When he was just a little fellow, a mischievous Walt Wilkins once tossed a stuffed frog down a toilet during a family Christmas party and flushed.
“It stopped up the commode. Water went everywhere,” Greenville County Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown remembers.
“He wanted to see if that frog would swim,” Wilkins’ dad, former chief justice of the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Billy Wilkins said.
In the father’s mind, though, that brought up memories of another incident of a much more serious nature that also involved swimming: his son’s plane crash in 2003, in which he and his new bride, Donyelle, spent two hours fighting to stay afloat in 4-6-foot waves off the coast of the Bahamas while helping two children survive.
“He and his wife both were really heroes in saving the lives of those two young children who would have perished without any question,” Billy Wilkins said.
Now, 15 years later, Walt Wilkins looks back on a career of 14 years as a prosecutor, first as an assistant U.S. Attorney, then as the U.S. Attorney for the state, and for the past nearly eight years as the 13th Circuit solicitor, serving Greenville and Pickens counties.
And he looks forward to the possibility of becoming the state’s first lieutenant governor to run on the same ticket as the candidate for governor, after agreeing to join Republican Catherine Templeton in her bid for the state’s highest office.
Although his political experience is limited to two unchallenged campaigns for solicitor – with a third still in the offing – his last name is almost synonymous with politics in this area. Not only was his father an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, but his uncle, David Wilkins, was one of the dominant forces in state politics for 11 years as Speaker of the House.
Templeton, a Lowcountry attorney and former state agency head, chose a running mate whose name could have some clout in the Upstate’s GOP stronghold, said Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson.
But Vinson said she doesn’t know much about the 44-year-old prosecutor and isn’t sure how much he adds to the ticket, politically, statewide.
“Up in the Upstate certainly it (the Wilkins name) is recognized,” she said. “I have no idea what the situation is in other parts of the state.”
Templeton tags herself as “a conservative outsider,” so choosing a member of a political dynasty as a running mate may seem counter to that. But Walt Wilkins renounces any suggestion that he’s an insider.
“I have never run for any office other than solicitor, I have never run for any office that has sent me to Columbia,” he pointed out.
Neither his father nor his uncle see him as necessarily following in their footsteps.
“He’s his own man,” his father said. “We have frank discussions about issues. He doesn’t hesitate to tell me, ‘Dad, I respect your position but I’m going to follow another course.’ And I respect that in him.
His uncle may be the one Wilkins who won’t be voting for the candidate who would put his nephew in the No. 2 spot.
David Wilkins contributed $2,000 to incumbent Henry McMaster’s campaign long before his nephew came into the picture.
“I’ve known Henry McMaster for over 40 years and I consider him a good friend. So yeah, I have supported of him from the get go,” said the former Speaker of the House, who also served as ambassador to Canada in the George W. Bush administration.
Asked whether his nephew’s entry into the race would sway his support, David Wilkins responded, “Let’s just put it like this: I wish Walt all the best. I have always supported Walt when he ran for solicitor, and obviously, he’s on the ballot now for solicitor, and if he ends up having opposition, I’ll support him for that, too.
“Walt and I have discussed this and he knows where I stand.
In Walt Wilkins’ mind, it’s not what his name may add to the Templeton campaign that matters but what he has to offer because of his experience.
“She is someone who understands how to make government work for the people. And I’m more of a crime fighter, take on corruption,” he said. “I’ve taken on plenty of corrupt politicians, gangs, violent criminals, and with that package deal we feel like we complement each other very well.”
Since the change in the law about how the lieutenant governor is elected removed the position’s responsibility for overseeing the state Office on Aging, the job description is left to the governor’s discretion. Wilkins said Templeton would ask him to oversee the State Law Enforcement Division, the Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement and judicial functions of state government.
But he said, “I imagine I’m not going to be pigeonholed into those as well.”
The fresh-faced prosecutor has been hard-nosed on crime, said Brown.
“He looks like he’s still wet behind his ears, doesn’t he?” Brown quipped.
“He looks young. Of course, obviously, looks will deceive you,” said the former long-time sheriff. Brown took over to fill the remainder of the term of Will Lewis, who was suspended after being indicted on on charges of misconduct in office and obstruction of justice. Lewis has pleaded not guilty.
“The only thing I can say for sure (about Walt Wilkins) is that he’s from good stock and he should be successful in whatever he wants to do with the rest of his life, whether it’s lieutenant governor or whether it’s running for governor or staying as solicitor.
Brown recalls Billy Wilkins bringing his young son into the courtroom to witness trials when the elder Wilkins had the job his son now holds.
It was a continuation of a tradition that went back to the previous generation, when William Walter “Bum” Wilkins brought his son Billy into the courtroom to watch him try cases.
Walt Wilkins, who is actually William Walter Wilkins III, grew up in the Parkins Mill neighborhood of Greenville and attended Sara Collins Elementary, the old Beck Middle School and his freshman year of high school at J.L. Mann before finishing at Christ Church Episcopal School.
He was just seven years old when his dad was appointed judge of U.S. District Court for South Carolina in 1981. Even when his father took on the role at the 4th Circuit Court in Richmond, Virginia, the Wilkins family continued to live in Greenville, with Billy Wilkins commuting when court was in session.
“He and I spent many, many hours, days even, when he was a little boy in the woods, hunting and fishing and so forth,” Billy Wilkins said. “So he’s grown up with an appreciation for the outdoors and our environment and those types of things that I think are important.”
He described his son as “a devoted father.”
