An Interview with Ginny Deerin

Thomas Wilkinson

For most, stepping into the voting booth this November will be like taking a test that sneaks up on you. You know the main bits, but the further down the ballot you go the more you see topics which weren't covered in class. What is a comptroller or adjutant general, anyway?

One of the lesser known offices on this year's ballot is South Carolina Secretary of State. I sat down with with Ginny Deerin, candidate for Secretary of State, to talk about her campaign, the office, and the obstacles faced when running for public office.

TW: Let’s start with the office of secretary of state. Talk a little bit about the responsibilities and duties of SOS and what compelled you to run for that specific office.

GD: Well, the duties of that office are administrative. I mean I could try to make it sound really sexy, but it’s an administrative office. Think of a secretary who's taking in applications and fees and information from businesses and nonprofits and organizing it. That's it. That is the charge of the SOS. Now, the office has dabbled in other areas, but that's just because they've decided they want to do some other stuff. Their real job is very administrative. A lot of people describe it as the big file cabinet.

Why would I choose to run for this office? I've had a lot of experience with the office as a nonprofit leader: as a researcher for [nonprofit] Project XX because they organize the information as it relates to boards and commissions, as a professional fundraiser because they regulate professional fundraisers, and then as a small business owner because I've started small businesses along the way. I have a consulting firm now. 

S,o I've had a lot of interaction with the office and I've come to know over the twenty years that I've been involved with the office that it is big, bloated, inefficient, ineffective, and it needs to be fixed. I am a manager and an entrepreneur. I would not be a good legislator. I just wouldn't. That kind of legislative politics, deal making... not for me. The adminstrative nature of this position really would be a great fit for me, what I feel like I could do well. That's part of it, and the other part of it, which is really the more important part of it, is that it is a statewide office, which does give me a platform to talk about the importance of regular people running for office, talk about regular women running for office, talk about the importance of getting fresh, new ideas into the process. The importance of working together to make government work right. So that's really the reason I'm running for this particular office.

TW: You mentioned encouraging "regular" people to run for office. It seems like that "regular" distinction is a byproduct of the immense amount of fundraising required in order to run for office. Your campaign is unique because you put a $100 cap on donations. Talk about that decision.

GD: Right. Yeah. I've raised millions of dollars over the years for political candidates. So can I raise a lot of money? I definitely can. To have an impact statewide, in my opinion, you have to raise at least a million dollars. Otherwise you're just... you're not spending enough to do anything. But I just can't wrap my mind around raising one milllion plus dollars for secretary of state, an office nobody even knows what it is. Now, I guess you could say, "Well, if you spent a whole bunch of money you could educate people about the way it is." I just don't feel right doing that. It doesn't feel like this campaign should spend a milliion plus dollars. So that's part of it: I just don't feel good about taking that amount of money out of philanthropists and community people's pockets with this effort.

The other thing is, again, I've been involved with lots of campaigns including running Joe Riley's last campaign where we spent, just on the city race, about $700,000 just on the small city of Charleston. So I've been involved with spending money for campaigns, but I belive there's a cycle, and that things work and then they stop working. And I think that a lot of the paid media, television commercials, radio commercials... first of all, they all the sound the same, people tune them out, all the phone calls and all those things. People don't really use their home phones anymore. I just think that model of campaigning, in my view, is almost over because people are shutting it out. I'm curious to find out whether or not looping back to a more old-fashioned approach of just traveling and speaking on street corners and talking to small groups and networking with the added social media ability to get that out there beyond that one small meeting, if that can be effected. It would be great because that really opens the door for more people, more regular people, to run for office. 

Because you're right. I was just looking at my financial situation and I'm campaigning full-time from June 1 through November, so say six months. I'm not making an income for six months. I'm thinking, "Well, do I have enough money saved up to do that? What kind of dent is it going to make on my savings and everything?" And I'm a person who has made reasonable income. As I've been thinking about that I've been thinking that running for office becomes unavailable to so many people because if you're going to do it in this old fasihoned, travel around way, you have to take time off from your job. It's not a very good situation. It's not a situation that encourages new, fresh candidates to run for office for many reasons. We need to do better.

TW: You said in order to have an effect statewide you need to raise one million dollars, but why do that when that money could be going to other things. That seems to be the underlying philosophy behind what you've proposed to do as SOS. It follows the idea that there's an inherent cost to everything, so money that's used on fines and fees for businesses and non-profits, although it's going to the state, is money that could be used for whatever things the individual organizations themselves choose. Talk about your plan for overhauling the office.

