Beaufort Today -

Image, ethics and state business

After World War II, a fierce but civil rivalry developed between Birmingham and Atlanta as to which would become the unofficial capital of the South.

Founded in 1871, Birmingham was a coal and steel town with much ownership of the principal industries in Pittsburgh and other northern cities. Its symbol is a large statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge. In 1950, its population was 326,000.

Atlanta was founded in 1837 as a railroad junction and was known as a crossroads of people, commerce and ideas. The Atlanta newspaperman Henry Grady coined the term New South.

In 1885, a former Confederate colonel named John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola. His partner Asa Candler and his dependents led the growth of Coke as a global brand. In 1950, Atlanta’s population was 333,000.

Then came the defining issue for Atlanta, Birmingham, the South and the nation: race. How these cities dealt with this issue defined their future.

Police dogs, fire hoses and violence became the image of Birmingham. The out-of-state economic leaders cared more about their profits than Birmingham’s image or people and they let the Bull Connor crowd do what they pleased.

Local economic leaders and Mayor Ivan Allen proclaimed Atlanta as “the city too busy to hate.”

Birmingham jailed Martin Luther King. Atlanta held a dinner in his honor when he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

And there was all the difference. Today, Birmingham’s population is 1.1 million and Atlanta’s is 8.3 million.

In South Carolina, too, the business community has played a role in our ongoing struggle with race.

In 1959, Jackie Robinson used the white waiting room at the Greenville airport and his treatment by police caused a national incident. To avoid another black eye in the media, the business community stepped in and acted.

It was the business community of Greenville that pushed to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day an official holiday.

After the Emanuel Nine shooting, it was the business community that pushed Gov. Haley and the Legislature to take down the Confederate flag. Many Southern states and companies saw what we did and followed.

Some would argue race is a “special case” and the lessons don’t apply to other issues. Ask the people of North Carolina.

In 2012, a far-right governor and extremist legislature were elected. They passed a whole agenda of right wing legislation culminating in a bill seeking to dictate use of bathrooms by transgender people.

The bill set off a firestorm from national and global business, sports teams, film companies, entertainers, etc., who protested and immediately boycotted the state. The Associated Press estimated it cost the state $3.76 billion.

As Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a good reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

All indications are that South Carolina is at the beginning of a major ethics scandal. The key questions are: How far and how high will it go? And what will be the long-term impact on our state?

Time and the courts will answer the first question. The answer to the second question is playing out right now.

Solicitor David Pascoe is leading the investigation and one indication of the possible size and scope of the scandal is that he recently added three solicitors to his team. Five out of a total of 16 prosecutors in the state are working on the case.

So far, the scandal has brought down Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, former House majority leader Jim Merrill and Sen. John Courson. At the center of the scandal are Richard and Rick Quinn and their extensive business and consulting dealings.

There will surely be many more to come and the questions of guilt or innocence will be played out in the media for months and even years.

This ethics scandal is hurting us today. The damage is both seen and unseen.

States and companies operate in an incredibly competitive environment. Decision-makers on the other side of the country or even the globe are deciding every day what companies they want to do business with, where to invest, where they will create new jobs, etc.

A single news story can have a profound impact. Decision-makers ask themselves, “Do I want to do business in a state that tolerates this kind of corruption? If I do, will someone come after me in some sort of sleazy shakedown?”

Many will respond, “Why take the chance?”

So what can the South Carolina business community do? The answer is a lot. I believe its role in cleaning up the ethics scandal can be decisive. Here’s how:

The S.C. business community should commit to doing something. Then develop a tough ethics package and call for a single up or down vote by the Legislature. At a minimum, it should require all legislators and political appointees to:

• Annually release their income tax returns.

• Prohibit them from doing business with any state or local government entity and release the names and dollar ranges of all of their clients above a reasonable amount.

• Sign a pledge to refrain from lobbying or doing business with local, county or state governments while in office and for five years afterward.

• All of the above should be made publicly available online.

The major business organizations should come together and sign on their support. Prove they mean it. This leadership group should announce they are committing a minimum of $1 million to support or defeat legislators based on their support for the reform package. Legislators will quickly get the message.

We face two interrelated questions: What will be our message and image to the nation, even the world, about what kind of state we are? And will South Carolina’s business community act decisively?

Our state’s future may depend on the answers.

Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston, is co-founder of EnvisionSC and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association. Contact him at phil@philnoble.com.

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