- Associated Press - Thursday, February 20, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The widow of Republican campaign strategist Lee Atwater, known for his take-no-prisoners tactics, has officially entered the race to be South Carolina’s next schools superintendent.

Sally Atwater filed her initial disclosure Wednesday with the State Ethics Commission after opening a campaign account with a $47,575 loan to herself. That infusion, from selling stock, puts her at the top of the money race among an ever-growing field of Republicans vying to replace Superintendent Mick Zais, who announced in December he won’t seek re-election.

So far, seven Republicans and two Democrats have jumped into the race.

Atwater told The Associated Press she will leave her job Friday as a special education teacher in Colleton County to campaign full time. Though she’s been involved in politics for decades, this marks her first run for elected office.

Zais‘ announcement “caught my eye,” she said about her decision last month to run. “My girls suggested it, and then I started thinking. I didn’t want to go to my death saying, ‘I should’ve tried.’ “

What got her excited, she said, was Gov. Nikki Haley’s visit to Colleton County to advocate her education improvement plan that focused on poor, rural students. After reading Haley’s plan on the district’s website, Atwater said, she wanted to help implement it.

“I thought, ‘This is great, and I can help her,’ ” she said, adding she has not spoken to Haley.

The House Ways and Means Committee adopted Haley’s funding suggestions for k-12 education as part of its 2014-15 spending plan, which advanced to the House floor Thursday.

Atwater, 62, was widowed in 1991, when Lee Atwater died of complications from a brain tumor, leaving her a single mom of three young girls. He died repentant and apologizing to people he’d whacked politically. Considered the pioneer of modern day attack politics, Lee Atwater engineered wins for Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, who then promoted Atwater to the chairmanship of the Republican Party in the wake of that 1988 landslide.

After three decades in Washington, Sally Atwater moved back to South Carolina - near two of her children - in 2012. She also returned to the classroom, making the commute from Charleston to Walterboro - one hour each way - to teach special education.

“I wanted to give back,” she said about teaching again after a 30-year hiatus. But it wasn’t easy, she added: “Last year, everything was a struggle.”

She’s running, she said, to give teachers a voice.

Atwater, a Winthrop University graduate, taught 9 ½ years at schools in Rock Hill, Gilbert and Columbia before moving to Washington with her husband.

While there, she worked in the U.S. Department of Education under Reagan and served on education committees at the National Institutes of Health. Throughout President George W. Bush’s tenure, she was director of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.

To run her campaign, Atwater has hired Warren Tompkins, one of South Carolina’s top political advisers. Their ties go back a long way. Lee Atwater and Tompkins were political partners, but the two first became buddies in elementary school.

Other Republicans running are Anderson County school board member Gary Burgess; Zais‘ former deputy superintendent, Charmeka Childs; attorney Amy Cofield of Lexington; GOP activist Sheri Few of Lugoff; University of South Carolina professor Don Jordan; and Charleston County school board member Elizabeth Moffly.

Democrats vying for the job are Rep. Mike Anthony of Union, a retired teacher and coach; and Zais‘ former director of school transformation, Montrio Belton of Fort Mill.



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