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District 108: Student's campaign promises primary for GOP

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

If Kevin Ryan is elected to the S.C. House of Representatives next year, the Pawleys Island area resident will become the youngest member of the state legislature.

That distinction is currently held by Rep. H. Boyd Brown, a Fairfield County Democrat serving in his first term. He turns 23 this month.

Ryan, a 21-year-old Clemson University student, announced this week that he will run as a Republican for S.C. House District 108, which includes parts of Georgetown and Charleston counties.

He will face Jill Kelso, 33, in the GOP primary. Kelso ran unsuccessfully in 2008 against Democratic Rep. Vida Miller, and on election night announced her plans to run again in 2010.

Miller, 59, of Hagley, has held the seat since 1996. Neither Ryan or Kelso, a businesswoman who lives in Murrells Inlet, has held public office before.

Ryan said he knows he has his work cut out for him.

“My age could potentially be an issue,” he said. “People will question my experience.”

That experience includes working in the governor’s office last summer and serving on the executive committee of the Georgetown County Republican Party.

But experience isn’t everything, Ryan said.

“People talk about seniority and how much it helps. But being part of a body that hasn’t offered any changes, I think that’s a good thing to not to have experience in,” he said. “Experience is great except when you’re not really producing results.”

In Ryan’s opinion, that’s the case with Miller, and that’s why he’s running.

“I think it’s time for a new voice, a new perspective on the issues,” he said. “There are a lot of important debates going on, and she’s not really offering any new ideas or fresh perspectives.”

Ryan’s campaign will focus on improving the state’s education system and protecting natural resources. He supports proposals to consolidate school districts and reform school funding, so that more money makes it into classrooms.

Keeping education dollars in the classroom was also a major component of Kelso’s campaign when she took on Miller last year.

Unseating an incumbent is never easy, said Dave Woodard, a GOP political consultant and professor of political science at Clemson. But he said he believes Ryan will be “a surprisingly good candidate.”

“He knows what he’s up against. He studied past races in every precinct going back for some time. I would say don’t underestimate him, because I think he’ll surprise you.”

Ryan grew up at Pawleys Island. He expects to graduate in December and pursue a master’s degree in public administration. He has taken several of Woodard’s classes and Woodard says he demonstrates a maturity beyond his years.

“I don’t know [District 108], but I know Kevin and if had to pick somebody who could do the job, it would be him,” he said.

Ryan said politicians like Boyd Brown and Rep. Bakari Sellers, 25, of Bamberg County, are proof voters will take a young candidate seriously. Sellers was also elected to his first term when he was 22.

Woodard said several of his students have run for political office in his 20 years of teaching.

“There’s a tendency to dismiss youth, but it also brings a lot of enthusiasm,” he said.

Ryan said he knows his age will come into play, but he hopes people will focus on the issues rather than the year he was born.

Scott Streiffert, who teaches government at Waccamaw High School, said he thinks his students might be more interested in the election because of Ryan’s age, and because he is a WHS graduate.

“It’s certainly something we’ll be talking about in class,” he said. “I think it will be interesting for them to see a young person in this race and realize that could be them in a few years if it’s something they want to do.”

Ryan’s age may generate some interest among voters, but probably won’t make much of a difference in the race, Streiffert said.

“Obviously he’s going to have his work cut out for him, but I think the biggest advantage for him now, just gauging from conversations with students and parents, is that people are a little disgruntled with our politicians in general right now,” he said.

The downside of that for Ryan, is that most aren’t displeased with their own representatives, Streiffert added.

“Everybody seems to be disgruntled with Congress or the legislature, but they’re not disgruntled with their own candidate; it’s everybody else’s,” he said.

Without a presidential election, voter turnout will also be a factor in 2010, Streiffert said. Tom Swatzel, who the county Republican Party chairman, blamed Kelso’s loss last year to the large Democratic turnout for Barack Obama.

Miller and Kelso together spent about $200,000 on their 2008 campaign. Ryan recently opened his campaign account with $500.

He said he isn’t sure where most of his contributions will come from, but he’s hoping to have his campaign financed primarily through individuals and businesses within the state.

In the weeks before the election, Kelso received at least $27,000 from contributors who had connections to Howard Rich, a New York real estate developer who supports libertarian initiatives.

Ryan said he isn’t sure if those donations would be offered to him if he won the primary, or if he would accept them if they were.

Whoever wins the GOP primary, Woodard said they’ll gain an edge in the general election from the early exposure and name recognition it will generate.

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