Big dream a reality for new kid on block

Rep. Kevin Ryan, 22, who beat Vida Miller, learns ropes as youngest S.C. House member
Monday, December 13, 2010

State Rep. Kevin Ryan knows who some think he won the District 108 House race only because he had an "R" next to his name in a tea party year.

But the Pawleys Island Republican believes there was more to his winning 52 percent of the vote Nov. 2 to oust Democrat Vida Miller, who represented the coastal district for 14 years. "We also worked tirelessly," Ryan said, adding that he knocked on hundreds of doors and made thousands of phone calls.

Ryan's win surprised some observers, not only because he unseated a longtime incumbent but also because he's only 22 -- the youngest member of the 124-member House.

The reality of all this is slowly sinking in for the College of Charleston graduate student who still lives with his parents.

"It's been absolutely crazy since Nov. 2, a good crazy though," he said. "My standard joke whenever I see House members and senators is that I ask them, 'When do the calls and e-mails stop?' "

A political junkie

Before deciding to run, Ryan consulted one of his favorite instructors, Clemson political science professor Dave Woodard.

Woodard got to know Ryan well through their work with the university's Republican club. Ryan gained a reputation of being thoughtful whenever he spoke up and became well regarded by other club members.

"He has that kind of gravitas. One time, I told him, 'You look like a legislator,' " Woodard said. "He gives the appearance of being older than he is."

Woodard gave him the nudge.

Ryan already got a taste of real-life politics in the summer of 2009, when he interned for Gov. Mark Sanford.

He witnessed Sanford's political implosion that began with a days-long absence and ended with a public disclosure that he was visiting his mistress in Argentina -- and then came a host of ethics charges.

At the time, Ryan called Woodard to say he was going to resign his internship. Woodard encouraged him to stay put, which he did.

"I'm not ashamed to have worked in his office, and I'm very proud of what

I did there," Ryan said. "(But) it was difficult. Gov. Sanford was someone I looked at as a role model politically and personally on some levels."

Woodard said the experience might have been one of the best things that could have happened to his student.

"He was very much affected by that, just the shame of that," Woodard said. "It showed him how fragile political power and political office is, and that's not a bad thing to learn for a young man going into politics."

Not the most seasoned

As he entered the District 108 race, Ryan got a break when Republican Jill Kelso, who came within 6 points of beating Miller in 2008, opted against running again.

Ryan had just graduated from Clemson and was regarded with some skepticism because of his youth, but he got the GOP nomination without a primary fight.

"Generally, one tends to want a more seasoned candidate," Georgetown GOP Chairman Tom Swatzel said. "Kevin had just gotten out of college and was inexperienced politically but very knowledgeable about state government. One would have said the odds were against him at that point."

As the months wore on, Swatzel watched Ryan improve as a speaker and as someone willing and able to make personal contact with voters.

Swatzel said the party became convinced of Ryan's ability and helped him by spending about $25,000 on postcards critical of Miller's voting record, such as her abstention on the state's Marriage Protection Amendment. Ryan only spent about $20,000 himself; Miller spent about $42,000.

What had been a quiet campaign turned testy as it became clear the contest had tightened up. "It became pretty confrontational at the end," Ryan said. "I don't think she took my candidacy very seriously."

Miller said that's "absolutely not true," and she didn't underestimate Ryan because of his age. "It was a very negative campaign. I'm not telling you this to be a sore loser. I'm not a sore loser. I'm fine," she said, adding that she also heard from voters who opposed her because they wanted to send a message to Democratic President Barack Obama.

"I'm not looking for excuses to justify the outcome of the election," Miller said. "Those are the facts."

Meanwhile, Ryan's campaign themes mirrored those of Gov.-elect Nikki Haley, who urged reigning in spending, steering more school dollars to the classroom and increasing governmental transparency. On the latter issue, Ryan backed up his talk by posting all contributions and expenditures online within 48 hours.

A done deal?

Ryan's victory doesn't make him the youngest South Carolina lawmaker ever; former Gov. David Beasley was elected to the House when he was only 21 and still in college. (The minimum age to run for a state House seat is 21; 25 for the state Senate)

Ryan said he doesn't harbor thoughts of a lengthy political career and has vowed to serve no more than four terms.

He said he understands he has a learning curve ahead of him in Columbia, though he does plan to pre-file a bill that would limit spending cuts for the State Conservation Bank to the same levels as other agencies. Currently, the bank's funding is stripped away if there are mid-year budget cuts. "Some have asked, 'Is that a core role of state government?' I think it is," he said.

Meanwhile, his re-election prospects likely will be affected partly by how House districts are redrawn following this year's census.

Currently, District 108 hugs the coast from Murrells Inlet to northern Mount Pleasant. Ryan won the Georgetown County precincts by a large enough margin to compensate for losing those in Charleston County.

It's unclear what the district might look like in 2012.

Miller said she wishes Ryan well, but noted, "As Kevin will find out in a couple of years, he'll have a record, too, that can be attacked."

But both Woodard and Swatzel said they see a bright future for Ryan. His skills -- and good luck -- have gotten him farther than most college graduates so far.

"When I last talked to him, I said, 'This is your year. This is a Republican year. Aren't you glad you ran?' " Woodard said. "In politics, a lot of things have to line up that you don't control, but I think this year they did for Kevin."