GREENVILLE, S.C.-Like many people in the U.S., William Griffith is tired of the partisan politics that have prevented any real progress in Congress. Unlike most, he´s trying to do something about it.
Griffith, a longtime Michelin researcher, is running for the 4th District congressional seat in South Carolina. He´s a Democrat running against an incumbent in the "reddest district in a red state," so he knows the race will be a challenge. But he also believes there are people hungry for a change.
"There are lots of independent voters and people who usually vote Republican who are disconcerted," the 58-year-old candidate said. "There are many out there interested in supporting someone with common sense views."
Griffith describes himself as "fiscally conservative and socially moderate," but not a fence-sitter. He firmly believes a Democrat will win in his district as a centrist as opposed to a "party idealogue."
"I´m a centrist, and that´s not an easy place to be," he said. "I embrace notions on both sides of the political fence, but I´m very willing to cross over."
A different kind of candidate
So how does an engineer at a tire company get the idea to run for public office? A little more than a year ago, Griffith attended a local awards ceremony at Furman University in Greenville because a co-worker of his at Michelin had been nominated for a science and education award. His friend didn´t win, but former South Carolina Sen. Ernest Hollings did.
Griffith introduced himself to the longtime Democrat legislator-who also ran for president in 1984-and the two men started a conversation about government. Griffith complained about the "lack of bipartisan debate on critical issues" in Congress and how little was being accomplished.
Hollings agreed, saying in 38 years as a senator he hadn´t seen discontent on both sides of the aisle as bad as it was. "I hadn´t always agreed with Sen. Hollings on the issues, but I´ve always thought he was dedicated fiscally," he said. "He said I had some great ideas, and maybe I could make a difference."
Griffith started thinking about it seriously, and on March 3 of this year he retired from Michelin´s Research and Development Corp. after 26 years with the company to focus on the campaign. He announced his candidacy 11 days later.
His experience as a researcher will help him as a candidate, Griffith said. In a laboratory setting, you have to focus on finding the root of a problem in trying to solve it, something that isn´t done enough in politics, he said. He´ll take an analytical approach and work on consensus building among disparate groups, "good skills to have politically," he said.
His background alone gives him a different "look" than the majority of national legislators. Of 535 senators and congressmen, only 10 are scientists or engineers, Griffith said. "It makes no sense to have such low representation in the legislature with issues of increasing technical complexity being debated," he said.
Griffith´s platform includes support of several issues he calls a "matter of national security": fiscal responsibility in government, a policy of energy conservation, stricter immigration laws, controlled health care costs and a strong public education system. The latter issue, education, is an area he´ll stay involved with in some way, no matter how the campaign ends.
He believes retired scientists and engineers like himself have a responsibility to help promote the teaching of science in schools. "It´s the only way to change the direction," Griffith said. "Fewer engineers are graduating and entering technical professions. It´s a tragedy how far it has fallen."
The general education problem is right on his state´s doorstep. In South Carolina, less than half of students graduate from high school in four years, far below the national average of 68 percent. "That needs to change," he said.
A big challenge
If elected, it will be difficult to match Griffith´s accomplishments during his Michelin career, though he believes there´s much he can do as a congressman.
At Michelin, he was a leader in building modern analysis into the company´s tire design process; helped build Michelin´s presence in the North American high performance tire market, including original equipment fitments on car models like the Dodge Viper; led a group that developed the first run-flat tires; and helped create the environment in which Michelin´s non-pneumatic tire system-the "Tweel"-was designed.
Griffith has received good support from friends and former colleagues at Michelin, many of whom are part of his 135-volunteer team giving their time to help get him elected. "It´s been gratifying to work with them and see their commitment," he said.
He knows he´ll need that type of support if he´s going to win this fall. He´s running against Republican Bob Inglis, who first won the seat in 1992, chose not to run in 1998, then filled the vacated seat again in 2004.
While he admits the "statistics aren´t on my side," Griffith believes if he can get 65 percent of the district´s independent voters in the election and a solid turnout of traditional Democratic voters, it can add up to a win. He believes if he could have a 10-minute, one-on-one meeting with every voter by November, he would take the seat.
Realistically, he plans on talking to service clubs and community organizations and listen to people´s concerns about their government. Plus, he has a Web site-www.votegriff.com-to allow people to get more information. "I know I can´t talk to everyone, but that´s the challenge I have, to make an impact," he said.
Griffith isn´t looking ahead or examining any "what-if" scenarios if he should win, but he says he is enjoying and looking forward to the campaign process. "It´s really the first time I´ve done anything purely patriotic, even as a (13-year) reservist. It´s a labor of love for me because I care.
"I think I have an effective, reasonable agenda people associated with both parties can support. And if I can get elected, there´s a lot to be accomplished."