From poverty to Trump supporter to candidate for Congress
By JAMIE LOVEGROVE
Mar. 10, 2018
EASLEY, S.C. (AP) — After four arrests, three attempts to get through college, multiple car repossessions, one stint biking to work at McDonald's, and a scam that led him to the brink of financial ruin, Pastor Mark Burns found himself sitting on the opposite end of a conference room table from Donald Trump.
Two months after the New York real estate mogul had launched his improbable presidential campaign in 2015, Cleveland pastor Darrell Scott invited Burns to join a group of evangelical leaders in a Trump Tower meeting.
A small-town budding televangelist in a room of famous pastors, Burns happily stood to the side at first. But Michael Cohen, Trump's attorney, took a liking to Burns and motioned to him to sit at the table.
The session began with mostly pleasantries. Then Burns spoke up.
"Mr. Trump, a lot of us black leaders have taken flak just for coming to this meeting," Burns recalled telling him. "How would you go about bridging the gap to the black community in America?"
In the two and a half years since then, Burns has flown all over the country to support Trump, firing up the crowd at rallies from Florida to Michigan to Texas. He's become a regular presence on cable news. He delivered a raucous speech before a national audience at the 2016 Republican convention. He spends many weekends at Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida and chats often with members of the president's family and Cabinet.
Now, Burns is seeking to leverage his connections to Trump's orbit into a South Carolina congressional seat, jumping into the hyper-competitive GOP primary race to replace departing U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, in the deep red Upstate 4th Congressional District.
It may be a tall order for an African-American and 38-year-old Easley pastor whose past started in a rundown shack on a dirt road in Belton.
Rocky early life
The son of a pastor and a mother who worked odd jobs, Burns moved around often as a child but spent the bulk of his early days growing up in a one-room house with bunk beds.
"My parents did the best that they could with what they had, but we were really poor in a lot of ways," Burns said. "I thought everybody's lights got turned off all the time. I thought everybody had roaches."
After his senior year football season, he got a girlfriend pregnant. As a religious family, Burns' parents insisted the two get married. The child was born prematurely and the couple was immediately overwhelmed.
"We had no idea how to take care of ourselves, let alone what to do with a baby," Burns said.
They would go on to have two more children, whom Burns kept custody of after the divorce.
Burns first began attending Southern Wesleyan University. But trying to juggle family life with being a full-time student proved too difficult, and his grades cratered.
Eventually, he transferred to Tri-County Technical College and then again to North Greenville University while working a security job on the weekends, but he never graduated.
Traffic violation tickets began to rack up — mostly minor issues like broken taillights and not wearing a seatbelt, he said. Eventually, his license was suspended, and when he was pulled over again, he got taken to jail for the first time. Similar circumstances led to two more arrests.
His fourth stint behind bars came when he and his brother got into a fight with white neighbors in Travelers Rest. He insists they were provoked and he was arrested only because he was black.
"When people say Donald Trump is a racist, no, I know what racism looks like, OK? And it ain't Donald Trump," Burns said. "I know the face of racism, and I know how it can be used to crush people's dreams and hold people back simply for the color of their skin."
Struggling to find work, he wound up getting a job at McDonald's and had to bike miles each day due to his car troubles. He wanted something else.
In 2009, he started his first church in Easley and began helping a pastor in Detroit build a new televangelism brand. He eventually transitioned his own ministry into the NOW Network.
The Trump campaign
Before meeting Trump, Burns was a lifelong Democrat. Despite some initial trepidation, the brash candidate quickly won him over.
"It's because of Donald Trump that I became a Republican, learning his principles and learning what the conservative movement really stood for," Burns said. "He was just such a normal person."
He helped organize more meetings between Trump and black pastors. In a campaign that badly needed to increase support in the African-American community, he rose to become one of the campaign's leading surrogates. But in the final months of the race, Burns made several public blunders.
After he retweeted a photo of Hillary Clinton in blackface, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told him he needed to apologize. Burns was devastated, convinced he had inflicted critical damage to the campaign.
But after going on TV to backpedal, Trump called him. "Pastor! Who told you to apologize?" Trump asked. "Don't apologize! We don't apologize! Double down. Tell them you meant to do it."
So Burns went back on TV and emphasized that while he was sorry if the image had offended some people, he would not apologize for the sentiment behind it that Clinton was pandering to black voters.
Days later, CNN exposed that he exaggerated his biography on an old church website. But Trump told him he empathized with him and kept using him as a warm-up act at rallies.
Now a candidate
Political leaders in the Upstate district — the heart of the state's evangelical base — claim many voters there don't know Burns.
National popularity among Trump devotees does not necessarily translate to winning a regional race against people who have worked in local politics for years. But it can help with fundraising. Within two weeks of entering the race, Burns brought in more than $100,000.
Other top GOP contenders running for the seat include state Rep. Dan Hamilton and state Sen. William Timmons, both veteran Greenville Republicans. The district is 75 percent white.
Some Republicans have already moved to quash Burns' candidacy. In a rare public intervention by a county GOP chairman, Greenville's Nate Leupp highlighted that Burns lives outside the 4th District.
Legally, candidates can live anywhere in South Carolina to run for a congressional seat, and Burns notes that he has spent much of his life working in the Greenville area. But residential questions make easy campaign fodder.
Burns expects that critics will use his checkered past against him, but he shrugs it all off.
"It's so sad that we have so many, what I call 'plastic politicians,' who pretend like they never made no mistakes," he said. "That doesn't represent America. The key is how you overcame those problems and how you move forward."
Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com