GD: Right now 70% of the applications and fees you have to pay, you have to do through the mail. I would make it all online with a phone line for the unusual person who would not rather do it online. I'd get rid of the 70%, which reduces the cost of the staff that's required to process all the paperwork. What they do now with the 70%... I was talking to a guy who was trying to get a nonprofit corporate charter who calls them, is on hold forever on the phone, then they say it's going to take at least a month to process the paperwork. It's just a slow, antiquated process. And it's not because anybody's reviewing anything. It's not like anyone's making a judgement, is this good or bad, where you'd need time. It's just processing paperwork. So one thing I'd do is digitize and take all of the processes online. What is interesting is they brag about how they're getting rewards and everything for their online services and I'm thinking, "Wow. That bar must be really low." So that's number one and that will save a lot of money.

The second thing I will do is get rid of a lot of regulations. They're just duplicative. Now, I don't have the ability to get rid of most of them. I'd have to go to the legislature, which is inclined to be anti-regulation, so I think anybody who puts together a thoughtful proposal to reduce regulations would be met with a really positive reaction.

For example, nonprofits every year have to file a 990 form with the IRS, federal government IRS, every year. It's available online to anybody who wants to see it. The SOS's office makes us file with his office. That, to me, is a complete duplication of the process and that's a regulation which should be removed. So, one is take everything online, two is get rid of regulations.

Three is reducing the office back to what it's job is. I don't think the secretary of state should be in the business of going and training people on how to give their money away. Philanthropy, that's not their business. That's not their expertise. There are plenty of people who have that expertise like the South Carolina Association of Non-Profit Professionals and others.

That would reduce the overall budget of the organization to streamline it back to what their core job is, which is to process all this paperwork. So those would be probably the three big money savers. And probably the fourth would be it's a very top-heavy organization. For example, they only have twenty-seven full time employees. They have three lawyers. So, to me, it's a top-heavy organization and they need more people on the customer service part of it and less on the lawyering, programatic, come up with new things to go out side.

TW: The overall message is one of efficiency, which is one you would want for someone who is essentially a human filing cabinet. You mentioned your work in non-profits before and your fundraising work. Talk about your background in non-profits and what your interactions have been with the SOS office and your duties and responsibilities managing nonprofits.

GD: I've been involved working in nonprofits in a variety of ways pretty much my whole life. But my major professional life in nonprofits was creating a nonprofit called Wings For Kinds in 1996 and it's gotten all sorts of awards, been named the best managed nonprofit in SC. Nationally recognized for effectiveness, it's really a great nonprofit. So my management experience in the nonprofit world has been very deep because when I started Wings For Kids, it was just me and a part time staff. So I went from filing everything like corporate papers and I got a little help from a lawyer so I've kind of been involved all the way from the very bottom of the line kind of work in a nonprofit all the way up to leading a nonprofit that had a lot to do with managing employees and a fairly big budget.

My interaction with the office is like most other non-profits, just the inefficiency and how long it takes to just deal with them and get reports from them. We're always scratching our heads thinking, "Why do we have to do this? We've already done it once." So most of it has just been the frustration of having to waste our time and money paying these fees for what, you know? What is the purpose of it?

I did get involved in writing about an op-ed which was fairly well published across the state on this Scrooges and Angels ratings that they do. And how not only is it a waste of their time, but it's really doing harm to nonprofits because they look at one number and that number they look at is the percentage of money spent on fundraising and management of operations. So by using that number for their data of this list, it communicates to the public that that's what they should do, that's the smart thing for them to do. Well, that isn't the smart thing to do. Of course there are extremes; nobody's going to argue that spending 80% of their money on marketing and their operations and fundraising isn't a problem. We're not talking about extremes. That would be like saying to businesses, "Well, we don't want you to spend any money on your human resources, on your training, on your systems, on your anything. Because if you want to be an angel, you need to have like 99% of your money spent on your program. So I got involved just in the terms of policy on that issue, but mainly it's just like everybody else. It's like going to the DMV for years and going like, "Wow. How could this be any worse?" It's like that. That experience. It's not an uncommon experience. I think a lot of people have it. That's why I think there's just a tremendous amount of improvement that can be made. It's not difficult to make the improvements given the nature of the technology we have at our disposal.

TW: Explain the Scrooges and Angels program for those who don't know.

