South Carolina

He's never held public office but could become SC's next governor. Who is John Warren?

Why this businessman wants to become SC governor

John Warren, a Greenville CEO, is facing SC Governor Henry McMaster in a runoff.
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John Warren, a Greenville CEO, is facing SC Governor Henry McMaster in a runoff.

Every new hire at Upstate mortgage lender Lima One Capital receives a briefing, including slides with maps of Iraq and photos of a mangled Humvee and improvised explosive devices.

Lima One founder John Warren, a retired Marine infantry officer, was stationed in Iraq's Ramadi in 2006, the flashpoint of a still-smoldering insurgency.

Warren, now running for S.C. governor, explains how his unit shifted tactics to achieve its goals and how lessons learned on the battlefield have translated into how Lima One conducts business — from hiring to communication to innovation.

"A counterinsurgency is very similar to business – and politics – you're constantly evolving tactics to counter what the enemy is doing," Warren said. "We need a leader who has been put to the test in the most difficult circumstances.

"We have a lot of problems in Columbia and need someone who can go down there and use outside-of-the-box thinking and use conservative business principles."

That pitch has helped the Greenville political novice emerge as the GOP's dark-horse candidate for governor. Warren was virtually unknown to S.C. voters in February, when he entered the race for governor. Last week, however, he forced Gov. Henry McMaster — a stalwart in S.C. GOP politics for 35 years — into a June 26 runoff for the GOP nomination for governor.

McMaster, 71, says he has a grand vision for South Carolina, which he sees as fertile ground for an economic explosion.

Warren spent $3 million of his own money in the five-way GOP primary, pitching himself as a fresh-faced political outsider who can reshape state government with his military and business experience.

However, he still faces an uphill climb, according to experts. In part, that's because he remains largely unknown to many voters.

And Warren also has had to ward off allegations about predatory lending and questions about his lack of understanding of how state government works.

'Best combat officer I ever saw'

The 39-year-old Warren grew up in downtown Greenville, the son of a labor attorney and a teacher.

Warren graduated from Wade Hampton High School, where he was a leading scorer on the basketball team. He majored in political science at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

Then, during his junior year, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed the trajectory of his life, inspiring him to join the Marine Corps after graduating in 2003.

Warren was on active duty for four years as an infantry officer from 2004 to 2008, putting together a decorated career, according to his service records and Marines who fought alongside him.

During his seven-month deployment to Iraq in 2006, Warren earned a reputation as a fierce, cerebral warrior while leading the 40-man Lima One Marine platoon through hundreds of combat missions, documents show.

Warren’s platoon was among a group of U.S. forces fighting several factions of insurgents in Ramadi — arguably the most dangerous city in the world at the time. He was known for keeping a cool head in the platoon's regular firefights with insurgents, including one hours long battle on April 17, 2006, after a suicide bomber drove a dump truck packed with a half ton of explosives into a nearby Marine base and triggered the detonator.

Warren’s platoon saw the black mushroom cloud from its outpost about half a mile away. They loaded into Humvees and rushed down an explosive-laden road into the ensuing firefight, as a horde of Al-Qaeda fighters descended toward the rubble.

Candidate for SC governor, John Warren was deployed in Iraq when, on April 17, 2006, a suicide bomber drove a dump truck packed with explosives into a Marine base near Ramadi, Iraq.

Warren’s platoon killed at least 20 insurgents while rescuing the base's injured Marines, according to news reports at the time. No Americans were killed.

Warren was decorated for “valor” and “heroic achievement” for the April 2006 firefight.

“He’s the best combat officer I ever saw, and I did four deployments,” said Lance Cpl. Ryan Garner, a member of Warren’s platoon who was shot in the back that day before Warren dragged him out of the line of fire.

Warren’s supervisors agreed, filing assessments that gave him high grades for courage and leadership, declaring him a “rising star” and “one of the few exceptionally qualified Marines.”

Maj. Max Berela, Warren's commanding officer in Ramadi, said Warren was the best of hundreds of lieutenants he oversaw during his 21-year Marine career. Berela named his first child after Warren.

'He led from the front'

Part of Warren's mission offered an early lesson in political outreach, trying to explain the U.S. cause and convince Sunni tribal leaders and the local populace to resist Al-Qaeda, something Warren calls "the most difficult sales job I've ever had."

In shows of good faith, Warren delivered medical supplies, air conditioners and watercoolers to Iraqi hospitals and clinics, and delivered school supplies to eight nearby schools.

Warren's relationships with those Ramadi residents helped him learn more about local insurgents, leading to Marine raids that captured dozens, documents state.

“He knew how to win the trust of the local population, which is the hard thing to do,” Berela said. “Ramadi was not a very hospitable place, and he learned to thrive in it.”

Warren’s service records highlight his “meticulous planning” and decision-making skills. But fellow Marines appreciated that he never panicked in the chaos of combat.

“There’s strategic (planning), there’s tactical (planning), and then there’s somebody that is going to take you the last 100 yards,” said retired Master Sgt. John Thompson, who served with Warren and now works at Lima One Capital. “He led from the front, and he put his life on the line numerous times.”

