MYRTLE BEACH — A full-color advertisement promoting the incumbents in this year’s City Council race touts that group’s leadership and accomplishments, but some political experts say there’s also a hidden message in the flier mailed to city residents this month – challengers beware.
“Oh, it definitely makes a statement,” said Donald Smith, who has run a political consulting business in Horry County for more than a decade. “It sends a message that the business community is satisfied with what they have and they like the job the incumbents have done. Any challenger that’s thinking about getting into that race has to factor that into their decision.”
The Grand Strand Business Alliance, a political lobbying group affiliated with the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, paid for the 8-inch by 10-inch ad printed on heavy stock paper. The fliers started showing up in Myrtle Beach mailboxes last week, with filing for the City Council race ending this Friday.
Steve Chapman, a hotel owner and chairman of the alliance, didn’t say how much the flier cost but said it simply was a way to applaud the incumbents’ willingness to run again for what “can sometimes be a thankless job.”
Incumbent Mayor John Rhodes and City Councilmen Randal Wallace, Wayne Gray and Mike Lowder announced their candidacies during a joint news conference last month at City Hall.
“The alliance felt the current group of council members and the mayor worked well as a team, and we believe their efforts have been beneficial to the business community, the citizens and the work force of the Grand Strand community,” Chapman said. “It made sense to share this message with the voters.”
Smith said it’s tough enough to beat an incumbent – “You’re going to have spend at least three times as much as the incumbent spends,” he said – but even more so when a powerful business group with deep pockets is backing those already in office. The alliance, formerly the Grand Strand Business Association, gave more than $250,000 to political candidates last year.
At least one challenger says she is undaunted by the business support – and money – backing the incumbents.
“If you’re running for a political seat for the right reasons, you shouldn’t be intimidated by the money issue,” said Jackie Vereen, a hotel owner and member of the city’s Community Appearance Board. Vereen, who filed last week to run for City Council, said she received the alliance’s flier but believes talking about issues – particularly the need to improve the city’s reputation among potential visitors – will appeal more to voters.
“Going up against guys that have a lot of money, it’s a little intimidating,” she said. “But I’m up for the task.”
Keith Van Winkle is the only other challenger to have filed so far for the council race.
David Bodle, a freelance travel writer, ran headlong into the city’s political machine in 2011, when he challenged incumbents – and eventual winners – Phil Render, Susan Grissom Means and Michael Chestnut – for a spot on the council. That’s the year Chapman helped form the Grand Strand Economic Improvement Alliance, a political organization that spent nearly $90,000 on advertising to make sure the incumbents stayed in office. Among the advertisements: a television spot featuring Chapman’s wife, Shelley, urging voters to “stay on the right track.”
Bodle said he won’t run this year because he was disgusted by what he terms unethical behavior by political groups with ties to the chamber of commerce. Mike Wooten, the business alliance’s former chairman, has said the group is the “lobby arm” of the chamber, and the chamber provides financial support to the alliance and pair of other political action committees, including the one that gave Chapman’s group money for the 2011 television commercials.
Bodle said he thinks the chamber-related PACs are spending so much money to re-elect council members because they are the ones who approved a 1 percent sales tax for tourism promotion in 2009 that funnels more than $20 million per year to the chamber of commerce. The rest of the local-option sales tax goes toward a tax break for city property owners.
Wooten has said the alliance and chamber-affiliated PACs are not controlled by the chamber, and only private money is given to the organizations. David Slough, a spokesman for the chamber, said the chamber “was not involved in and did not pay for the preparation or distribution” of the flier mailed to city residents for this year’s election.
Bodle said the experience from two years ago still stings. He couldn’t figure out at the time who would be spending so much on a little city council race. Today, Bodle says a challenger is going to need between $50,000 and $70,000 just to have an outside shot at beating the well-organized business interests backing the incumbents.
“The city’s residents are the most unconnected people I can imagine,” Bodle said. “That [property] tax break is all they care about. My campaign was about boots on the street and bringing issues to the table that weren’t being addressed. But my opponents would just come back with, ‘Well, we got you a huge tax break’.”
That rhetoric worked, with Bodle finishing a distant fourth to the incumbents.
The tax break also is featured prominently on the latest flier paid for the by the alliance, mentioned twice in one paragraph.
Also featured is the tourism tax, which has raised nearly $70 million for the chamber’s marketing efforts since it was passed without a voter referendum in 2009. Chapman called the tax “a resounding success in promoting and growing the top industry in our area,” and another reason the alliance is supporting council incumbents.
“The council has shown great leadership in taking on the challenges to our tourism economy by making investments in the boardwalk, the sports facilities complex, the airport and the growth of off-season tourism,” Chapman said, adding that the flier is designed “to remind the voters in Myrtle Beach of the good work our leaders have put in to improve the place we live and work.”
Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.