By Ruben Lowman
“Thank you Cleo, we will truly miss you,“ said Robert Rabon, chairman of the Victory Office 2020, on a beautiful, yet humid evening last Thursday.
With that, national, state and local politicians and party officials took turns honoring former North Myrtle Beach Republican Club President Cleo Steele with several prestigious accolades for her many years of tireless and dedicated service to the Republican Party, and also to them as individuals.
“You have made a difference in all of our lives. You know, Tim [Scott] and I and Tom [Rice], there’s no us without you,” said U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, recognizing Steele for her loyalty. Sen. Graham was the first elected politician to speak at the event. He took the opportunity to provide an optimistic angle on Steele’s retirement and upcoming move to Ohio to be closer to her family.
“I feel better about Ohio now knowing Cleo Steele is going up there,” Graham said, skillfully dovetailing the “swing state” status of her future home with her well-renowned political prowess.
Throughout the event the usually unflappable Steele was visibly emotional, holding back tears as her former colleagues expressed their gratitude, admiration and affection for the woman who had played such an instrumental role in their careers.
Elaborating further on the importance of people like Steele to the Republican Party, Sen. Graham detailed the skills and work ethic of the guest of honor.
“I’ve never known anybody to work so hard for a cause as Cleo Steele. So I just want to let you know that the reason we’re here is because we love you. We’re here because you represent the best of who we are. You represent the best of the Republican Party.
“You don’t get elected in South Carolina by spending money, you get elected by people working on your behalf, talking you up when somebody else is talking you down, making phone calls and putting up signs for nothing.
“I’m going to dedicate this election to you and all like you. So on behalf of all of us, thank you for years of friendship, loyalty, hard work and encouraging words we needed it most. You may be going to Ohio but you’ll always be in South Carolina. God bless you,” Sen. Graham concluded.
Sen. Tim Scott then took the microphone to reflect on just how much of an influence Steele was to him when he first ran a decade ago. “You’ve been the person who invested your heart into the causes you believe in. Our nation is founded by people who put their heart into a concept, into an idea that they believed in. We will always be the strongest nation on earth, as long as we have Cleo Steeles.”
Sen. Scott presented her with an American Flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol building to honor her. Sen. Scott and Sen. Graham then proceeded to drape the flag carefully over Steele, so as not to disturb the bouquet of canary-yellow roses resting in her lap.
After the senators, local politicians and officials took their turn to reflect on her achievements and character. Dreama Perdue, chairwoman of the Horry County Republican Party, took the stage with a short but sweet speech. “The Horry County Republican Party, we wish you the very best as you leave us to go to Ohio. And we appreciate you for all of your dedication, all of the hard work that you have done for the Republican Party for Horry County and for South Carolina. We have a plaque for you for appreciation.
“Thank you for everything Cleo. She is the queen of South Carolina politics,” Perdue said.
Steele’s determination and work ethic are well-known to those closest to her and like many before her, Gerri McDaniel chose to highlight those indefatigable qualities that Steele is most remembered for. McDaniel, the executive chairwoman of the Horry County Republican Party and secretary for the 7th congressional district, said, “When I got started in politics many years ago in North Myrtle Beach, I had so many people tell me there’s a young lady by the name of Cleo Steele in North Myrtle Beach that, Gerri, no matter how hard you work you’re gonna have your hands full with this lady. Little did I know all these years I’ve been involved in politics that Cleo’s always been one step ahead of everybody and she’s outworked everybody.”
McDaniel then read a proclamation from Mayor Marilyn Hatley honoring Steele for her many years of loyal service to the Republican Party here in North Myrtle Beach.
Greg Hembree, state senator of District 28 here in Horry County, spoke passionately about the lengthy and deep relationship he and Steele have shared since meeting on the Ocean Drive Presbyterian Church committee over two decades ago. He described how he chose her to be his campaign manager when he first ran for public office as solicitor. An initially uncomfortable encounter led to a friendship for a lifetime.
“I saw while how others on the committee were talking about stuff she was getting stuff done. I thought, ‘That’s a lady I need to get to know. I need her on my team.’ So one Sunday I go up to Cleo, didn’t know her that well and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea, I want to run for solicitor and I want you to be my campaign manager. She says, “Who are you?” She goes, “I’ll tell you what, come by the house this afternoon we’ll talk a little bit and then we’ll see.’
“So that afternoon I met her husband, Dick, at the house. Cleo and I and Dick had a two-hour-plus conversation about a wide range of things and a lot about who we were as people. A whole lot about our character and what we believe and things like that. And that was the foundation for what turned out to be my first successful campaign and what turned out to be a friendship and a love that has spanned 22 years. Cleo I love you, you changed my life,” Hembree said.
To which Steele wittily retorted, “Good!”
Hembree then called state party officials onstage to honor her with The Order of the Silver Crescent, the second-highest honor in the state, from Governor McMaster.
With the sun beating down, Steele bid a melancholy final farewell to her colleagues.
“I’d like to thank all of you for coming out, this is absolutely amazing. I thank you and I appreciate it and I appreciate our senators being here. Next week I’ll be on the road toward Toledo, unfortunately. But that’s life, isn’t it?”
Steele then exited stage-center and the politicking began, an appropriate ending to her illustrious political career.