PATTERSON, Elizabeth J.

PATTERSON, Elizabeth J.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1939– 2018


Representative Elizabeth Patterson of South Carolina carved out a political career as a Democrat in a conservative–leaning district, portraying herself as a budget hawk and opponent of tax increases, though not at the expense of providing for working–class needs. The daughter of a powerful politician, Patterson’s long experience in public service, fiscal austerity, and ability to capitalize on the South Carolina GOP’s internal divisions gave her narrow majorities over her opponents. Ultimately, her middle–of–the–road approach lost its appeal in a conservative state.1

Elizabeth Johnston was born on November 18, 1939, to Olin DeWitt Talmadge Johnston and Gladys Atkinson Johnston in Columbia, South Carolina. Her father, Olin Johnston, was a political fixture in South Carolina politics, serving in the state house of representatives before being elected governor in 1935. He served a total of six years as governor (1935–1939; 1943–1945), before resigning in his second term after he had won election to the U.S. Senate. Johnston served 20 years in the Senate and was the longtime chairman of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee. Elizabeth Johnston attended public schools in suburban Maryland but graduated from Spartanburg High School in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1957. In 1961, she received her bachelor’s degree at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina. She subsequently studied political science at the University of South Carolina. On April 16, 1967, Elizabeth Johnston married Dwight Patterson and they raised three children: Dwight, Olin, and Catherine. Elizabeth Patterson, worked as recruiting officer for the Peace Corps and VISTA, as a Head Start coordinator for the South Carolina Office of Economic Opportunity, and as a staff assistant for South Carolina Representative James R. Mann from 1969 to 1970. Patterson made her debut in elective politics when she won an open seat on the Spartanburg County Council in 1975. She served in that capacity for two years, securing a reputation as a fiscal conservative who trimmed county expenses while opposing a tax increase.2 In 1979, Patterson was elected to the South Carolina senate, where she served through 1986. She worked diligently on the finance committee to reduce and restructure the state budget. She also served on the governor’s task force on hunger and nutrition.

Patterson declared her candidacy for a South Carolina U.S. House seat in 1986, when four–term Republican Representative Carroll A. Campbell, Jr., declined renomination in order to run for governor. The district encompassed the Greenville and Spartanburg area, which had swung Republican in the 1960s. With the exception of the 1976 election, South Carolina had voted for the GOP presidential candidate since 1964, and the district had been a mainstay of conservatives. As a stronghold of evangelical and fundamentalist conservatives, the district increasingly was contested between religiously conservative Republicans versus more “commerce–minded” Republicans and moderate to conservative Democrats.3 Patterson campaigned as a fiscal conservative with a social conscience. As a moderate, she supported pro–choice legislation citing that, “the government should not interfere with this most personal decision.”4 She advocated giving aid to the Nicaragua Contra rebels, opposed gun control, and also supported the death penalty. In the general election, Patterson faced Republican William D. Workman III, a former newspaper editor, the mayor of Greenville, and the son of a man who had once opposed Olin Johnston for the Senate.5 Workman had survived a heated GOP primary in which he’d been attacked by religious fundamentalist opponents as a tool of big business. Though polls favored Workman, Patterson skillfully exploited divisions in the GOP between her opponent and religious–right critics by painting him as a friend of corporations and the district’s bluebloods. When Workman charged Patterson was a free–spending Democrat, she countered with television advertisements that declared, “I’m one of us”— in which she was portrayed as a homemaker and family values candidate.6 Patterson won by a plurality of about 5,400 votes out of more than 130,000 cast, a margin of 51 percent.7

In subsequent elections, the district remained competitive. Less than a month on the job, Patterson was specifically targeted by the GOP for defeat.8 Although President George H.W. Bush carried the district with 68 percent in the 1988 presidential elections (six points ahead of his statewide percentage), Patterson held on against Knox White, another business–oriented Republican, winning with 52 percent of the vote. During the 1990 midterm elections, because an economic downturn eroded support for the President Bush and Patterson cast a popular vote against a federal tax increase, South Carolina voters gave her a third term with her largest margin—61 percent against Republican Terry Haskins, the South Carolina house minority leader who was supported by religious conservatives.9

While in the House, Patterson sat on three committees: Veterans’ Affairs; Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs; and the Select Committee on Hunger. From her Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs post, Representative Patterson weighed in on the savings and loan industry crisis. High interest rates in the early 1980s made many of these institutions insolvent. In 1988 alone, more than 190 savings and loan banks failed, and by the time new regulatory practices were in place, the government bailout of the industry through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was estimated to cost more than $160 billion. “We must protect the depositors. We must protect the taxpayers. And finally, we must protect the safety and soundness of our banking industry,” Patterson declared on the House Floor. She argued that uninsured deposits, foreign or domestic, should not be protected at a cost to the bank insurance fund.10 She also opposed a radical overhaul of the FDIC, while allowing it greater power to intervene to close down insolvent banks. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act, passed in 1991, greatly revised the agency’s operations.

