Mike Ryhal teared up while talking about his swearing-in ceremony almost three weeks ago in Columbia for the new state House District 56 seat.
A lover of history, Ryhal – the new representative for the Carolina Forest area – said he was humbled as he thought about the Civil War and all the decisions made in the state capitol as that conflict progressed.
South Carolina was the first state to secede from the nation and the site of the first shots fired in that conflict. None of that was lost on Ryhal as he took the oath of office.
“It was just one of those humbling things, where you sat there and you think, ‘Am I worthy of this?’ It just makes you realize you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you,” he said.
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There is a lot of work ahead for Ryhal, 55, whose day job is overseeing Rotelli’s Italian Restaurant in Conway with his wife, Carrie, and their three daughters, Kaitlyn, Kristin and Michaela. He is the new representative for an area that saw the largest growth in Horry County between the 2000 and 2010 census, skyrocketing from around 3,400 residents to more than 20,000.
It’s an area whose residents are concerned about their future, specifically education and infrastructure needs.
Bo Ives, president of the Carolina Forest Civic Association, said one of its goals is having a bikeway built in the community.
Ives said it would connect with the greenway, a bicycle path running from Maine to Georgia, along S.C. 31. That link, he added, could ensure federal funding for the project that is estimated at $6 million.
The group will be back before the Horry County Transportation Committee in February to talk more about the issue.
“We’ll need delegation support,” Ives said.
Ryhal recognizes that as his district continues to grow, schools will become crowded again and traffic will continue to back up on U.S. 501. He also wants International Drive to be completed.
But Ryhal’s primary objective is improving educational opportunities in order to help attract more jobs.
He stressed the importance of vocational and technical schools and the options they present to students who don’t make the best grades and aren’t looking to go to college.
Ryhal admits he struggled in school and decided to learn about commercial art and graphics at a vocational school instead of a traditional four-year university.
He found it was the right fit for him, and his skill set grew. Ryhal, who later earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering, said he took that knowledge and used it to build his first home.
As a freshman legislator, Ryhal said the best thing he can do in Columbia is have an open-door policy and build relationships with educators on a local level to find out what their needs are.
Ryhal said this week he met with Horry County Superintendent Cindy Elsberry to talk about where schools in District 56 are at. In that conversation, he said he learned one of the biggest challenges is funding, and trying to do a lot with a little.
Ryhal, who’s been placed on the Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs committee in the House, didn’t have an immediate solution on how to increase funding for local education, but stressed always keeping an open mind and listening to the concerns of educators.
And as Horry County officials continue trying to broaden the local economy, Ryhal wants to make sure the local work force has the proper education and skills to make potential employers want to locate here.
Ryhal looks at the call centers coming into the area, such as Frontier Communications and the proposed Covation facility that could bring 1,020 jobs, and asks what type of training is needed for this type of work if Horry County is to become a call center destination.
“If we looked at the experience … of the phone centers we have here, what’s been the success rate of those kids? How many of them fail? What’s the turnover rate? That’s expensive for a company,” Ryhal said.
He doesn’t want to see Horry County become a haven for call centers and thinks technology manufacturing is a viable option.
But how do you lure those companies?
Without interstate access, there has to be another way to make the area attractive. Ryhal wants himself and other legislators to look at local regulations and the tax structure to see if changes can be made to help industries consider setting up shop along the Grand Strand.
It’s something that would have to be a collaborative effort.
“I don’t think I have the answer,” Ryhal said.
That doesn’t mean he’s against regulation on the whole, using the example of people downstream asking the government for help when someone upstream is dumping toxic waste into the water.
“So, government has a role. But we’ve gone beyond protecting to micromanaging,” Ryhal said.
There is one area he would like to see more government regulation, and it concerns texting while driving.
Ryhal said there is tragedy after tragedy on state and local highways because of distracted driving. He remembers a measure that was addressed last year to regulate cellphone use while behind the wheel, but which ultimately failed because of challenges saying it’s an infringement on personal rights.
At least two similar bills have already been introduced on the topic ahead of the start of next year’s session.
Ryhal said he wants to visit Columbia think tanks to get suggestions on how to get such a piece of legislation introduced and, hopefully, ultimately passed.
“I have a lot of questions, and I want to know what’s been done in the past,” Ryhal said.
Reining in government regulations, improving education and job prospects and making roads safer are all lofty goals for a freshman state representative new to the political process.
It was a political process which could be described as baptism by fire.
Both Ryhal and fellow Republican challenger Dennis DiSabato – along with hundreds of other candidates statewide – were tossed off the ballot before the June primaries following a Supreme Court ruling disqualifying them because they filed to file their statement of economic interests form at the same time as their candidacy notice.
Ryhal and DiSabato both got back on the ballot as petition candidates, leading to a showdown that ended in Ryhal winning by just over a 1 percent margin.
As he prepares for his first legislative session, Ryhal wants to hold on to his belief that he’s in Columbia to serve, not be self-serving.
“There’s a huge difference. The day I become self-serving, I want out of the business,” he said.