Former federal prosecutor Trey Gowdy was among the first political candidates to benefit from the restless mood of voters this year when he beat six-term Rep. Bob Inglis in an early summer GOP primary. That win enabled him to surge past Democrat Paul Corden on November 2 in this largely rural, conservative district that is home to Bob Jones University.
Gowdy grew up in Spartanburg, S.C., and he still lives there with his wife, Terri, and their two children. His father grew up poor but worked to become the first in his family to finish college and eventually to put himself through medical school. He became a pediatrician, and passed on his work ethic to his four children. The family was well-off financially, but Trey Gowdy was encouraged to get jobs mowing lawns and bagging groceries. He got his first car from his father, who made him pay for it with his earnings. His academic performance in his younger years was “extraordinarily average,” Gowdy recalled in an interview. But as a teenager, he was inspired by Ronald Reagan’s campaign for president and by his stint as a Senate page, sponsored by then-Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. Gowdy fondly recalls meeting Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., in a Capitol Hill elevator; Kemp complimented him on the “Reagan for President” button on his lapel. Kemp later became President Reagan’s budget director. Gowdy buckled down to his studies and earned a law degree from the University of South Carolina. He also was fascinated by psychology and Greek history, and particularly liked to read about Spartan culture.
In 1994, Gowdy became a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Greenville, where he worked on cases ranging from drug trafficking to murder. In 2000, he successfully ran for the county solicitor’s post and was reelected twice. In that role, he sought the death penalty in seven cases and won them all. Much of the job was managerial, but Gowdy says he tried about half of the cases that came through his office himself, focusing his efforts on preventing violence against women and on drunken driving. Gowdy, who named his dogs Judge and Jury, says that being a prosecutor was “the best job I will ever have in my life.”
He said he decided to run in the congressional primary against Inglis after the incumbent had tacked to the left on a number of issues. During the campaign, Gowdy portrayed his opponent as a Washington insider whose pragmatic positions on some issues were out of step with the district’s conservative voters. He criticized Inglis for earmarking funds in appropriations bills, for his opposition to President Bush’s 2007 call for a troop surge in Iraq, and for his stand against oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. During the primary campaign, Inglis said he felt as if he was running against the “sins of Congress,” rather than an individual. Gowdy finished ahead of Inglis and then soundly defeated him in a runoff, 71 percent to 29 percent. In the general election, he faced Corden, a retired businessman and Vietnam veteran.
Gowdy says that his top priorities in Congress will be entitlement reform that drastically reduces federal spending and repeal of President Obama’s health care law.