SOUTH CAROLINA — On most days, you will find Will Folks, aka “Sic Willie”—South Carolina’s blogger provacateur, the prolific force behind FITSNews.com and that Nikki Haley story—where you’d least expect him: in a nice home on a quiet, well-kept street in Columbia, the state capital. He works out of a tidy office lined with vintage baseball cards and his kids’ art projects; the sign on his office door features a construction paper giraffe and reads, with complete innocence, “Jo’s Zoo.”
The cheekiest thing you’ll find in Folks’s office—not counting what lurks in his computer files—is a framed photograph of him standing between South Carolina’s former governor, Mark Sanford, and Haley, the current governor. A pre-lapsarian scandal sandwich; all smiles before the storms.
Political junkies may remember Folks from May 2010, when, two weeks before South Carolina’s gubernatorial primary, he announced on his blog that in 2007 he had had an “inappropriate physical relationship” with Haley, the Tea Party favorite for whom he had once done communications work (and whom he supported in the governor’s race).
Haley promptly denied the claim, calling it “categorically and totally false,” and Folks was accused of setting a new low in dirty politicking—breaking news of a scandal and starring in it—in the state best known for dirty politics. His web traffic spiked, but few people, particularly in the press, believed him—a fact Folks chalks up to a smear campaign unleashed against him.
In person, Folks exhibits a startling candor and openness. He volunteers that he had a well-deserved “reputation” while working as an aide to Sanford. “I drank too much, I hooked up with lots of girls,” he admits. (He also, at one point, pleaded guilty to a domestic violence charge.) It’s a canny, charming approach that creates the impression that he is earnest and utterly credible. After spending the day with Folks—and hearing him press his account of the Haley ordeal repeatedly—I’m inclined to believe him. (And yes, my editors shivered when reading that last phrase.)
But that’s not really what this story is about. I’m here because, over the last five years, Folks has turned his one-man web operation into a must-read for Palmetto State politicos. (He also has a business partner, Nancy Mace—Folks notes that she is the first woman to graduate from The Citadel—who built the site and works as his promoter and occasional editor.) Folks adamantly resists the label of “reporter” or “journalist”; his site’s tagline—“Unfair. Imbalanced.”—is a boastful repudiation of professional journalistic norms. It’s a pose that allows him to push his own political views (fiscal conservatism, Ron Paul) and embrace his shock jock, frat-boy side (he frequently posts photographs of women in bikinis; not long into my visit, he opens up a picture that a woman has sent him displaying her shelf of cleavage).
Journalist or not, Folks is a consummate information broker, producing political scoops on a near daily basis. He’s been deemed South Carolina’s preeminent political blogger and tweeter by The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza. And while much of his content is inside baseball, Folks says his audience—previously limited to the state’s lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters, and political activists—has been expanding to citizens who are interested in his efforts to hold the state’s politicians, especially Haley, accountable from a fiscal conservative’s perspective. The site now draws 1.5 million visitors per month, he says, who come to see the handful of new stories he publishes per day.
But this bad-boy blogger is also a family man. When I first approached Folks about shadowing him for a day, he warned me he worked at home in an environment of “NON-STOP CHAOS.” He lives with his wife, Katrina, whom he started dating shortly after his claimed relationship with Haley ended, and their three kids—thirteen-week-old Phillippe, two-and-a-half-year-old Johanna, and eight-year-old August, Katrina’s son from an earlier marriage. Katrina shares Folks’s politics, for the most part, and reacts to his Sic Willie antics as if they were a sit-com couple, greeting his ribald commentary with affectionate, exasperated eyerolls.
Folks starts working at 7:30 each morning, shortly after dropping August off at school. When I showed up at his house around 8:30 Wednesday, he answered the door dressed in athletic clothes and with a source on speakerphone. The conversation would lead to a post later that day flagging the involvement of Robert Cahaly—a Haley advisor and local political consultant charged in connection with illegal robocalls made in November 2010—with the Southern Republican Leadership Council, which hosted Thursday night’s CNN debate in Charleston.