CHARLESTON, S.C. – Six months ago, Wilton Elder was just another Ron Paul supporter, looking for ways help the 76-year old Texas Congressman's presidential campaign. Now, he helps lead the all-volunteer Paul task force called Charleston for Ron Paul that is primarily responsible for Paul’s double-digit support among likely primary voters in the Palmetto State.
After meeting several other Paul enthusiasts at a Low Country Libertarians meeting, Elder decided to organize a meet-up for local Paul supporters. He publicized the event online but had no clue if anyone would show up other than himself.
“I said, I don’t care who comes, I don’t care if it’s just me. And 11 other people showed up.”
What started as a meet-up has now turned into a full-fledged volunteer grassroots operation in South Carolina -- an effective replacement for the official campaign's total absence in the state. The grassroots team has opened two unofficial campaign offices in South Carolina - one in Charleston and another in Columbia. It was the only Paul presence in the state until last week, when the Paul campaign decided to open an official office in Columbia.
The rogue Paul campaign’s efforts have made an extraordinary difference in the level of support for Paul now versus 2008.
In the 2008 Republican Presidential primary, Ron Paul opened five campaign offices in South Carolina – three official offices and two satellite offices – only to win a mere 3.7 percent of the vote in the Palmetto State. Currently Paul is polling at 16 percent in South Carolina. By comparison, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is polling at 14 percent, and he has six official offices open in the state – the most of any candidate.
After their Charleston for Ron Paul’s initial meet-up, the group immediately recruited a former South Carolina Ron Paul staffer - James Trementozzi - to run the volunteer office, located at 2317 Ashley River Rd in Charleston.
Initially, Trementozzi was hesitant to sign on to the effort. After Paul’s 2008 campaign, he quit politics entirely and started a business, which he later sold after he decided to go back to school. However, he said he was so moved by the passion of the meet-up attendees he decided to approach his former boss, Paul’s long-time South Carolina state coordinator Brain Gentry, for his blessing.
Trementozzi said Gentry told him the Paul campaign had no plans to put any resources in South Carolina, partially because of Paul’s lackluster performance here in ’08. About the same time, a Vietnam veteran and major Paul donor offered to loan a property he owned in Charleston to the group to use as their campaign headquarters.
Thus, Charleston for Ron Paul was born.
Everything about Charleston for Ron Paul is volunteer-led and donation-based. Donations from supporters pay for water, electricity, refreshments and campaign materials. Sometimes, members of the group receive leftover materials from official Paul offices in other states, but the majority of the yard signs, bumper stickers, buttons, literature, Paul DVDs and pocket constitutions they pass out are purchased online from the official campaign store.
“We could donate money to the campaign, but instead we do this,” Elder said, reiterating that the campaign is in no way involved with the grassroots effort.
“We don’t want the campaign,” Trementozzi added. “We actually threw the campaign out.”
Charleston for Ron Paul prefers the official Paul campaign to stay unaffiliated. And the Paul fans have done such an effective job of spreading the word about their organization that dozens of people were standing outside in line for signs last night, Trementozzi said. Mid afternoon today eight volunteers were at the office putting together yard signs and making Get Out The Vote Calls – the same number of volunteers who were making calls at Mitt Romney’s official Charleston office today at approximately the same time.
Likewise, Charleston for Ron Paul’s rogue status hasn’t stopped it from getting access to resources necessary to run a competitive campaign here. Under Trementozzi’s guidance, the group purchased voter lists and identified potential supporters and donors by pulling public FEC records of previous Paul donors in South Carolina.
“Who from Mitt Romney’s campaign is doing that? Who from Rick Santorum’s campaign is doing that? Who from Newt Gingrich’s campaign is doing that? Nobody, yet [Ron Paul’s] not getting the time of day,” Elder said.