Clyburn’s Dem Challenger Denies He’s A ‘Plant’ — But Hired GOP Rep.’s Aide

June 11, 2010 8:43 a.m.

A Democratic primary challenger in South Carolina who has been accused of being a “plant” hired for his Congressional campaign a GOP consultant who as recently as late last year was the campaign manager for Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), according to campaign finance reports.

Businessman Gregory Brown says he challenged Rep. James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, in the Democratic primary on Tuesday because he’s worried about the state’s poverty rates and failing schools. Clyburn (D-SC) charged this week that Brown is such a political novice that he must be a “plant.”Brown told TPM in an interview he was a legitimate candidate being targeted because he challenged a powerful incumbent. But his Federal Election Commission filings show his largest campaign payment was to a firm run by a GOP political consultant who is best known as Wilson’s former campaign manager and who currently works for other South Carolina Republicans.

Brown’s campaign paid Stonewall Strategies nearly $24,000 for “marketing” and “marketing materials,” according to his 2010 campaign finance reports. The firm is run by former Wilson aide Preston Grisham.

TPM took a look at Brown, who lost with 10 percent of the vote on Tuesday, after Clyburn asserted his candidacy might not be legitimate. The dust-up in South Carolina comes as a Democratic Senate candidate, Alvin Greene, won the party’s nomination without ever having run a campaign. Clyburn suggested Greene could be part of a nefarious plot that would also include Brown, and another Democrat, Ben Frasier, who won the primary in the 1st Congressional district.

Grisham, who graduated from University of South Carolina in 2005, appears to have spent most of his career working for Wilson.

He was employed by Wilson’s congressional office in some capacity from 2003 to late 2009 (with a year and a half gap in 2005-06). According to congressional pay records, he started as an intern, transitioned to a part-time employee gig, then finally became a special assistant from 2007 through the end of October 2009. At the same time, Grisham was campaign manager for Wilson’s congressional campaign from 2002 through 2009, according to Grisham’s LinkedIn profile. He was paid in that role as recently as November 30, 2009. (A Wilson campaign spokesman said Grisham is no longer with the campaign.)

Wilson’s congressional spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a message. Attempts to reach Grisham via phone and email were not immediately successful.

Brown told TPM that Grisham’s Stonewall Strategies helped “set up the technical piece of our campaign” and did initial polling. Brown said his friends had recommended Grisham as someone with experience running political campaigns and who was “capable.” At first Brown told me that he wasn’t aware of the connection with Wilson, made famous in spring 2009 for shouting “You Lie” during President Obama’s address to Congress. Then Brown said “I was aware” that he had consulted with Wilson, but said he had “no knowledge” that Grisham held such a prominent role with the Wilson campaign.

“We searched high and low, there were very few people willing to get involved … we searched almost two months before we came up with Stonewall Strategies,” Brown said. He said people told him “that for me to run would be political assassination because he’s been in office so long … that it would not be the politically astute thing to do.”

At the same time that Grisham was working for the Democratic campaign of Brown, he was doing work for at least two Republican campaigns in the state. Grisham’s Stonewall Strategies got $5,000 in May from the campaign of Republican Eleanor Kitzman, a candidate for lieutenant governor. And he got reimbursed for “reception supplies” by the GOP Attorney General campaign of Alan Wilson — the son of Rep. Joe Wilson.

On his Twitter feed, Grisham has promoted conservative ideas like a “no new tax” pledge for the state, and this item from last December: “Wake up this morning to see we are getting even closer to have Socialist rule thrust upon the American people.”

Clyburn aides said they’d heard rumors Grisham was working for Brown, but weren’t able to prove it since there were no FEC filings. Brown insists that he had filed the reports in late April, but receipts provided to TPM and found on the FEC website suggest he filed the reports last night.

Brown said he and his wife run an orthodontic practice and two other smaller family business and that 80 percent of the approximately $70,000 he spent on the campaign came from his own pocket. He said he raised “maybe $2,000,” and the reports show a $250 donation from a Columbia doctor who donated $1,000 to Sen. John McCain in 2007.

“My wife and I are quite proud and were willing to put our personal finances on the table to improve our Congressional district which we think has been laid by the wayside,” Brown said. “To suggest someone is a plant, that is just crazy.”

Brown said he’s “voted straight Democrat all of my life” but pointedly noted South Carolina has open elections and that Republicans can support Democrats and vice versa. He said he’ll keep running in future elections until the 6th Congressional district, the poorest in the state, improves.

Two African American Democratic legislators from Clyburn’s district insist Brown was in no way shape or form a plant. State Rep. Wendell Gilliard is listed on Brown’s FEC report as a “consultant,” and was paid $4,000 by the campaign. He told TPM it is “ludicrous,” to suggest Brown is a plant. “Brown is out here like any American citizen … Clyburn is just a politician that doesn’t want anyone to run against him,” Gilliard said.

Gilliard declined to say what the campaign payment was for — and he said he never met Grisham, nor knew about his involvement in the Brown campaign — but he insisted that Brown’s campaign was completely on the level. State Sen. Robert Ford, who lost his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination on Tuesday night, told TPM that Brown had come to him two years ago to first discuss running against Clyburn.

“I said you’re out of your mind because you’re going to need five or six million dollars,” Ford told TPM. He said Brown told him he thought he could do it for less money and mounted the bid this year even though he would likely be outspent.

“Greg Brown is an educated businessman married to a doctor who has five offices,” Ford said. “He didn’t need to run for office, but he saw that Clyburn wasn’t doing the right thing so he did. … There’s something wrong in America that you can’t take your hard-earned money and run for office without somebody calling you a plant.”

Late Update: Clyburn’s office sends along a statement from the Congressman, saying our reporting is proof that something fishy is going on.

These disclosures highlight what we knew all along, that Wilson’s staff and other Republican operatives were involved in Gregory Brown’s campaign. We might find similar circumstances if other candidates follow the law and file disclosures. There are deadlines for disclosures so that voters can have this pertinent information regarding candidates and their campaigns before they vote, not after. Failing to file disclosures on time is not only a violation of the law, it is an effort to deceive voters, something that Brown’s consultants were doing throughout the campaign.

Additional reporting by Evan McMorris-Santoro and Lucy Madison

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