Kevin Bryant is ready for life after 14 years in statehouse
ANDERSON, S.C. (AP) — As he prepares to end his 14-year tenure in the Statehouse, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant has taken up a new hobby.
Instead of drafting legislation or hitting the campaign trail, the Republican from Anderson is honing his culinary skills on his new Big Green Egg, a ceramic charcoal grill.
“I’ve done pork tenderloin. I’ve done bacon-wrapped turkey breasts,” he said during a recent interview. “I’ve done pizza.”
He’s also put in more hours at his family’s business, Bryant Pharmacy & Supply, and caught up on yard work at home.
“It has been nice to have more time to do things,” he said.
Time in the public light is ending for the 51-year-old.
In his final act as lieutenant governor, Bryant will gavel the state Senate into session on Jan. 8. One day later, he will watch Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and the state’s new lieutenant governor, Travelers Rest businesswoman Pamela Evette, take their oaths of office.
When the inaugural ceremony is over, Bryant said, “I might just give the big Nixon goodbye.”
A lot has changed since Bryant eked out a 370-vote win over former Pendleton Mayor Carol Burdette in the June 2016 GOP primary for the state Senate. Facing no Democratic opposition, Bryant claimed a fourth term in District 3 in the November 2016 general election.
Fifteen days after defeating Hillary Clinton in the same election, President-elect Donald Trump chose then-Gov. Nikki Haley to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, setting off a round of political musical chairs in South Carolina.
McMaster, who was lieutenant governor at the time, replaced Haley. After cutting a deal with Senate leader Hugh Leatherman, Bryant gave up the seat that he had held for 12 years and was sworn in as the state’s 92nd lieutenant governor on Jan. 25, 2017.
Seven months later, Bryant announced he was seeking the Republican nomination for governor.
“It is my goal and the goal of our campaign to bring integrity back to Columbia as we promote your liberty and protect your wallet,” Bryant said during his campaign kickoff outside the Cromer Food Services compound in Anderson.
He spent the next 11 1/2 months traveling across the state to introduce himself to voters.
“Our strategy was to highlight my record,” Bryant said. “I had a very conservative record, and none of the other candidates did.”
A January poll showing Bryant in second place behind McMaster in the GOP governor’s race offered a flicker of hope. But an inability to raise significant amounts of campaign cash kept him from building momentum.
“You can have the best message in the world, but if you don’t have the funds to get on TV and some mail and newspaper ads and all that kind of stuff it’s hard to get that message to voters,” Bryant said.
Republican John Warren, a wealthy Greenville businessman and Marine veteran, entered the governor’s race in February. Warren ultimately poured $3.3 million of his own money into his campaign.
Bryant initially invested $225,000 of his own money and a $25,000 personal loan in his campaign. In the weeks before the June primary, he contributed another $514,000 of his personal funds, which allowed him to pay for a last-minute series of TV campaign ads.
He came in fourth among a five-person field in the Republican primary, collecting about 7 percent of the votes. McMaster, one of the state’s best-known politicians who benefited from Trump’s endorsement, finished first in the primary, and he defeated Warren in a runoff two weeks later before vanquishing Democratic state Rep. James Smith in this month’s general election.
The primary marked Bryant’s first-ever loss in an election. In Anderson County, he finished a disappointing third behind McMaster and Warren.
Rep. Jonathon Hill, a Republican from Townville, said Bryant’s lackluster showing in Anderson County may have stemmed from his 2015 vote to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds.
“I know a lot of people were pretty much through with him at that point,” said Hill, who was among 23 GOP members in the state House of Representatives who voted against removing the banner.
Anderson County Republican Party Chairwoman Cheryl Cuthrell said the odds were stacked against Bryant in the governor’s race largely because of Trump’s support for McMaster.
“It is kind of hard to beat Trump,” she said.
Reflecting on the campaign, Bryant expressed qualms about the amount of his own money that he spent in the governor’s race.
“I felt like it was a gamble because it wasn’t anywhere near the amount John (Warren) put in,” he said. “If you told me I’d max out at 6.7 percent I might have rethought that.”
Even though he didn’t win, Bryant said he “pushed the debate on a lot of things.” He noted that the other GOP candidates joined him in a signing a pledge to support “open carry” gun legislation.
Bryant also said he was part of a “team effort” that led to the elimination of state funding for Planned Parenthood.
“That alone was worth everything we did,” he said.