GD: Every year the SOS office publishes a list of Angels and Scrooges. The Angel organizations are the organizations that spend the least on fundraising and management expenses at their organization. So someone's budget is $100,000 and they spend only $300 on a category of expenses that would be considered management and fundraising and they're like, "Oh, you're great. You get this good housekeeping seal of approval," and they're like, "You should give to that nonprofit because they're the best." And the Scrooges are the ones who have the highest percentage. I don't really have a problem with the scrooges part. Anyone who is really that high on the percentage is probably not doing a very good job. But on the Angels front, for a person to determine whether or not a nonprofit is a good investment for them besides the fact that it's something they're interested in, education, environment, etc. has much more to do with looking at it more comprehensively. Are they effective? Take Wings as an example. I think our percentage is maybe 15% or 16%. We're one of the most effective nonprofits in the United States based on what kind of impact we're having on the kids' lives who we're teaching. But we're never going to be picked as an Angel because a big part of our effectiveness is that we spend an enormous amount of time training staff and because of that our staff stays with us for three years, four years on average. You calculate as a business the cost of high turnover, but they don't look at that. That isn't calculated into it, so it's a very simplistic, inaccurate way to evaluate the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations. Going and traveling around the state, producing this list of Angels is doing harm because you are teaching people to look at one very simplistic number that does not tell the whole story. Many of those aren't very effective.

Now, there are certain nonprofits where, because of the nature of what they do, they don't need to spend much money. But with most nonprofits, like a business, you need to spend money on your organization, the health of your organization, or you're just going to fail.

TW: What you're saying reminds me of education spending. Funding is important, but you have to tease out the difference between funding and actually effecting some change. One great teacher can completely change the dynamic of a classroom, whereas you can spend loads of money on many bad teachers.

GD: Right. It would be like if you rated schools based on how little you spend on your teachers or something simplistic like that. Well, you can't do that. You have to judge a school based on "are the kids learning?" And you can't do that by looking at one number. It's a very similar situation.

TW: Yes, and it's always difficult to quantify human interaction.

GD: And real impact. That's what philanthropists want to know. Don't tell me that you've provided a reading program to 10,000 kids. I don't really care that you provided that program to 10,000 kids. Tell me that they can read better as a result of your program. That's what I want to know. And that's much more difficult. The best judges of those are people who live in the community, not the SOS office trying to tell people who live in Charleston who to give to and who not to.

TW: Going back to community. You're trying to change this impersonal campaign approach with ads and things that you mentioned don't really work, that people have shut themselves off to. Talk about your campaign.

GD: Well, I think this is an important race. I think I’m a very unconventional candidate but because of my experience and background I’m a very serious candidate. I think that the newness and the freshness and having never run for office, being a woman, having a big part of what I’m doing encouraging other people who haven’t run for office, particularly women, to run, whether they’re running for city council or PTA leader or whatever. I think it’s an unusal campaign and one that may end up bringing together some very unusual coalitions of support. Because my platform is very Republican, you know. Most Democrats, when they go to run for office, they try to figure out, “Well, how can I sound like a Republican and hope people don’t notice I’m a Democrat." And I am not doing that. I’m a very proud Democrat. I’m happy that I’m running as a Democrat and my platform is authentically very aligned with what Conservatives consider important. So I may end up getting, I’m already getting, a lot of Republican support. I mean literally my Republican friends said, “You are a Democrat Republicans will love to love.” So you might end up having this progressive Liberal woman end up getting some unusual Conservative support because of my platform.

Since it was primary season, most of my time since I announced was spent going out and talking to Democratic party groups because they all had their conventions and they invite candidates to go. Which has been good because it gives me practice. Since June 1, what I've been doing is what I did when I was in Port Royal near Beaufort, just at a farmers' market. Beaufort is a new Republican county, so I'm assuming most of the people there are probably not Democrats and my goal was to meet and shake everybody's hand who was there. There were probably five hundred people there. I stayed there for a couple hours and it was great. What I realized is I am a great retail politician because I really enjoy doing it. And out of the probably five hundred hands I shook, there was only one person who brought up party. And it made me very happy because I think that although when people have to put a label on themselves, they do, most of us don't like to operate with being pigeonholed with some label. So I was very surprised that it didn't come up more, but very happy.!

That's what I'm going to be spending most of my time doing. A friend of mine built for me this very cool sort of combination stump box and boombox and it has a great sound system inside and you stand on top of it. I'm looking forward to pulling that out different places where there are lots of people and, with the microphone, speaking on a street corner. I haven't done that yet, but I'm really looking forward to it. I'll let you know how it goes.!

July 4th I'm doing a road race around the state. Just trying to have some fun with it. I have the luxury of being myself. I think a lot of political candidates, particularly if you view yourself as having a long political career, you want to be super careful. I think that sort of process of getting yourself to be super careful can be bland and boring. It's very hard on the candidates because it's hard to not be yourself. It's really hard. Well, I'm 63 and I'm not looking at it as, "This is the beginning of a long political career." It's really fun because I can actually just go be myself. I've nothing to hide. I feel like I have a good platform. I think I'd be great for the job and I really want to win. I think I can catch on, and if I catch on, I'll win. But no matter what happens at the ballot box, I feel like it's a win. Which just fills me energy and optimism because it's not all about that one day sale, for me, anyway.