Originally created 09/22/96

SRS: An influential vote



After being beaten in a state House of Representatives primary in June, Sheran Proctor cited the Savannah River Site as one of the reasons she lost.

"We had to fight so hard, but we couldn't overcome the Westinghouse (Savannah River Co.) people. I can't fault them. They're interested and they vote," Ms. Proctor said at the time.

Scott Beck, Ms. Proctor's opponent, was the latest SRS employee to be elected, at least in part, because of ties to Aiken County's largest employer.

In Aiken and Edgefield counties, current or former SRS employees hold 20 percent of the 98 seats on elected county, school and municipal councils - a surprising number considering SRS employees make up about 10 percent of the population in those counties.

The survey included mayors and council or board members who serve part time.

Workplace identification is just one of many forces impacting on a person's vote. But many people agree there is a tendency for one SRS employee to vote for another.

"People have always tended to vote by groups," University of South Carolina-Aiken political scientist Bob Botsch said. "If someone shares your group identification, all other things being equal, they'll vote for you. It's a natural part of politics."

In many workplaces, that phenomenon would only net the candidate a few dozen votes. But at SRS, with 16,000 workers, there's a potential for thousands.

"I think that being an employee of SRS, they're more inclined to vote for you because, just like you have community of people that make up North Augusta, you have a family of people at the Savannah River Site," said Tom Green, North Augusta mayor and SRS retiree.

SRS employees also are some of the highest paid and better educated residents in the area, a huge factor when it comes to voter turnout, say political analysts.

"They are a highly educated, interested electorate who pay attention to the issues," said Dr. Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist and manager of U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham's re-election campaign. "You always know they're very important."

Another factor that helps explain the many SRSers in local government is the corporate culture of the Site's dominant employer, Westinghouse. About 11,700 of the Site's 16,000 employees work for Westinghouse.

It's a company that encourages and allows more community involvement than other businesses, say some elected officials.

Aiken City Councilwoman Lessie Price, a 29-year SRS employee, said workers at the Site can rearrange their work schedule or use personal time to accommodate public duties.

"In my case, I take a lot of vacation time, but people take personal time and sometimes company time," Ms. Price said, adding that company time is used for charitable organizations, not politicking.

Westinghouse spokesman Paul Jones said the participation of employees in local government and community groups is similar to the company's more obvious contributions of cash to area schools and charities.

"It's good for the communities, good for the employees and we hope it's one way the corporation can help the community improve," Mr. Jones said.

And then there's the fact that SRS itself has become an issue in some political races. While it may not carry weight in town council campaigns, area voters - especially Site employees - want to know that a Legislature candidate will protect SRS.

Mr. Beck, who left SRS for law school after winning a special and then a regular primary over Ms. Proctor this year, said that concern may have been a factor in his wins.

"I don't think there's any question the Site has become very political," Mr. Beck said. "In the past few years, the budget changed, the mission changed and the work force population changed. Maybe someone would view me as more favorable to the Site."

But, the SRS vote can be weakened by other forces. Dry cleaner Rick Osbon beat incumbent Russ Ferrara, a business developer at SRS, in the June primary for Aiken County Council District 7. Mr. Osbon's win was largely attributed to his standing as a hard worker in the county GOP, while Mr. Ferrara was considered an outsider.

Still, say politicians, no matter where you work, what you put into a campaign will determine what you get out.

"I've been reelected every other year for 23 years," Mr. Green said. "It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of contact, a lot of letters to make it happen. That has more to do with people winning than anything.