“I wish I had taken the time to spend as much time as he spends with his children,” he said. “He doesn’t take away from his duties at work, but every spare moment he has, he’s at baseball practice or at dance practice or on the tennis court with the kids, and I think that speaks well for him, and his wife as well.”
Walt Wilkins has three children, ages 7, 9 and 11 – one of them being William Walter Wilkins IV.
He grew up in Greenville’s First Baptist Church but the family now attends Westminster Presbyterian, a move, he said, that was largely related to his children’s friendships.
After graduating from Christ Church in 1992, he went to Wofford College, where he earned two bachelor’s degrees – one in government and the other Spanish, which he tested well enough in to be exempt from many of the lower level courses.
During his time at Wofford, he spent six months studying in Spain at the University of Salamanca, where he says he sat in the same seat once used by the 16th century explorer Hernando Cortés.
He graduated from Wofford in 1996 and went straight to law school at the University of South Carolina, where he earned his law degree in 1999.
He didn’t move directly into the same field of law as his father and grandfather. He took a job with Lockheed Martin in Argentina.
He said he “had to pretty much start from scratch,” living in a foreign country where he knew no one and had no family support. Although he “thoroughly enjoyed” his time in Argentina, after a year he was offered a job with the Greenville law firm of Leatherwood, Walker, Todd and Mann.
About a week after returning to Greenville, he met the woman who would become his wife.
They were married in Charleston on July 12, 2003. The next day, they boarded a chartered 10-passenger Cessna bound for Abaco Island, in a remote section of the Bahamas where they expected to spend their honeymoon.
Things didn’t work out quite like they planned.
About 50 minutes into what was supposed to be an hour-long flight, the plane’s right engine blew up, knocking a hole in the plane.
The island hopper, which had been flying at 15,000 feet, crashed into the ocean 10 minutes later.
“So we had about 10 minutes to say goodbye, not knowing what was going to happen. Myself and the other families prayed with each other. We told each other we were going to be OK. I told my wife I loved her, and we held each other.”
The passengers, including three young children, made it out of the plane, but the mother of two of the children soon died, as did her niece, the youngest of the kids.
Wilkins and his wife Donyelle managed to inflate the lifejackets for two of the children and stayed with them, while the other passengers drifted apart.
He said his wife “is the real hero” for how she took care of those children.
“They were becoming lethargic, hypothermic. And she would sing ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ She would keep them entertained and their minds off what was going on,” he said.
After about two hours, a Coast Guard helicopter arrived, and they were rescued.
The crisis strengthened their faith in God, Wilkins said.
“We both agree — and you can’t explain it — but we felt somebody there with us protecting us from the time of the crash through the entire ordeal, that we were not alone, that we were being comforted by a much more powerful being than us,” he said.
Although they struggled with why such a bad thing happened, Wilkins said, “ultimately it made us realize what was important in life.”
Two years later, he was appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney. After three years in that job, he was promoted to the top U.S. Attorney post for the state. He was elected to his first term as solicitor in 2010.
If the Templeton campaign is successful in the June 12 primary and goes on to win in November, Wilkins would have to take nearly a $100,000 cut in pay to assume the part-time job of lieutenant governor. He’s making $141,354 now, and the lieutenant governor position pays $46,545. Wilkins said he would open a law firm and practice law on the side. But he added, “I imagine I will be giving a lot more than just part-time to this job.”
In the meantime, there is the quandary over the 13th Circuit solicitor office.
Wilkins filed to run for re-election before accepting Templeton’s offer, but he said he could withdraw his name if Templeton wins the primary, before the ballots are printed.
McMaster, who was appointed to fill the remainder of Nikki Haley’s second term after President Donald Trump named her ambassador to the United Nations, has the president’s endorsement. Wilkins donated $2,700 to Marco Rubio for his presidential bid in 2016.
The list of Wilkins’ donors reads like a who’s who in the state’s legal profession, including Aiken County prosecutor Strom Thurmond Jr., former U.S. Attorney Bart Daniel, Charleston “Super Lawyer” Gedney Howe, and even former prosecutor Dick Harpootlian, a past chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
“He’s respected. His family is respected. He’s done a good job as solicitor,” Harpootlian said. He thinks Templeton made a good choice, but he won’t be voting for her.
“Even a blind hog occasionally finds an acorn,” he said.
Another Democrat, former Gov. Dick Riley, is “strongly supporting (Democrat) James Smith” for governor, but said of Wilkins, “I have a lot of respect for him and I think he’s done a grand job as solicitor.”
In the GOP primary, Templeton is up against McMaster; Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson, Greenville businessman John Warren; and former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill of Kingstree. McMaster picked an Upstate running mate as well: Travelers Rest businesswoman Pamela Evette. Warren chose Charleston businessman Pat McKinney. Bryant and McGill have not announced a second person on their ticket. That won’t have to be done until August.
Wilkins chafed at the suggestion that he’s running for two offices at the same time. Warren’s campaign spokeswoman Laura Beth Kirsop said Wilkins would be running “a taxpayer-subsidized campaign” for lieutenant governor while neglecting his duties as solicitor.
“It’s been alleged that I’m running for two jobs and that is just absolutely not true,” Wilkins said. “You show me a ballot where my name is on there for two different jobs then you let me know, because it does not exist.”
The lieutenant governor’s name isn’t on the primary ballot.
I am 100 percent committed to being the solicitor and have been for the past seven years,” he said.
Wilkins is separating the two roles, to the point that he asked that his interview with The News be moved from his office to a nearby hallway in the courthouse — “a public place” — before he would answer political questions.
If Wilkins withdraws his candidacy for solicitor, a special primary will be held for the post.