By Sarah Martin
With about a year left as a state senator, Joel Lourie never expected to find himself in waist deep water, evacuating his own constituents from floodwaters.
On Oct. 4 and 5, when historic floods and broken dams wreaked havoc on the Midlands, Lourie, a Richland County Democrat who is retiring next year, joined in rescue efforts when the dam he was near began to breach.
“I was standing on a dam watching pieces of concrete erode away, knowing the result of that was going to be all of this water coming this way,” he said.
Lourie rushed to nearby neighborhoods, knocking on doors and evacuating people. He even had to carry one woman through three feet of water because she was refusing to leave.
“She was an elderly lady and I said, ‘Come on, we’re leaving,’” he said.
Later that day he became a traffic cop, directing cars at an intersection on Forest Drive for three hours, as he fielded a text message informing him hospitals may need to be evacuated because they were running low on clean water.
“There was a brief moment when I was thinking, ‘Can it get much worse?’ But over the next few hours things started to settle down,” he said. “And the next day the sun came out. I think it was probably one of the happiest times to see the sun shine that I’ve ever had. Now it’s about moving forward, rebuilding people’s lives, people’s homes and of course the infrastructure has to be rebuilt as well.”
If it were not for the work and bravery of the first responders that day, he said, “the horrible flood could have been far more tragic.”
Lourie has served in the S.C. legislature for 17 years as a representative and senator, but this has been one of the most difficult periods in the life of the state, beginning with the horrific massacre of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in June. That led to the furling of the Confederate battle flag on the Statehouse grounds and some intensive soul-searching about race and history.
“I think that we, as a state, have been tested very, very hard in the past six months,” Lourie said. “But the state has responded in an incredible way.”
On Oct. 26, more news rocked Lourie’s district when a violent exchange between a school resource officer and student at Spring Valley High School was captured on tape and dominated national headlines. In the video, the Richland County officer is seen grabbing the student and flipping her and her desk across the room because she refused to leave the class. He then dragged her across the floor in front of her classmates.
“My first reaction was one of shock at how the student was treated. And whatever the student did, whether it was a cell phone or whatever, she did not deserve the kind of physical altercation that took place,” Lourie said.
Noting that he doesn’t believe the incident is part of a larger systemic problem, Lourie said the sheriff’s department and school administration handled the incident responsibly and quickly, and restored confidence in the community.
“But I think it begs a question that needs to be revisited of the appropriate role of school resource officers in the classroom,” he added. “Clearly this was a disciplinary problem that could’ve been solved with some sort of administrative suspension, but not a policeman picking up a kid and tossing them.”
Lourie also said that along with the student and her family, his heart also goes out to the other students in the classroom who had to watch the violence.
“It was very hard to watch their reaction, it was so surreal. What type of impact does that have on them, both short and long term?” he said.
Considering ways to prevent the Spring Valley High incident from happening anywhere else, Lourie said legislation is needed to redefine what constitutes a school disturbance.
“If there’s any positive to come out of it, because you always try to look at something like this and say what can we change from a policy standpoint, it’s that,” he said. “We have to take a step back and reassess that, and I believe locally and at a statewide level we’ll do just that.”
Lourie said he knows that at the age of 53, retirement from public service is uncommon.
“A lot of people have asked me why I’m getting out at a relatively young age, when people like to stay until their 70s and 80s. But public service for me has never been about a career, it’s been about making a difference. I think it’s nice when you get in, work hard and get out,” he said. “There are other things I want to accomplish in my life, personally and professionally, and being at the State House sort of inhibits my ability to do that.”
Among those goals are the expansion of his insurance company, Lourie Consulting, and possibly some work in healthcare consulting. He also wants to spend more time with his family.
“My family has been very involved with public and community life in South Carolina from the early 1900s,” he said. “I will continue to be involved and be very outspoken on issues I’m concerned with, and continue to work on issues that are of importance to me, particularly issues related to children.”
Lourie is especially proud of the work he and other legislators have done concerning autism, eventually helping to pass “the nation’s first comprehensive insurance mandate that requires insurance companies to cover autistic children and their certain types of therapy.”
Recently, Lourie received the National Legislative Award from Autism Speaks, a national non-profit organization, for his support of that cause.
State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said he has had the unique honor of serving with both Lourie and his late father, Sen. Isadore Lourie. Although they come from separate political parties, Courson said they had some common goals.
“Sen. Lourie was very upfront in his critique of (the Department of Social Services) and we have both worked on some environmental issues,” he said. “I’ve been focusing on some conservation efforts as well, and he has been very supportive of that.”
Courson added that he believes Lourie, who he calls a good friend, has been an outstanding senator and will be missed in the Senate.
Two people have already announced their intentions to seek Lourie’s seat, including Rep. Mia McLeod, a Democrat, and Susan Brill, a Richland 2 school board member and former Richland County Council member.
Brill, a Republican, said she wants to continue his focus on child-related issues, including reforming the Department of Social Services, which she believes is underfunded.
“My support of public education is a given, and I want to make sure children in foster care are getting proper attention and care, which is one of his issues and concerns,” she said. “I agree with him and his work and would like to continue his legacy.”
McLeod, who announced her intention to seek the Senate seat in August, could not be reached for comment.
Lourie hopes his legacy will be a positive one.
“I hope to be remembered as someone who tried to sit down with people with different views from different parties and try to reach common-sense solutions to our problems,” he said. “ I’m a Democrat, but I certainly don’t believe we have a monopoly on all the good ideas, nor does the other side.”
“I want to be remembered as someone who was very level headed and didn’t make knee-jerk decisions, but wouldn’t be afraid to sink his teeth into an issue and work hard for the betterment of all. That’s how I hope people will view my service.”