Lima One Capital

In June 2008, Warren returned to civilian life. But, like many veterans, he found it difficult to re-enter the workforce.

"(A)fter the initial job interview, I'd hear, 'Well, John, we really appreciate your service, but we don't feel you like have the necessary real-world experience,''' Warren said.

So Warren partnered with his late brother, David, on a social media platform geared toward college students. However, Warren said the business was "terribly flawed," and the venture folded.

Warren decided to start his own business. Before joining the Marines, he had enjoyed "flipping" a few houses — buying homes in need of repair, fixing them up and selling them for a profit.

When banks cut back on real estate lending in the wake of the Great Recession, Warren saw an opportunity.

He started Lima One Capital, named after his call sign in Iraq, in February 2010 with $1 million in capital provided by an Atlanta investor Warren met over bagels one morning. Warren pitched his idea, and the man — whom he would not name — offered to get him started.

Warren used the money to make nine loans that were all repaid.

Today, Lima One makes loans to investors looking for short-term financing to buy and renovate properties to flip. The typical Lima One Capital loan starts at 12 percent and can go as low as 8 percent based on the borrower's experience. Lima One also makes loans for new construction, long-term rental units and multifamily housing.

A recent ad from a political action committee backing McMaster has painted Warren as a predatory lender, a claim Warren vehemently denies.

"(W)e finance homebuilders. We finance investors who own rental properties," Warren said. "They're all, technically, commercial loans with high credit scores, and our loans perform very well. We have a less than 1 percent foreclosure rate."

As Lima One grew, Warren brought in a family friend as a silent equity partner who owned a minority stake in the company. Warren later bought out the silent partner, who he would not name because he is no longer involved in the company.

In 2015, the company became fully institutionally backed by banks and hedge funds, who help finance its loans. The lender now operates in 42 states, with 92 full-time employees and more than 250 contractors across the country.

Political novice

But while successful as a Marine and real estate lender, Warren has been dogged by questions about his knowledge of state government.

He has never held public office. And he has been criticized about his apparent lack of understanding of the governor's role in the legislative process, which has led him to make some cavalier promises.

At a recent debate, for instance, Warren said he would enact a five-year strategic roads plan "based on road usage and growth of the area." The state Transportation Department issued a news release Monday reminding the public it already has a 10-year plan to fix the state's roads and bridges, and is ahead of schedule.

Warren also has promised to sack the entire board of the state-owned Santee Cooper utility on his first day in office as governor, citing the $4 billion in construction debt the utility ran up before deciding to abandon the construction of two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.

In reality, the governor does not have the power to fire Santee Cooper’s entire board. He would have to prove, legally, that each board member committed a crime of gross negligence or misconduct.

But Warren sees no conflict between his promise and the governor's limited powers.

"I always had a realistic role of what the governor does," Warren said. "I believe, and I think all of South Carolina believes, that if you lose $4 billion and you allow a CEO to retire and get an $800,000 a year pension, that's gross negligence."

Warren also has said he would work to defeat entrenched State House politicians. The tactic has been tried by former S.C. Govs. Nikki Haley and Mark Sanford — two individuals with more political clout than Warren — to mixed results. But Warren vows he will "take it a step further" by raising money and campaigning statewide on behalf of challengers, as Haley did.

He also promises to "champion a return to a true citizen Legislature by imposing term limits on politicians."

However, South Carolina’s governor can't unilaterally impose term limits. Instead, legislators would have to vote to change the state Constitution and put the question to voters in a statewide referendum. Legislative leaders appear to have no interest in the idea.

“Not having any experience in government cuts two ways," said former state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, a 30-plus-year State House veteran who supports McMaster. "Some people see that as a plus ... to bring in new ideas and not be bound by the old way of doing things," but it also shows a lack of familiarity with how a legislative agenda gets passed.

Added Hayes: "If it’s his position that he’s going to bully his way through, I think he’s going to be somewhat disappointed in his ability to get things done that way. But he won’t be the first to try."

If elected, Warren would be the first S.C. governor in more than a century with no government experience.

"The question is, 'Do you go with a successful business person with no experience or a governor that already has a year and a half of experience under his belt, and (who) has a fantastic relationship with (President Donald Trump's) administration that would benefit South Carolina?'" asked former state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who supports McMaster.

Gubernatorial candidate John Warren has the support of his former opponents Catherine Templeton and Kevin Bryant.

'Vestige of both worlds'

However, Greenville's Jason Richards sees Warren as "a vestige of both worlds" — a political outsider who "is also able to look at Columbia with a very critical eye.'

Richards, who is Warren's neighbor, said he got to know Warren through his wife, Courtney.

"He's very passionate," Richards said of Warren. "My takeaway from talking politics with him ... is that he is committed to making change and doing things right. He's willing to make the sacrifice himself. I admire that."

Deliberate and focused, Warren can come off as stiff but is earnest and has a sense of humor, Richards said.

"John won't use 20 words when three will do," Richards said. "I really don't think John will say things just to get elected. He is very straightforward, and he will tell you what he thinks.

"He sees a problem and knows he can fix it. If given the opportunity, there's no doubt that he will."

Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83
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