YW: There was a really big protest that was organized primarily by the Department of Education in March. There were maybe 600 people that came to the statehouse grounds, and I think the governor held a press conference at the same time that it was going on. We could hear chanting inside his office.
But I think that for anybody who understood Sanford’s track record, the time he spent in Congress, and the positions he took on spending, that this was really consistent with his track record. I think there were some people that weren’t surprised and that were happy. It seemed like, as the debate wore on, that he was getting his message to more and more people and, therefore, his position was being received more favorably.
KB: From reading the coverage, I get the sense that this stimulus bill is an incredibly complex piece of legislation. Has it been difficult to get your head around?
YW: It was really difficult in the beginning because I depend on the legislative staff, and when they were trying to understand the stimulus the package at the same time when they were trying to write the state budget, I think everyone was feeling pretty overwhelmed and maybe a little bit confused about it.
It’s really complicated and it was really difficult to be a reporter at a time when your sources were really trying to understand what was included in the bill, how the regulations would be interpreted, and how the money would come to the state. Congressmen Clyburn, the U.S. House Majority Whip, he was a big advocate of the bill, and his office did a lot of helping us get information early on and breaking it down into the various pots of money that would be coming to South Carolina.
That was really helpful, but there are still questions at different agencies. If you call and ask the PR folks, they don’t really understand fully. As time goes by, people get a better grasp on it. One of the earliest pots of money that got dealt with was the money for highways and road resurfacing, and our Department of Transportation was set to receive $463 million over the next two years for these highway projects. They were pretty on the ball and got that started early on.
The focus for me has been on the disputed $700 million. In a lot of ways, that’s shifted the attention of all of the press corps to that little 10 percent of the money the state could ultimately get.
I don’t want to get all philosophical, but that’s why it’s important to have the watchdog element of the press. It’s important for us to look into how this happens. The White House said they wanted to be really transparent, and they asked every governor to create a taskforce in their state, a stimulus oversight group. Ours is run by the comptroller general’s office and they’re active in sending press releases about what they’ve been doing and when they’re meeting. I haven’t been to any of those meetings, but that’s maybe something I hope I can get to when things calm down.
KB: Your focus is South Carolina politics, but I’m curious if there’s something that you see missing in the national coverage?
YW: I think the most important job of any reporter is to let the reader know how something’s impacting their life, specifically. In South Carolina, the stimulus package was projected to create or save about 50,000 jobs and so I tried to write an article that said if you’re looking for a job, maybe you should follow the stimulus money and see where it takes you. If it’s supposed to be creating jobs, what jobs are being created? I had a really difficult time writing that article and researching it, maybe because I tried to do it so soon. The only obvious answer was construction because of all the highway repair money. But I think as a journalist that’s the most important thing: to help people understand how this is affecting their lives.