South Carolina State Senator Jake Knotts is a Vietnam vet and an ex-cop with a wife named Betty Lee. A local Tea Party leader described Knotts, who has held office as a Republican for 16 years, as a “good ol’ boy to a T.” Last June, Knotts became nationally infamous when he told a local reporter that the GOP’s then-candidate for governor, Nikki Haley, an Indian American, was a “fucking raghead.” Speaking on an Internet talk show a few minutes earlier, he had said, “We already got one raghead in the White House, we don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.” Knotts also complained that Haley’s father, who is a Sikh, walked around Lexington wearing a turban and that Haley presented herself as a Methodist “for political reasons.”
Knotts later claimed that his comments had been “intended in jest.” But when I caught up with him just before the November election—which Haley won, becoming the state’s first Indian American governor and first female governor—his complaints, though less coarse, had if anything grown broader in scope. “Let me say this: people going into politics these days are different than the people I always served with. Strom Thurmond, Fritz Hollings—one Democrat, one Republican, but they had mutual respect for one another,” he told me. “You had to be one of us to get elected. Now we’ve gone so far down the ladder and backwards. We don’t know who it is, or what it is. As long as it’s got an R in front of its name, we vote for it.”
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As we talked, Knotts showed me his collection of old boxing gloves, his first handcuffs—engraved with his name, JM KNOTTS—and pictures of himself with Strom Thurmond and with former South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell Jr. He introduced me to all the “girls” in his office, and proudly displayed his most prized possession: a police badge from his great-great-uncle, who was shot in the back while walking his beat in 1925. “The good ol’ boys are not going away,” he said, with more pride than conviction, like a cowboy watching bulldozers rip up his beloved prairie. “I’m a good ol’ boy because I look after the good ol’ people of South Carolina, and it’s us who will keep this great state running.”