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In Ralph Norman, Trump Gets a Strong Ally

Incoming South Carolina congressman gives president an A-plus

South Carolina Rep.-elect Ralph Norman won on his second attempt for the 5th District seat. (Courtesy Ralph Norman for Congress)
South Carolina Rep.-elect Ralph Norman won on his second attempt for the 5th District seat. (Courtesy Ralph Norman for Congress)

Republican Ralph Norman, a developer of hotels, shopping centers, and retail stores, won a House seat 11 years after his first unsuccessful bid for the same South Carolina seat in 2006.

In Tuesday’s 5th District special election to replace former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who resigned from the House to become head of the Office of Management and Budget, Norman defeated Democrat Archie Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs executive and tax lawyer by an unexpectedly close 51 percent to 48 percent margin.

Norman said that in his eight years in the South Carolina House of Representatives, from which he resigned in January, his most significant accomplishments were to stop legislation that would have hurt businesses and to help sustain vetoes by Govs. Nikki Haley and Mark Sanford of bills that “were just pots of money given to legislators. This was money that didn’t go through the budget process, it didn’t go through any vetting; it was just money given to those who voted like the [House] leadership.”

(Haley is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Sanford, representing South Carolina’s 1st District, will be Norman’s colleague in the House.)

Probably Norman’s best-known vote came in 2013 when he was one of only two members to vote against South Carolina borrowing $120 million to provide incentives to Boeing so the company could expand its facility in North Charleston. The vote was 115-2.

“I voted against it because they did not disclose where the money went,” he said. “Was it for right-of-ways? Was it for cash incentives? What was it?”

Norman said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to the concept of providing incentives to Boeing to locate manufacturing in his state.

But “I was against keeping it hidden” and was in favor of “knowing where the money went. I was for the sunlight to explain to the public where did the money go,” he said.

Referring to the prize of Boeing locating in South Carolina, Norman said. “Could we have gotten it for $50 million? We’ll never know.”

Good grade for Trump

Asked to assess the early months of Donald Trump’s presidency, Norman said, “I give him an A-plus, mainly because he set the agenda for conservative values. What he did with [Supreme Court nominee] Neil Gorsuch — in my mind, he set the gold standard.”

The congressman-elect also praised “the fact [that] for every new regulation that comes on, he cuts two.” He added that Trump is “a business guy and that’s who we need in Washington.”

At first, Norman wasn’t a Trump supporter in the battle for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He initially backed Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin because of his fight against public-sector labor unions in his state. When Walker left the race, Norman supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

As for Trump, “Being an outsider, with no political experience, no endorsements, the media [against him] — I just didn’t think he could win,” Norman said.

Norman takes his seat in the House as a supporter of term limits. He has argued that term limits “would cut the influence of special interest lobbyists and encourage a true citizen-legislature.”

He favors a four-term limit for House members and a limit of two or three terms for senators. “And then get them out and let them live under some of the laws they make,” he said.

Norman also favors making changes to Social Security, arguing on his campaign website that “to sustain its long-term viability we must have the political courage to raise the retirement age by 2 months and lower benefits for the top 10% of earners.”

He said that Social Security going “broke in 2035 is not an option. We’ve got to make sure that the people who are currently enrolled and paying into the system are protected.”

But Norman added, “We are going to have to make some changes to make sure that we are solvent. For the 21-year-old who is just entering the job market, he might have to work a month longer.”

On the issue of illegal immigration, Norman said, “What Trump is doing is, first of all, getting the criminals out of the country. Those who have a history of crimes and who are illegal — he’s getting them out. That’s the first step. Secondly, we’ve got to have a path for people who are here and who are working. We’ve got to have some system so that we’re not crippling the country” by suddenly removing hundreds of thousands of workers.

He said once the immigrants in the country illegally with a record of violent crime are removed, Trump will set up a process for allowing otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants to work in the United States.

A difficult path

Norman’s road to victory was not an easy one. He first had to elbow his way through a Republican primary against six other candidates. He finished first in the primary but Tommy Pope, the speaker pro tempore of the South Carolina House, trailed him by only 135 votes and the two men advanced to a runoff.

Norman won the runoff by a mere 221 votes out of 35,425 votes cast.

This was not Norman’s first bid for the 5th District seat. The real estate developer previously ran in 2006, a very bad year for Republican candidates across the nation. Many voters were disenchanted with President George W. Bush and the Iraq War.

Norman was seeking to unseat longtime Democratic Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. “You parade as being a conservative, but you go to Washington and vote with the liberals,” Norman told Spratt during a debate that year. “It’s an extremist party represented by Nancy Pelosi.”

Spratt painted Norman as hypocritical in calling for a crackdown on illegal immigration but allowing undocumented immigrant workers to be hired on some of his development projects.

Norman said that he hadn’t required contractors at his developments to verify that their workers were legally working in the United States.

Spratt beat Norman by nearly 14 percentage points in 2006, but he would ultimately be defeated four years later by Mulvaney.

“John Spratt did a great job of constituent service. When somebody had a problem, he would jump on it,” Norman recalled. “The reason I ran against him was that he was one way in the district and then when he got to Washington, he voted the opposite.”

Norman said Spratt’s vote for the 2010 health care overhaul is what finally sank him: “He was just on the wrong side; he was a liberal. … People finally found out that he wasn’t the conservative that they thought he was.” 

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