Tom Rice: Inexperience could be a good thing

Would-be South Carolina congressman Tom Rice and Georgia Congressman Tom Price stood in front of a group of doctors, nurses and staff at Grand Strand Regional Medical Center recently.

Price, like Rice a Republican, gave a description of the health care plan he has formulated that he said would be better than Obamacare because it allows doctors and patients to be in control. And he promoted Rice as the right person to be the first to occupy the 7th District congressional seat.

Price’s trip to Horry County speaks to the importance the Republican Party puts on winning Tuesday’s vote for the new district, but he was by no means the biggest-name backer who visited Rice during the campaign. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was along the Grand Strand supporting Rice just a few days later. And earlier in the campaign, House Speaker John Boehner was in town.

“We laughed and had a good time,” Rice said about meeting and playing golf with Boehner.

If Rice is elected, Republicans will expect him to stick to the party line in D.C., which likely he will if he wants to get anything done. Freshmen congressmen are sort of like fraternity pledges in that their good standing in the club is at the whim of those higher up the food chain.

Rice calls himself a conservative Republican. He believes in being careful about spending the public’s money and not spending more than absolutely necessary. He supports the right to life movement and thinks U.S. government has strayed from tenets of the Constitution.

“That said, I want to push forward,” he said in an interview.

He knows from his years as a tax lawyer that resolutions are the result of deals, of two opposing sides hammering out a solution, and rarely if ever does one side or the other get everything it wants.

Rice, like his Democrat opponent Gloria Tinubu, has run his campaign on the need for jobs in the eight-county 7th District. He believes, though, that everything is overshadowed by the nation’s fiscal mess, a crisis he believes so dire that Congress won’t be able to ignore it any longer. He’s pretty sure that because of the immediacy of a fiscal meltdown, a resolution will be reached within the first few months of 2013.

Then, he said, he can concentrate on getting jobs to the 7th District and the infrastructure to support them.

Rice thinks there need to be changes to Social Security and Medicare to keep them secure for the long haul. He feels, for instance, that perhaps taxes on Social Security checks could be tied toward the overall income of the recipients, which likely would mean that those with more income would pay more tax on their Social Security benefits. He also would like a Medicare system where the traditional government plan continues to exist, but there are private options as well that people can choose.

“Everybody agrees there’s a huge problem,” he said. “Democrats say ‘Oh, they’re going to take your benefits away.’ And that’s a lie. What I want to do is avoid the crisis.”

Rice knows from his own life the importance of the safety net. He got Social Security help from his late father’s contributions to help pay his way through college.

“There’s got to be a safety net,” he said.

Charleston native

Born in Charleston, Rice, 55, and his brother Clay moved to Myrtle Beach with their mother after their parents divorced when Rice was 4.

His mother was a teacher – first the second grade, then the fifth grade and finally special education – so there wasn’t an excess of money in the home. He remembers the small house they rented off Oak Street when they first moved to town.

Rice began working as a busboy at the Reef Restaurant when he was 12, and at 14 became a fry cook on the night shift at Dairy Queen. He then was a bag boy at a Winn Dixie grocery story and managed a Putt Putt golf course when he was still in high school. In the summers, he worked from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and was paid $1.65 an hour.

“I was rich,” he said, smiling.

Although his father, a heating and air conditioning man, stayed in Charleston after the divorce, he remained active in his sons’ lives. They would see him every other week and during summers. He died when Rice was 16.

Rice enrolled in USC with a plan to take a scholarship he’d been offered at Duke at the start of the second semester. But he found Gamecock campus life enjoyable and stayed in Columbia, majoring in accounting.

He took a required course in commercial law for his major and worked as a runner for a Columbia law firm when he was a senior. He didn’t want to leave college after his four years, and took the suggestion of a lawyer to get a law degree as well, because people who had both accounting and law degrees were in demand.

Not long after he graduated, Rice was in a Charleston bar where a woman caught his eye and he asked her to dance.

She refused, said Wrenzie Rice. But the two talked and then dated and, about a year later, got married. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in August.

Not surprisingly, Wrenzie Rice thinks her husband would make an excellent congressman.

“He really cares and he wants to help,” she said.

The couple has three grown sons. The oldest is a lawyer in Rice, MacDonald and Hicks, the law firm Rice worked with before he retired two years ago. The second has a degree in economics from Emory University but can’t find a job and is helping his father’s campaign. The youngest, also an underemployed college graduate, has worked as a waiter and tour boat guide.

Wrenzie Rice said he had been talking about running for office for a few years before he sought the council chairman’s job and she encouraged him to do it.

