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Obituaries

Former DNC Leader, Mainstay Of SC Politics Don Fowler Dies

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Don Fowler, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee and mainstay of South Carolina and national politics for decades, has died. He was 85.

Don Fowler
Edward Kimmel
Don Fowler

Trav Robertson, chairman of South Carolina's Democratic Party, told The Associated Press that Fowler died Tuesday night, calling him “the Democrats' Democrat.”

No cause was mentioned, but Fowler's wife said on Facebook that he had been in the hospital this week. DNC Associate Chairman Jaime Harrison said Fowler had leukemia.

Fowler, a native of Spartanburg, attended Wofford College, where he played basketball and baseball, and earned master’s and doctorate degrees in political science from the University of Kentucky.

He led the state party from 1971 to 1980, overseeing the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.

Fowler served as national chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1995 to 1997, running the party's day-to-day operations. Part of that tenure also included defending an unsuccessful legal challenge from candidate Lyndon LaRouche, whom Fowler said was not a “bona fide Democrat” due to what he said were anti-Semitic expressions and other activities, instructing state parties not to vote for him.

Fowler was also accused of but not charged with contacting the CIA about a businessman and party donor, notably telling U.S. Senate inquisitors, “I have in the middle of the night, high noon, late in the afternoon, early in the morning, every hour of the day, for months now searched my memory about conversations with the CIA. And I have no memory, no memory of any conversation with the CIA.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota told the AP on Wednesday that Fowler, with whom he worked closely as both led the party, was “smart, but he wasn’t so full of himself that he couldn’t relate to anybody with whom he met."

Daschle, who now lives with his wife in a home they built in Bluffton, South Carolina, said he felt numerous trips to the state for events, often with Fowler literally at the helm of their travels, played a role in his own ultimate decision to make a home in the state.

“I wish we had more like him today, in this polarized, divisive and confrontational environment,” Daschle said. ”It was underappreciated in many ways, but certainly we could use it now."

After decades of acquaintance, including working together at the DNC and his communications firm, Fowler and his wife, Carol, married in 2005. Two years later, Carol Fowler would become chair of the state party.

Their home near Columbia’s Five Points district became a regular stop for many of the Democrats vying for their party’s attention in the prolonged run-up to the pivotal Feb. 29 primary, the first balloting to take place in the South. Each event, which felt like a fundraiser but was free to anyone to attend, featured the couple introducing a candidate like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar or Bill deBlasio to dozens of people crowded into their living room, often spilling into a front hallway.

Robertson described Don Fowler as the most loyal and devoted of friends and mentors who remained unafraid to speak his mind, like during his recent unsuccessful push to keep the Democratic Party from curbing the influence of superdelegates in its presidential nominating structure.

“If Don was with you, he was with you until the end of days,” Robertson said Wednesday. “He could disagree with you, and he might not like what you were doing, but he was with you.”

Fowler remained a mainstay in Democratic politics, serving as a sounding board for chairmen including Robertson and Harrison, who chaired the party during the 2016 president cycle and mounted a fundraising record-shattering challenge to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina this year.

“He and I were plotting, if I become DNC chair, the things that we'd need to work on,” Harrison told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “I said, ‘if that does happen, I’m going to have to lean on you and Carol like I always do.’ ... It's just going to be hard not having Don around.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.