Gregory battled for health, environment, democracy

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By The Staff

We’ve been reading a lot about the long and distinguished careers of two Senate veterans who are retiring this year, and rightly so.

But I’d like to take a few moments to recognize a quieter senator who also is stepping down this year, albeit after a relatively short 16 years.

You might not even recognize Sen. Greg Gregory’s name. He wasn’t a war hero like Sen. John Drummond, didn’t deliver stem-winders about the foolishness of this bill or that editorial in The State like Sen. Kay Patterson. He just worked hard to make our state a better place to live.

The bow-tied fashionplate of the Senate, who favored the ultra-traditional Southern gentleman’s blue-and-white-striped seersucker suit, was elected in 1992 from what was then the Democratic stronghold of Lancaster County.

What I always liked about Greg – besides the fact that we shared so many passions – was that he wasn’t ideologically rigid. His voting record leaves no doubt he’s a Republican, but he also took positions outside the GOP mainstream, at least when he first took them. He fought for lower taxes – except when they needed to be raised. He fought to keep the government out of the free market – except when it needed to be involved. He was recognized as one of the best at defending the interests of business and the environment alike.

Sen. Gregory was waging an often-lonely campaign against smoking back before it was cool. In those years when nobody thought it was worth the effort to try to restrict smoking in public places or limit vending machine sales or make it illegal for kids to smoke, Greg Gregory toiled away at it. He never wavered on his support for a higher cigarette tax, whose public health benefits he understood long before most.

His other lonely crusade, early on, was against the video poker barons who plagued his neck of the woods before they became a scourge on the rest of the state. He fought against our state government getting into the numbers racket, and once he lost that fight turned to writing operating rules that would limit the damage of the new lottery.

He helped lead the fight against litter and for stricter boating safety laws and an enforceable seat belt law. He was one of the most articulate and persistent champions of giving the governor the power to run the executive branch.

In an amazing stroke of luck, I happened to tune in to the Senate’s Internet broadcast last week just as Mr. Gregory was saying his farewells. What he considered most important to include in his final Senate speech says much more about the senator he has been than I ever could. So I’m just going to let you listen in:

“Looking back over the last sixteen years, I think that we as a Senate have been at our best when we’ve come together for the common good of South Carolina and given up a little bit each personally to benefit the whole.

“I think about the one billion-dollar bond referendum that we passed, that built new schools in my district and every other one.

“Striking a solution on the battle flag controversy. How many hours did we sit here listening to speeches about the battle flag, and we finally got that settled for the betterment of the state.

“Conversely, at worst, I think we’re at our worst when were allow parochial interests and small differences to impede progress in the state....

“There’s a fellow by the name of Petigru, who..., 150-something years ago, said South Carolina was too small to be a republic, and too large to be an insane asylum. And that’s still true today in some respects.

“My pet issue over the years of course has been government restructuring. Government restructuring is something that’s been badly needed in our state for years and years — for a hundred years really. And we got some done under Governor Campbell. We haven’t really gotten much traction since then.

“I think our government was set up in the late 1890s with the primary objective of decentralizing power in order to keep African-Americans out of power, and its certainly worked in that regard, because none have been elected to constitutional office positions over the time. And I think that instead of worrying about removing Ben Tillman’s statute, maybe we ought to remove the form of government that he set up for the state.

“We just cling to this antiquated form of government that Georgia, our neighbor to the south, got rid of back in 1942. And why do we do it? I guess we all have got our reasons, but it all comes down to varying degrees of power that we derive from it. We just need to let go of it and trust that the system that every other state has can serve our state as well.

“But everybody’s in charge, and nobody’s in charge. For us to move up from fiftieth up higher in national rankings is going to take vesting power in the executive branch of this state.

“As the senator from Kershaw (Vincent Sheheen) has said, this is not a zero-sum game – that we can have a strong governor and a strong Legislature. They’re not mutually exclusive. So I’d implore you to do that as we move forward over the next session, and at least give the people the power to vote to give the governor the power to appoint the constitutional officers and to do other things like pass the pending bill to restructure.

“Second thing would be just to protect the natural resources of South Carolina. We don’t love South Carolina because of the billboards that we see on the interstates or the cloverleaves we see on the interstates. We love it because of its natural areas, its beaches and rivers and forests and mountains. And I do believe we can have accord between development and preservation, and I would urge you to strive for that, by continuing to fund fully things like the conservation land bank.

“My last thing I would urge you to do is continue to thrash the House of Representatives in the annual softball game.”

That last task might be tough without Sen. Gregory; actually, they’ll all be a little tougher. But they’re fights worth waging.

Editor’s note: Cindi Ross Scoppe is an associate editor with The State and her column is reprinted with permission from The State.