In 1990, Patterson chaired the Conservative Democratic Forum’s Task Force on Budget Reform and eventually voted against the 1990 proposed tax increase (a move which aided her re–election later that year). She also served on the Speaker’s Task Force on Budget Reform, and, in 1991, introduced the Budget Simplification and Reform Act, which would have amended the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 to limit the use of continuing resolutions and expedite the rescission process. Her bill also contained a clause that would have required Members to provide explanatory statements identifying the sponsor and the cost of projects that benefited 10 or fewer people, as a means of combating pork barrel legislation. “Let us spread a little sunshine on Capitol Hill,” Patterson said.11

Patterson also defended the beleaguered textile industry, which, until the 1980s, when it began losing to foreign competition, had been a major employer in her district. She joined the bipartisan Congressional Textile Caucus and, in 1992, Patterson was appointed chair of the panel. Patterson often expressed frustrations felt by her constituents who not only were losing jobs but were unable to “buy American.” Patterson told of one occasion when her daughter went shopping in the district for a simple cotton shirt and had to resort to buying a foreign–made item. “It was made in China … where human rights abuses are rampant and where wages are slave wages,” Patterson lamented to colleagues. “At the same time, a shirt factory in my district is closed, a factory where shirts were made of better quality and sold for a cheaper price. Those people cannot buy the clothes that I bought for my children because they are out of work.”12

In the 1992 elections, a year eventually dominated by Democrats and women candidates, Patterson faced a tough campaign against Bob Inglis, a 33–year–old Republican challenger. Inglis, a corporate lawyer and the Greenville County GOP chairman, was highly organized and targeted 11 precincts which he believed would determine the election in the district. He also won the support of the Christian Coalition, which distributed material that accused Patterson of supporting “abortion on demand,” although she had consistently opposed the procedure in all cases except rape, incest, or when the mother’s life was in danger.13 Inglis, meanwhile, depicted Patterson as a liberal on the abortion issue and as a political tool of banking interests. Inglis pledged to take “not one dime” from political action committees and declared that he would honor a pledge to serve just three terms in the House. He also attacked her for abusing the informal House “bank” maintained for Members by the Sergeant at Arms (she bounced two checks) by distributing bumper stickers in the form of a check that read, “Bounce Liz.”14 One observer noted that the Patterson campaign was slow to respond: “one problem was that she was so moderate she was hard to define. Nobody thought that she would lose.”15 Patterson eventually did lose by a margin of about 5,600 votes, 50 to 47 percent.

After leaving Congress, Patterson sought the lieutenant governorship of South Carolina in 1994. While she won the closely contested Democratic primary, she eventually lost in the general election. Patterson settled into a teaching job as a political science professor at Spartanburg Methodist College. In 1999, she received an M.A. in liberal arts from Converse College. Elizabeth Patterson died on November 10, 2018.


1Ronald Smothers, “S. Carolina Experiences Fresh Surge By G.O.P,” 25 August 1994, New York Times: B7.

2“Elizabeth Patterson Papers, Biography,” (accessed 13 August 2002).

3Politics in America, 1994 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1993): 1156.

4“Elizabeth Johnston Patterson,” Associated Press Candidate Biographies, 1992.

5Steven V. Roberts, “Campaigners for House Seats Stress Local Concerns and Efficient Service,” 1 November 1986, New York Times: 8.

6Politics in America, 1990: 1368; Almanac of American Politics, 1988 (Washington, D.C.L National Journal Inc., 1987): 1087–1088.

7“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,”

8“The Perils of Success,” 1 February 1987, Washington Post: A10.

9“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,”

10Congressional Record, House, 102nd Cong., 1st sess. (31 October 1991): 8793.

11Congressional Record, House, 102nd Cong., 1st sess. (1 August 1991): 6297.

12Congressional Record, House, 101st Cong., 2nd sess. (2 October 1990): 8603.

13Anthony Lewis, “Tax–Exempt Politics?” 20 November 1992, New York Times: A15.

14Megan Rosenfeld, “Anatomy of a Defeat: How a Middle–of–the–Road Incumbent Got Run Over on Election Day,” 12 November 1992, Washington Post: D1.

15Rosenfeld, “Anatomy of a Defeat.”

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

The University of South Carolina Libraries
South Carolina Political Collections

Columbia, SC
Papers: ca.1930-2010, 18 feet. The collection documents Patterson's service in the South Carolina Senate (Spartanburg County area), 1979-1986, and the U.S. House of Representatives, Fourth District, 1987-1993. Eighteen feet of material, chiefly 1979 to 1992, provides valuable information about Patterson’s public service in South Carolina and Washington, D.C. Public papers primarily document Patterson’s service in the General Assembly and Congress. Personal papers, which make up the bulk of the collection, include material on her campaigns for office, family, civic involvement, and education.
Oral History: July 13, 1995, 28-page transcript. Patterson sat for an interview on July 13, 1995, and discussed her father's career and her early life in Washington, D.C.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Elizabeth J. Patterson" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Hunger
  • House Committee - Veterans' Affairs
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Related Media

Not the First Woman

The Honorable Elizabeth J. Patterson reflects on the history of women from South Carolina who served in Congress.

The Honorable Elizabeth J. Patterson, U.S. Representative of South Carolina
Interview recorded April 3, 2017 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Women and South Carolina Politics

The Honorable Elizabeth J. Patterson talks about the strides women have made in South Carolina.

The Honorable Elizabeth J. Patterson, U.S. Representative of South Carolina
Interview recorded April 3, 2017 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)