Bryant said he and his wife, Ann, and two of their three children vacationed on the Caribbean island of St. Barthelemy after the primary. Since returning, he said, he hasn’t lost sleep over failing to win the governor’s race.
“I’ve moved on,” Bryant said.
Bryant still would have two years left in his Senate term if he had chosen not to become lieutenant governor.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “I enjoyed it. It was an honor to serve.”
Besides acting as the Senate’s presiding officer, Bryant oversaw the state Office on Aging as lieutenant governor.
“I have never had an agency come to me and say, ‘Tell folks when you’re out about the services that we can offer because we want to serve more people,’” he said. “I really appreciate their commitment.”
Bryant said the agency’s efforts to promote independent living for seniors are laudable.
“Seniors want to be as independent as long as they can be. They want to be at home as long as they can be,” he said. “Their families and future generations benefit from seniors staying home, and it’s good for the taxpayer.”
During his time in the Senate, one of Bryant’s biggest accomplishments was helping pass a law making child rapists eligible for the death penalty. He also played a key role in passage of a 24-hour waiting period for abortions in South Carolina.
Bryant avoided becoming embroiled in any scandals, although some critics did question the $19.5 million that his family’s pharmacy received in Medicaid and state health insurance payments during the past decade.
Bryant was a founding member of the Senate’s libertarian “William Wallace Caucus,” which was named for the Scottish freedom-fighter portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie “Braveheart.”
But he also formed an unlikely bond with former Sen. Joel Lourie, a Democrat from Columbia. He and Lourie, who were each first elected to the Senate in 2004, have nicknames for each other. Bryant refers to Lourie as his “bestest leftist friend forever” and Lourie calls Bryant “my right-wing brother from another mother.”
“The more we got to know each other, I think, the more there became a mutual respect and friendship,” Lourie said. “When we had differences, they were never personal. And to the surprise of both of us and many others, we found common ground on a lot of issues.”
Lourie praised Bryant for proposing a state program that currently offers up to $12 million in tax credits related to scholarships for special needs students who attend private schools.
“I started out from the position of no public dollars going to private schools,” Lourie said. “And the more we talked about it and worked on it, the more I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Lourie said he wishes “Congress could work more in the way that Kevin Bryant and I worked together.”
“We’re not seeing a system that rewards bipartisanship like it used to, and I think that system is failing the American people,” he said.
Bryant said that the years he spent at the Statehouse reinforced his views.
“I am more of a libertarian now than I was before,” said Bryant, explaining that he has seen numerous government initiatives “where some of the best intentions just don’t work out.”
“If the free market can solve the problem, it will do better than the government solution,” he said.
Cuthrell, the county’s GOP chairwoman, said Bryant will be missed in Columbia.
“He was one of our biggest conservative voices,” she said. “We always could count on him to be 100-percent looking out for the citizens of Anderson.”
Three of the county’s Republican lawmakers also had kind words for Bryant.
“He stuck to his beliefs and stuck to his guns,” said Sen. Mike Gambrell, chairman of the county’s legislative delegation.
While they differed over removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, Hill said he was “especially proud” of Bryant’s unflinching opposition to abortion.
“He’s always been there for me any time I’ve needed him, and even when I didn’t know I needed him he looked out for me, so I’ve always really appreciated that,” Hill said.
Sen. Richard Cash, who was elected to fill Bryant’s former Senate seat after he became lieutenant governor, said Bryant is a “conservative across the board.”
“He represented his constituents with integrity,” Cash said. “He was not part of the swamp, so to speak.”
Lourie, who left the Senate in 2016 and now owns an insurance agency, predicted that Bryant will enjoy returning to private life. He said his time away from the elected office has been “the best two years of my life.”
“There will be plenty of times where you miss being part of the excitement,” Lourie said. “But you’ll find that the time you’re able to put back and spend with your family and your personal friends and in your business more than compensates for that.”
But Lourie said Bryant eventually may feel compelled to serve again.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see Kevin get back into the political ring, maybe run for Congress one day,” he said.
During the recent interview at his pharmacy, Bryant said he intends to stay politically active.
“We will be involved in some capacity — maybe supporting a like-minded candidate, maybe advocating some issues, maybe a combination of those,” he said.
Asked he will run again for elected office, Bryant replied, “I never say never.”
But, he added quickly, “I don’t have my eye on anything.”
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Information from: Anderson Independent-Mail, http://www.andersonsc.com