CHARLESTON, S.C. — Elizabeth Colbert Busch remembers watching the funeral of Robert Kennedy on television, with her younger brother Stephen — now the star of Comedy Central's “The Colbert Report” — sitting in her lap. She said to herself, “Someday, if they let women run for office, I'm going to.”
Now, she's making that dream a reality with a run for Congress. And she isn't worried her brother's fame will overshadow her campaign.
“I'm not. I'm so proud of what he is and what he has accomplished,” she said in an interview in her campaign office on a busy Charleston street. “But when people see what I have done and they know the work we have done and they know me as a person and a professional, it will be fine.”
Colbert said he plans to support his sister, whom the family calls Lulu. But that won't include mentions on his show — unless, of course, she does something funny.
“Lulu has a job to do, and that's run for Congress. I have a job to do and that's to make jokes,” he said. “I would never use my show to get my sister elected. But the fact my sister is running, or that Mark Sanford is running or Teddy Turner is running or Chip Limehouse, who I knew when I was younger, is running - those are all opportunities for my character to make jokes.”
Sanford, the former South Carolina governor trying to make a comeback after an affair derailed his political career; Turner, the son of media magnate Ted Turner; and Limehouse, a state representative, are among 16 Republicans running for South Carolina's 1st District seat.
Colbert Busch is one of two Democrats seeking the seat held by Republican Tim Scott until he was appointed to fill the state's U.S. Senate seat, left vacant by the resignation of Jim DeMint. Her Democratic opponent in the March 19 primary is perennial candidate Ben Frasier.
“This is a privilege to be able to do this,” Colbert Busch said. “My gut says you're never going to get this opportunity again. And you don't want to turn around as an old woman and say I didn't try.”
She said her desire for public service was forged in her youth and tempered by her life experiences of loss, struggle and professional success.
On Sept. 11, 1974, Colbert Busch's father and three of her other brothers — her parents had 11 children — died in a plane crash. She would be in New York on another Sept. 11 in a nearby building that shook when the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center.
Colbert Busch, who once worked in Washington as an intern for then-U.S. Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, D-S.C., saw her first marriage end in divorce, leaving her as a single mom making $14,000 a year, she said.
She credits community and family with helping her go back to college and get a degree. Starting as a data entry clerk, she said she worked her way up to become Southeast director of sales and Mexican country manager for Orient Overseas Container lines.
She is now on a leave of absence from her position as the director of business development for Clemson University's Wind Turbine Drive Testing Facility in North Charleston.
“How did I get here? The community told me I could do it,” she said. “They took me and pushed me all the way through and I want to give that back. It may sound corny, but it does take a village.”
Stephen Colbert said the race is about his sister, not him.
“I want people to know this is her own thing. It's not me doing anything,” he said.
Colbert will be in Charleston for a private fundraiser for his sister Feb. 23. The primaries are March 19.
Brian McGee, a professor of communications at the College of Charleston, said Colbert Busch is well-respected in Charleston, but her famous brother might pose some challenges to her campaign.
“One is the risk of sort of having to live in the shadow of her much better known brother,” he said. “Another is the possibility that her brother's sort of edgy humor has alienated some swing voters in the district she would very much like to reach out to.”
On the other hand, he said, the connection gives Colbert Busch increased visibility — important for a political newcomer.