After all, he had just retired from his legal practice and she does the bulk of work managing their real estate holdings. What better time? He was urged by a number of people to seek the 7th District seat, she said.

“It’s almost as if God led us down this path,” she said.

A public image emerges

Rice first came to the public’s attention in Horry County when he led the Take Back May effort to get rid of a month’s worth of motorcycle rallies that he said then, and has repeated in this campaign, are bad for most businesses and residents. He didn’t want to focus on that for this story, but agreed that it may have helped him in his subsequent bid for the council chairman’s position.

He doesn’t recall specifically, but thinks he may have told a reporter that he had no plans to seek another office when asked as speculation mounted that the state’s new congressional seat would be in the Pee Dee.

That was true, he said.

“But then I had several good friends come to me” who said they thought he’d make a good congressman. “We had several discussions about it.”

He then asked his wife how she felt about him running.

“I think maybe more people knew who I was,” Rice said of the exposure he got through the anti-rally campaign.

He has also gotten exposure – and taken campaign heat – as a result of his role as council chairman.

Tinubu has attacked Rice repeatedly about Project Blue, code name for a call center that would create 1,020 jobs if an agreement can be reached with Horry County regarding incentives and other considerations.

The regional Economic Development Corp. has been working with the company as part of its mandate to bring more industry to the area and Tinubu has said Rice’s friends will benefit from the deal if an agreement is reached. Rice and those Tinubu named as benefiting because of Rice’s role on the council strongly dispute the charges.

Political inexperience

Marion Foxworth, one of two Democrats on the 11-person County Council, calls Rice a good man and a fast learner, two traits he’ll need if he is to successfully navigate the intricacies of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Foxworth noted political inexperience may have led Rice to quickly flex his powers as council chairman to change the board’s structure to establish a committee of the whole, where all members sat in on the necessary, pre-meeting business formerly handled in separate committee meetings. The change lasted about a year, Foxworth said, and then the committee structure reappeared.

“It was a tough first year,” Foxworth said.

Councilman Carl Schwartzkopf, a Republican, said he saw the situation differently.

Schwartzkopf said he thinks the failure of the committee as a whole process may have had more to do with people naturally resisting change than it not being a good idea.

Foxworth graduated from high school with Rice’s brother and was in a Leadership Grand Strand class with Rice in 1987-88, but Schwartzkopf hadn’t met him until he ran for council. He recalls wondering what he could know about running County Council with no political experience.

Still, he said Rice has proved a good leader with good organizational skills and believes he would do a good job in Congress if he’s elected. He said Rice has two valuable characteristics: he is willing to listen and to compromise. Rice didn’t impose his will on the council and didn’t micromanage its workings, Schwartzkopf said.

He’s not sure why Rice ran for the council chairman’s seat, but he has an idea of why he won.

“Basically,” he said, “it was not that people voted for Tom. They voted against Howard [Barnard].”

Rice said he ran for the council leadership role because he believed he had things to contribute. Barnard – a former councilman – said Rice entered the race to run against him. He called Rice a superb opponent and said he ran an upright campaign.

Former County Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland said she will vote for Rice, but she declined to go into details on why or how she thinks he’ll do if elected. Gilland said she met Wrenzie Rice at a Bible study group at Myrtle Beach’s First Baptist Church some years ago, and through her, Tom Rice. She felt comfortable enough with Rice when he ran that she endorsed him as her successor.

Councilman Harold Worley, a Republican, also said he’d vote for Rice but, like Gilland, wasn’t forthcoming with specifics

“Tom’s a nice guy and he does a good job,” he said twice, when asked twice, if he thinks Rice will be a good 7th District representative. He said with his legal background, Rice is qualified for the federal role.

Rice said about 20 people encouraged him to run for the new seat. Some were family, he said, some friends and, yes, some were business interests. He said having business representatives among his supporters shouldn’t surprise anyone: They were the people he spent a career representing.

As for his lack of experience, Rice believes that’s a good thing.

“The framers [of the Constitution] intended for us to have a citizen legislature,” he said.

Rice said he believes congressional representatives and senators should be limited to two terms and wants to sponsor a bill to make it so. But he wouldn’t pledge to give up his seat after two terms if he wins Tuesday because seniority is key to getting your own things done and limiting his own tenure while others didn’t could hurt his constituents.

Wrenzie Rice said her husband is naturally soft-spoken and rarely gets mad.

Rice agreed with the latter, but said he will get angry if someone attacks his integrity or his family.

But he’s no milquetoast about the rest of society, either.

“I don’t like people who drive slow in the left lane,” he said.