About six months into her job as a data clerk in 1987, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a divorced mother of three, got a raise.
A 25-cent-an-hour raise. She was now earning $6.25 an hour to support herself and her children ages 3, 5 and 7.
"That was a turning point. I knew I had to try something different," said Colbert Busch, who went back to school at the College of Charleston, financed her degree and launched a career in maritime industry, international trade and shipping. She is now a director at Clemson University's Restoration Institute in North Charleston.
The Charleston County Democrat had a similar epiphany a few years ago, deciding it was time to stop talking about politics and get involved.
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For her first foray, she faces Republican nominee Mark Sanford in the May 7 special election to represent the 1st Congressional District, which leans Republican. It was represented by Sanford from 1995 to 2001, although it has since been redrawn and includes part of Beaufort County.
Sanford is still the favorite, according to many of the state's politicos, despite a Democratic poll that indicates Colbert Busch leads and a recent allegation by Sanford's ex-wife that he violated their divorce settlement by trespassing at her home.
But, they add, Colbert Busch has a growing list of advantages. State and national Democrats and their affiliated groups are pouring money into TV ads and mailers to build her up and tear Sanford down. She has a famous comedian brother, Stephen Colbert, fundraising by her side. And the former governor's troubled personal life could mean some Republicans stay home on Election Day.
But Colbert Busch most likes to talk about her tough, no-nonsense businesswoman reputation, much as Sanford relishes his reputation as a fiscal hawk.
Colbert Busch leans in tight and becomes more animated in a recent interview as she tells about an executive for a major ocean-line carrier, who several years ago, when she was first getting her start, didn't show up to interview her for a job, as arranged.
She never forgot the slight. Years later, while working in sales at a rival company, she looked up his client list and systematically set out to steal each one -- an endeavor at which she said she was successful.
"It's just business," she said in a recent interview. "But it's the reason that, to this day, when a young person calls me, by God, I always call them back."
Her business background is a big part of her appeal to supporters.
"She has spent her whole career creating good jobs and balancing budgets," said Leslie Turner, a Charleston attorney and Republican who is heading up a GOP group to get Colbert Busch elected. "Her business experience is at the core of who she is, and I know that, unlike her opponent, we can trust her to represent our values in Washington."
But defining Colbert Busch in political terms isn't as easy.
Casting herself as a moderate, she has rejected President Barack Obama's budget proposal and a ban on assault weapons. On Thursday, she wagged her finger at members of Congress for attempting to exempt themselves from the new federal health care law.
But she favors gay marriage and abortion rights. She is backed by unions but has said she is not beholden to them or any other donor.
She's agreed to only one debate -- leading Sanford to say she is running a stealth campaign and won't reveal to voters what she really stands for.
And some critics say she's attempted to scrub the Internet of her progressive views.
Earlier this month, her campaign deleted more than 500 tweets from her campaign Twitter account. The tweets ranged from replies thanking voters for their support, digs at Republican stances, and responses in which she shares her beliefs, including support for abortion rights and gay marriage.
Her campaign denies the claim it was attempting to hide anything.
"It was a housekeeping measure," said James Smith, Colbert Busch's spokesman, adding that voters were having a difficult time finding information because of the large number of retweets.
"I'm the same person I've always been," Colbert Busch added.
Follow reporter Gina Smith at twitter.com/GinaNSmith.