex and perpetually changing regulatory labyrinth in areas that span everything from bankruptcy to corporate litigation to real estate transactions to toxic tort product liability (think Erin Brockovich) to government contracts and the regulatory and legislative challenges that confront corporate clients in connection with all aspects and practice areas.

Furthermore, to read Keith Mason’s partnership in such a firm as somehow indicative of inside baseball and undue influence is absolutely, unequivocally ridiculous, and it shows Mr. Haire’s naivete with regard to all matters law and business.  See, the business of McKenna Long’s business is regulatory navigation across all sorts of practice areas, and there is no better navigator than someone who has been at the center of the regulatory structure in a relevant industry.  In family law, for example, some of the best mediators are former judges.  Why?  Because nothing brings an otherwise obstinate pair of soon-to-be-former-spouses to an agreement quicker than someone with the gravitas to say, “look, here’s what the judge is going to say in this situation …”  Keith Mason’s experience, including and especially his service as former Chairman of the Board of the Georgia Port Authority, is a windfall for the law firm.  His gravitas attracts clients in need of regulatory understanding like “Former Judge and Mediator” attracts bitter spouses in need of a reality check.  I am certain that, if I took the time to examine all 500 attorney profiles at McKenna Long, I’d find someone that was on an equivalent Board in the agricultural or aeronautics sector — would people like Mr. Haire and the ever-credible Will Folks then accuse Gov. Haley of seeking inside favor with those industries as well?

Also, it should be noted that the organizer of the event was Eric Tanenblatt, the senior managing director at McKenna Long.  Tanenblatt is also a very well-connected Republican, having previously served as chief of staff to former Georgia Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.  Currently, Tanenblatt serves in a leadership capacity in the Republican Governors Association, an organization that has been designed to support Republican governors through–you guessed it–fundraisers like the one hosted at McKenna Long.  This was not some sort of concerted nefarious effort to buy a deeper shipping channel by way of a fundraiser held by a firm that specializes in port-related issues; this was a fundraiser thrown by a guy whose job it is to throw fundraisers, located at and hosted by that guy’s employer, an international law firm that boasts 500 attorneys and countless areas of practice.  Good grief, people.

Finally, that Vincent Sheheen and Leon Stavrinakis are leading the charge from the left and Cyndi Mosteller is leading the charge from the right says all that needs to be said about the motivation behind such scrutiny.  Sheheen lost the gubernatorial bid to Haley in 2008.  Stavrinakis has an established history of seeking a microphone and television camera whenever Governor Haley exercises any influence from her office in the State House.  And Mosteller — well, I wrote back on November 1, 2010 about how she and her Conservatives for Truth in Politics group tried to derail Haley’s election by parroting talking points straight from the Sheheen and State Democratic Party playbook.  And, for the record, I still think that Conservatives for Truth in Politics exists in violation of federal election law.

Why answer questions when the act of asking said questions requires the suspension of common sense?  However, even considering Mr. Haire’s swiss-cheese arguments and non-questions, the overall theme that Governor Haley would benefit from being more forthcoming is undeniably correct.  To be fair, Governor Haley has in the past been less than forthcoming with regard to port-related issues, most notably the state’s apparent violation of an August 18, 2010 Memorandum of Understanding between the state and the City of North Charleston in connection with railway access to the aforementioned Wando River portion of the Port of Charleston.  In that regard, the affected area was relatively small — the City of North Charleston planned much of its development,  gentrification and expansion in detrimental reliance upon the MOU, and Haley’s “promises made are promises kept” mantra has lost some of its lustre.

“When it comes to all issues related to the ports, Nikki Haley has absolutely zero credibility,” says Richard Todd, host of The Morning Buzz on WTMA-AM. [Update: I was fortunate enough to spend a full segment with Richard on the radio Tuesday morning talking about this very issue.] “What’s worse is that, here we have an enormous audience in the state of South Carolina, spread out on the radio, on simulcast television, and on the Internet, and the governor refuses to come on the show to talk about it.  These are issues that affect a great number of residents not only of the Lowcountry, but across the state as well.”

With regard to the deepening of the Port of Savannah, the affected area is indeed an entire local and state economy.  While I agree with the governor that we should not advance the interests of the Palmetto State by undercutting the interests of our neighbors, I also understand the misgivings of many who believe that we should neither undermine the interests of our state in the name of gubernatorial courtesy — and definitely not in the name of donor appeasement.

I do like Governor Haley.  I believe that she is a strong leader who has weathered what has, for the most part, been an unfair amount of criticism from lawmakers and state-level pundits alike who are uncomfortable with the notion of a chief executive that is not satisfied with the power structure in a state dominated by the legislature.  Still, on this issue, Governor Haley absolutely must think perceptionally.  She must hobble this particular story before it gains further legs.  Already, we have seen what a blogger with an abundance of alcohol and dearth of integrity can accomplish in shaping the discussion.  She should not let this story run away from her.

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Comments

  1. MtPMom says:

    I don’t like the idea that she has paved the way for Savannah to move forward while Charleston can not. Still I agree with you Jeff that there is more to this story and that much of teh criticism of Governor Haley is unfair. I’m also appalled by that story in the Charleston City Paper.

  2. John T. says:

    It definitely should have been handled differently by the Gov’s staff, but I agree that the criticism of her has been unfair.

  3. Tilli says:

    SC DHEC was holding up the Savannah river deal strictly to look out for themselves, they didn’t give a rat’s derriere about anything else. Haley called them on it.

    Could the have spun it differently, sure, but then she would be just another politician looking out for herself.

    It’s a shame that Charleston has an inferiority complex when it comes to Savannah (history, beauty, hospitality and shipping). It is nothing more.

    Really the whole state of SC has been bitter towards GA since it went from being a buffer against the Spanish in the 1700′s to being a dominate power in just about every aspect. SC wishes they little brother had not grown up and now towers over them. Sad really.

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