Not Your Average Political Spouse
Samuel Tenenbaum, husband of South Carolina Senate candidate Inez Tenenbaum (D), has been called everything from “Renaissance man” and “bulldog” to, yes, even “a player” by insiders and operatives in Palmetto State politics.
But perhaps the best adjective used to describe the 60-year-old retired businessman through the years in state Democratic politics is “enigma.”
For more than a decade, Samuel Tenenbaum has been viewed as a key South Carolina Democratic activist and contributor; Democrats seeking office in the state eagerly vye for his support and endorsement. And yet, Samuel Tenenbaum has never held an elected office and, as far as contributions go, he is not a million-dollar donor.
Since the 2000 election cycle he has contributed a little more than $50,000 to federal campaigns and in the area of $10,000 to state campaigns. He is a
lifelong Democrat, but he also gave $1,000 to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2000 presidential campaign and served on a government restructuring committee formed by South Carolina’s Republican governor, Mark Sanford.
And while he is well-known in South Carolina Democratic circles, it is his wife, Inez, the state superintendent of education, who is known by the voters. She was the top votegetter in the state in both her 1998 election and 2002 re-election.
“I think that every Democrat who’s run for office in South Carolina has had some influence, whether it be financially or advice-wise from Sam,” said South Carolina Democratic consultant Trav Robertson.
“Sam is terrific at understanding the party as a whole and how it operates all around the state. He’s very bright and very passionate,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Joe Erwin.
But Erwin also admits, “Sam says what’s on his mind. He’s a guy that’s going to speak his mind and whatever he’s thinking is not real filtered, [which] concerns some people.”
And that quality has some South Carolina Democrats worried.
Samuel Tenenbaum came to South Carolina in November 1969 from Georgia and made his money in his family steel business. He married Inez in June 1983 and, since retiring three years ago, serves on 17 different boards and commissions for various civic and social programs in the state.
“I’ve been involved in politics from my college days … I’ve contributed all my life. Our family philosophy has always been that you have to give back,” Tenenbaum said in a recent interview.
But as his wife gears up for next year’s race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings, state Democrats disagree about whether Samuel Tenenbaum will be an outspoken advocate who will boost his wife’s campaign, or a political loose cannon who may need to be reined in before he goes off half-cocked.
At least part of that fear stems from an incident back in August when Inez Tenenbaum was forced to announce her Senate candidacy a few weeks ahead of her planned schedule after local media got hold of an e-mail Samuel Tenenbaum sent to a group of supporters confirming his wife’s intent to run.
According to local media reports, after the incident, Inez said her husband “gets a reprieve because it’s his 60th birthday.”
However, some political watchers predict that this won’t be the only time Tenenbaum oversteps his bounds in his wife’s campaign.
“Her first reaction was, ‘Oh that’s just Sam, that’s just Sam,’” said Kevin Geddings, former chief of staff to ex-South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges (D). “But after a while, as people get more engaged in the campaign, they are going to want to know what kind of leadership it is when you can’t even keep your own spouse’s ideas in check or even get yourself on the same page.
“Ironically it’s sort of a double-edged sword for Inez,” Geddings added. “On the one hand, she would still be a midlevel state government bureaucrat if she hadn’t married really, really well. Then on the other hand, the guy that maybe has the bank account to get her into the U.S. Senate also has too big of a mouth to probably keep shut, [which] may prevent her from getting into the Senate.”
Robertson viewed the incident a bit differently.
“I think the Internet e-mail was blown out of proportion to a certain degree,” he said. “I think that that was an e-mail sent out to friends and it was inadvertently put out by mistake. I think Sam also realizes he has to step back somewhat and let Inez be her own person, and I think that in her past campaigns he’s done that.”
Crawford Cook, a former Hollings aide and campaign manager who is now a statehouse lobbyist, said “Inez has great respect for Sam’s political judgment, but Sam is controversial. … One reason Sam is controversial is he doesn’t always take on a popular cause, but when he takes it on, by God does he take it on.
“There are a lot of people who think Inez’s campaign would be far better off if Sam’s political judgment is transmitted to Inez between Sam and Inez and not in the public domain,” said Cook, a 40-year veteran of state politics. “But whatever negative Sam brings to the campaign he will overwhelm it with his energy and his enthusiasm and his work. He is just the damndest bulldog I’ve ever been associated with.”
But there are other examples of Samuel Tenenbaum’s ability to put his wife in the hot seat over statements he makes. In 2001, he advocated for a surcharge on football tickets to give to college presidents as a pool of money to retain faculty. It turned out to be a very unpopular proposal among South Carolina college sports fans and one in which, simply through name association, Inez Tenenbaum received a lot of criticism.
“It was almost comical until he acknowledged it was true,” Geddings said. “The weekend after he does it, because they share the last name, the South Carolina Republican Party hands out all these stickers saying just say no to the Tenenbaum Tailgate tax.”
“That was an idea he offered,” said Inez Tenenbaum’s campaign spokesman, Jim Hammond. “Inez had nothing to do with it … She didn’t take a position on it, it was Samuel’s idea that he offered and discussed with people in the community. He’s an independent thinker, as is she.”
Inez Tenenbaum, who was busy with her campaign and could not be reached by phone this week, said this about her husband, through Hammond.
“Samuel Tenenbaum has his own active civic life. He is a retired steel company executive who has generously contributed his time and ideas to South Carolina. Samuel has a history of championing causes that move South Carolina forward. In this case, he believes his wife’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate is one of those causes. He’ll be working very hard to help her campaign as he has in her previous statewide elections.”
But how much he will be involved in his wife’s campaign remains to be seen.
“Obviously I support her decision to run, she’s got my full support,” Samuel Tenenbaum said. “Whatever role that she thinks I can do best for her I’ll do … I’m still involved in the community. I haven’t given up any of what I do at this point.”
And what his role would be if he became the husband of South Carolina’s first woman Senator: “You cross that bridge when you get there … I’ve been helping [civic] groups all my life and I will continue to help them in whatever capacity I can. I guess [being the husband of a Senator] would help those groups.”