Except for the most politically astute, you may not recognize the name Dwight Drake. He’s a prominent pro-education lawyer in South Carolina, a little reminiscent of Matlock, but only one in a crowded field of Democratic gubernatorial candidates trying to claim the seat of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford come 2010. (Yes, Mark Sanford. The one whose erratic, AWOL behavior and love letters to his Argentinean mistress dominated media coverage for a good chunk of June. That one.)
If you fast forward to 3 minutes and 52 seconds on Drake’s recently released campaign video, you may also recognize the face talking animatedly about Drake’s commitment to education. “[Mr. Drake] has a heart for students in South Carolina,” she says, her Southern pedigree written all over her voice. “He really cared about the fact that there was funding that wasn’t going to go to our students that they deserved.”
You may have heard that voice on East Campus at some point in the last few weeks. You may have met her. You may know that her name is Casey Edwards and that she hails from a small town in South Carolina. You may have heard that she’s a freshman and a Benjamin N. Duke scholar.
You may not know, however, that earlier this year—with the help of Drake, her lawyer—Casey took her fiscally conservative governor all the way to the state Supreme Court over his refusal to accept $700 million of federal stimulus funds. You may not know that the day before her high school graduation, 18-year-old Casey bested the governor and won her case.
For someone who has been intimately acquainted with the political process and the national media spotlight, you might expect every sentence that comes out of her mouth to come off like a sound byte, for her to be something of a political junkie. Not so. Casey readily confesses to having little taste for politics throughout most of her high school career. Perhaps even more surprising, she is the product of a conservative upbringing. Her parents are former supporters of Gov. Sanford and her small, well-to-do town of Chapin, S.C. (population 687, at last count) leans Republican. “I didn’t know anything about lawsuits, I’m not a lawyer, I’ve never gone to law school and at that point, I hadn’t even gone to college,” Casey says. “I’d only taken government in high school.”
Seasoned politico or not, her interest in the problems of the state’s public education system were sparked when she watched Corridor of Shame, a documentary chronicling the woes of South Carolina’s impoverished rural school districts along a stretch of Interstate 95. Moved by the film and never being one to take things lying down, Casey and a group of her friends fundraised $10,000 for East Elementary in the nearby town of Dillon, S.C., a school in which 90 percent of students live below the poverty line and administrators cannot afford essential supplies. “Seeing the documentary and knowing that some of these schools were less than an hour away and I had no idea.... It was completely mind-blowing to me,” Casey says. “The conditions there were so heart-wrenching, we just felt like we had to do something.”
Her work with East Elementary caught the attention of the director and producer of Corridor of Shame, Bud Ferillo, and soon she was one of the few student advocates working with him on a campaign to improve the quality of public education in South Carolina. So when in February, Gov. Sanford refused to take federal stimulus money unless it was used to pay off state debt, Casey made the perfect petitioner. When Ferillo put her in touch with the lawyers hoping to launch a suit against the governor, however, Casey was far from jumping on board right away.
“‘Are you serious? Do you have the right number? This is me you’re talking to.’ That was my first thought,” she says of receiving the call from lawyers Drake and Dick Harpootlian. “‘Why am I the one that needs to do this? Why can’t someone else? Why does it have to be my name on it?’”
Eventually, Casey did sign on, and for the next three months in the midst of finals, AP exams, college admissions, scholarship interviews (including the B.N.) and graduation, Casey Edwards vs. The State of South Carolina wound its way through the state’s court system. Casey was immediately thrust into national prominence. “The Student Versus the Governor” was the aptly-named CBS Evening News segment about her legal battle.
“It didn’t hit me that I’m filing a Supreme Court case with just my name on it—Casey Edwards vs. The State of South Carolina—until it was broadcasted and people were asking me about it and saying, ‘Congratulations, we support you,’ or ‘We don’t support you at all’—there was that, too,” Casey says. “Getting out of the car and having microphones shoved in your face to have comments on this, that and the other at times got very overwhelming and it was just like, ‘I don’t want this. I’d rather not have all of this,’ But at the same time, it was a cause that I knew I wanted to fight for.”
Get Casey talking about public education in the state, however, and it’s clear to see why she decided to stick it out. On June 5, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in her favor, ordering Gov. Sanford to apply for the stimulus funds, to be used to bolster the state’s education infrastructure. “I’m not going to a South Carolina school, I’m not receiving the funds, I’m no longer in public education in South Carolina but my siblings are and my friends are. I see, I know and I’ve lived in that and I want it to be better for the people that I know,” she says. “It was a great thing. There’s nothing to describe the feeling.”
As for the future, Casey is looking forward to bigger and better things. She’s moved past her 15 minutes of fame, but does one day hope to enter the world of politics on her own. Few of her fellow Blue Devils associate her with the Supreme Court case (aside from the customary shout-out from Dean of Admissions Christoph Guttentag during convocation).
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She’d like to keep it that way. “It’s something that I’m proud of and it’s gotten me where I am today, but I don’t want it to define me,” she says. “I don’t want it to be my tagline: Casey Edwards, the girl who sued the governor.”