By Charles W. Waring III
Meet the guy who sat just a few feet from President Trump and his family at the recent inauguration. Indeed, he not only has access to the new president and his team, he is also co-chairman of Gov. Henry McMaster’s transition team. Standing astride both national and Palmetto State politics equally — and adroitly — he is South Carolina’s “Man of the Moment.”
At the kind introduction of Elizabeth Sher, our famed outdoor photographer, yours truly met Ed McMullen several years ago. I soon learned that Ed enjoyed a few of my own favorites — the shooting sports, politics and Italian cuisine — but I had no idea that Ed would soon be influencing the national and state political worlds in ways unexpected from an unassuming old-school gentleman. I saw no “hungry-like-the-wolf” killer instincts that most operatives have; instead, I observed a sharp mind and genteel demeanor.
Background and family
Ed has changed latitude after growing up on New York’s Long Island Sound, where he sailed and fished as a child; now, his favorite perch is drinking coffee next to Ft. Moultrie and looking out at Ft. Sumter, watching the dolphins feed in the morning light. Long before he found a second home on the beloved sands of Sullivan’s or witnessed the recent presidential victory that surprised many, Ed was at Hampden-Sydney College, class of ’86. With the Reagan economy going gangbusters, young Ed first met Donald Trump at a Yankees game; he has subsequently come in contact with Trump at various events throughout the years.
Early on in life, Ed worked as a youngster at his maternal grandfather’s “Mad Men”-type New York advertising firm, The Cochran Company; there, Ed developed a keen interest in politics and history. While at college, Ed met the former Margaret Ann Wade of Greenville; she was attending Randolph-Macon Women’s College. Following the last goodbye handshake on campus, he jumped on an opportunity to work for the Heritage Foundation in 1986, then left that thriving institution in 1989 to land in S.C., get married and build the S.C. Policy Council into an effective and conservative public policy think tank. Conservative circles and government leaders were impressed with his efforts; subsequently Gov. Beasley awarded Ed the Order of the Palmetto. He stayed with the council until 2007.
Before he departed the council, he began his own advertising and public relations firm in 2005, McMullen Public Affairs. He has also continued to manage his family’s investment company, McMullen Holdings. No grass grows under this Sandlapper’s feet; Ed has consistently been involved in supporting the arts, conservation and his alma mater. On the family side, the McMullens have welcomed a son, Thomas, and daughter, Katherine, to their family. Their son works for McMullen Holdings and their daughter is currently studying in Los Angeles at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
Trump Tower meeting and campaign
With his tight-knit family behind him, Ed went to Trump Tower to see citizen Trump — just before he became candidate Trump. As we now know, Mr. Trump told him he was going to run and it was at that point when, “Mr. Trump asked me to serve as his S.C. chairman,” he said, becoming the third person hired for the campaign’s exploratory committee. Ed then “hired one of the best political teams in S.C. for the primary.”
He continued: “I assembled the team on the ground and truly was honored. It turned out to be the critical primary [the S.C. race] that propelled Mr. Trump to the nomination and his sweep of the South. In the end, we beat the other candidates in the primary and won with a 10 percent margin. It was a historic turnout and the victory was truly hard fought.”
The primary victories surprised pundits again and again but from their first event in S.C., Ed knew that candidate Trump had a chance. They were praying for a gathering of 5,000 supporters — the level that Trump suggested would be a solid number — then 8,000 people showed up, overflowing the venue. He said, “That enthusiasm was what told us that Mr. Trump had what it took to go the distance — all the way to the White House.” Then, he witnessed 20,000 at one event in a Lexington County field in the freezing cold in February. At that point “… I realized we were going to win,” he said.
As many finally concluded, Trump was hitting on a message that no one else was, reaching the Reagan independents and Democrats who hadn’t voted in decades. McMullen gives credit to an “intense ground game and data program to identify Trump supporters and excite and enthuse voters.” In state after state, massive crowds showed up, but the national polls continued to confound and confuse what was the reality on the ground that became the winning edge.
History does not quite repeat itself, but we do recall that, about 38 years ago, a lawyer from the Midlands, Weston Adams, agreed to become the chairman for Ronald Reagan’s successful S.C. campaign. He went on to serve as ambassador to Malawi. Ed has stated many times that he will stick with the private sector, running McMullen Public Affairs and pivoting between offices in Columbia and Charleston, and let others serve the new administration.
