On Monday, Upstate entrepreneur John Warren, founder and former CEO of Lima One Capital (now serving as chairman), announced his candidacy for this year’s gubernatorial campaign. Warren, who hails from Greenville, is a graduate of both Washington and Lee University and New York University, and additionally served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. With his announcement, he is one of two candidates for the governor’s seat who come from the Upstate, alongside Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson. Greenville Journal was able to sit down with Warren to discuss his campaign run.
So, let’s get to the bottom of it: Why run for politics?
I really feel called to get into the race. My background is service. I am a former infantry officer in the Marine Corps that has led over 300 combat missions; I signed up for the Marine Corps shortly after 9/11 because I felt like my country needed me in a time of war.
I love my state and I think we have everything going for us as a state except our state government. When I look at our state government, our pension system is bankrupt. There’s the VC Summer [nuclear expansion] project, where taxpayers are $4 billion in the hole, with citizens in Newberry and below still paying for a site that isn’t ever going to be operational. We’re wasting so much money in spending, and our education system is 50th in the nation. All of those things are completely unacceptable, and I think I can bring some common-sense conservative principles back to really make a huge difference for South Carolina.
You were quoted once as saying that we, as a state, have a huge leadership problem politically, that we have a failure of competence and a failure of values, so you’ve been consistent in that message. But you go on to say that a lot of people go on to run who have not been successful in the real world. What is “real-world” experience, and what do you think that brings to the office?
So, let’s look at who I am: I am a businessman; I am a conservative; and I’m a Marine. Who I am not — I am not a career politician; I am not a government insider; and I am not a lawyer. I am accountable to a profit and loss statement, and I know how to run effective organizations.
One of the problems we have in Columbia is that people talk a lot about creating jobs, but I will be the only one in the race that has actually ever created hundreds of jobs. I think we need someone with real-world experience, who actually knows how to create jobs, who actually runs an efficient company — those are the leadership skills that we need to run our state. And, I happen to think that as a CEO, a founder who grew a company, and as a platoon commander who was in charge of 42 Marines in combat, those are skills that transfer immediately to the executive level at the state — the governor’s seat.
You mention running a business. Do you feel that government should run like a business? Because there are those who don’t feel that way.
The No. 1 characteristic of a business is that it values money. In government, the money that the government has, well, that’s South Carolina’s money. That’s hard-earned money by all of the citizens, and yet our political leaders don’t value it.
But we can do a lot of very basic things to save taxpayers a lot of money; for example, rather than having 110 state agencies who all have their own computer system, common sense would say, “Why don’t we have one computer system?” In fact, why do we have 110 state agencies? Let’s consolidate those and save some money. These are very basic things that really serve the taxpayer and would go a long way in government.
I will say this: When you don’t run certain aspects of the government like a business, you get problems like V.C. Summer, where you have a totally incompetent board that should either resign or be replaced, but instead, the whole thing is allowed to happen, which puts taxpayers on the line for $4 billion in losses. The VC Summer project is the best contrast to allowing South Carolinians to make a decision: Do you want the state to be run as it has been run, or do you want it to run efficiently?
Outside of that, what is it that you bring to the table that none of the other contenders do?
My background has taught me that leadership comes down to three things: core values, core competencies, and courage. You have to have all three to be a true, efficient leader. So, in terms of the values, we need to return some conservative, common-sense principles to government. In terms of competencies, we really need someone who knows how to run a business, because the current [state] budget is what, $9 billion? (Editor’s note: For the fiscal year 2018-19, the state budget is $8.1 billion from general funds, up slightly from $7.9 billion last year.) But none of these people have actually run a business with that sizeable of a profit and loss. In terms of courage, there’s a lot of corruption down there, and you’re going to have to fight an ongoing battle with special interests, with the lobbyists, and with a few of the corrupt legislators to really get things done. I think my background proves that I have all three of those characteristics.
So, what is the main thing you hope to improve in S.C.?
Overall, I think we need to make South Carolina stronger and more secure. That encompasses a lot of things, but to start, we need to create jobs by reforming the tax code. We need to improve every child’s education in the school system; we’re 50th right now, which is totally unacceptable. We need to allow parents the option to choose where they send their children. We need to make government more efficient and save taxpayers’ dollars. And, we need to find a solution to the VC Summer project; no taxpayer in South Carolina should continue to pay for a facility that is never going to be operational. The Legislature has been in session for one month already; why hasn’t that been done?
You just mentioned tax code reform, which is a big topic, especially with the federal changes we have this year. So, talk a little bit more about that. What does that mean to you?
With the tax code right now, there are too many special-interest loopholes, and the tax rate is one of the highest in the South, especially from the income tax level. When you combine that with the sales tax level, it’s also very high and encompasses a ton of loopholes for special interests. What we need to do, rather than penalize small businesses that create great-paying jobs, which the current tax code specifically undoes, is we need to flatten out the base and lower both the income rate and the sales tax rate. That would really stimulate the economy.
With that kind of focus on businesses, I have to ask: When it comes to business in South Carolina, should we focus more on recruitment, or entrepreneurship?
I think recruiting companies is a terrific idea. [Former S.C. Gov.] Nikki Haley did an amazing job of selling large companies like Boeing on all of the benefits of South Carolina. But that’s just one aspect of job creation. The other aspect is cultivating a culture and a government system that encourages entrepreneurship and small business. The vast majority of South Carolinians are employed by small businesses, who are penalized by our current tax code because they don’t have the lobbyists that a lot of these large corporations have, and they ultimately suffer and subsidize a lot of the large business. I’m a conservative; I believe in limited government, but I believe all of South Carolina should have limited government and lower taxes — not just a few.
What is it you want people to walk away knowing about you?
More than anything, I want them to know that I am doing this because I feel called and that I am going to serve the people of South Carolina. That is the only reason I’m running.
Who’s Announced They’re Running in 2018?
Your cheat sheet for this year’s S.C. Gubernatorial Race
- Kevin Bryant (R), lieutenant governor
- Phil Cheney (D), director, Oconee County Public Library
- Yancey McGill (R), former state senator
- Henry McMaster (R), South Carolina governor (incumbent)
- Phil Noble (D), co-founder, Envision South Carolina; owner, Phil Noble and Associates
- James Smith (D), state representative
- Catherine Templeton (R), former director, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control; former director, S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation
- John Warren (R), chairman, LimaOne
- Marguerite Willis (D), corporate attorney