Impact for S.C. and Inauguration
As we consider what this victory may mean to our state, Ed looks to the trade issue and believes that, on and off of the I-95 and I-85 corridors, small towns will see a positive impact as manufacturing and jobs return. Furthermore, he believes infrastructure jobs will benefit as “Mr. Trump is committed to rebuilding our roads and bridges,” he said. “We have a horrific situation in S.C. with that and now we’re finally going to have a chance to fix it.”
In addition to hosting parties in D.C. during the inauguration, Ed was able to be the “ultimate insider” when he accepted an invitation to attend the prayer services with the president and first family at St. John’s Church. Then he rode in the motorcade to the Capitol for the ceremony and “sat on that platform only feet from our new president when he was giving his inaugural address,” he said.
Ed is keenly aware of the way many perceive the president and it troubles him, because he sees another Donald Trump. He said, “The president is one of the brightest men I’ve worked with — business, politics and policy are all interests of his. Further, he’s a Wharton graduate, one of the toughest business schools in the world.”
He speaks of how President Trump is a highly “compassionate and loyal” person. Ed also thinks that the large rallies on the campaign trail gave President Trump the opportunity to show his warmth to the American people.
“They figured it out for themselves, because Trump went over the media’s heads to get directly to them, talking directly to them at the rallies and via Twitter,” he said. “That’s how he won — by being himself.”
If chairing a statewide presidential campaign and running a business were not enough, Ed is also serving as co-chairman of the transition team for the new S.C. governor, former Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster. When asked how Gov. McMaster may operate differently than previous governors, Ed said, “He is the first governor in decades who is not looking for another office after he serves.” He believes that will give him the opportunity to make the “right decisions based on what’s best for our state and not just the politics.”
Governor McMaster and policy
As for policy items to watch during the McMaster administration, he suggests we keep our eyes on the pension fund deficit and remarks that the new governor “is dedicated to making sure that gets fixed.” Ed also points to critical infrastructure needs and makes it clear the issues have to be addressed “using a unique and effective mechanism other than just raising taxes,” which sets up a real game of chess with a General Assembly having many members inclined to support raising the gas tax.
When it comes to creating jobs, the third key issue, he said: “Henry is dedicated to economic development, not going out and buying (aka incentivizing with special tax deals) companies to come here, but creating an overall environment that is good on taxes, infrastructure and a qualified workforce.” Ed sees Gov. McMaster as someone “dedicated to cutting red tape and reforming regulations, going after burdensome rules that have been killing jobs.” He stresses that the new governor and President Trump have a similar concern about what kills jobs.
This insight comes, not from an anonymous policy wonk, but from a guy who said he thinks of Gov. McMaster as “a brother.” After all they have “hunted, fished and worked together as friends for decades,” he said.
Friends and family time
When he is not running at full speed in Columbia, New York or Washington, our Lowcountry is where Ed winds down to relax. He (rightly) believes Charleston is the most beautiful city in the world, and he is dedicated to being part of the solution for maintaining the quality of life here and throughout our state.
He enjoys “sitting on our back porch at Sullivan’s Island, smelling the pluff mud at low tide and watching the ducks and birds fly by.” Ed delights in speaking of getting his SAE fraternity brothers and their wives together on Sullivan’s for festivities. He makes every effort to get outside to hunt and fish; he especially likes bird hunting as a family.
For travel, he finds that Italy is where he really likes to go with Team McMullen. He enjoys it so much that he invested in a vineyard in Chianti. Ed also loves the southern coast of Italy and the lifestyle of its citizens. “Eating and good wine — Italians do that well,” he said.
Few play their politics as well and graciously as they do enjoying a grand meal or a day hunting with family and friends; Ed fits that rare model. He has been in the right place to be a part of our nation’s and state’s history, but it will not puff up his head to the point where he refuses to pick his own blue crabs. Marinated in saltwater, north and south, S.C.’s “man of the moment” is currently savoring just being on our coast in the quiet — at least for a moment — to take in the air and watch a winter sunset paint an ethereal vision of success in the western sky.