The South Carolina Election Commission on Tuesday sided with a Lowcountry legislator whose reelection was challenged amidst accusations that he does not live in the district he represents.
State Sen. Clementa Pinckney (D-Ridgeland) represents Jasper and Hampton counties in the Statehouse, but his losing Republican opponent claims Pinckney does not live there. Leilani Bessinger accuses the senator of staying with his wife and daughter in a Lexington County home.
The commission unanimously sided with Pinckney after a three-hour hearing Tuesday.
Pinckney had defeated Bessinger on Election Day with 66 percent of the vote to her 34 percent. Bessinger filed a protest after the election, claiming that Pinckney was not allowed to run for the office because he did not live at the address listed on his campaign filing form.
The issue was over the home on Sunset Avenue in Ridgeland that Pinckney listed as his home address. Pinckney says he grew up in that home and continued to live there with his mother and brother even after he was elected to the Senate. After his mother died in 2005, Pinckney says his brother Kenya Pinckney took ownership of the house. But Sen. Pinckney said he continued to call Sunset Avenue home until 2009.
In 2009, Pinckney said his brother decided to make badly-needed repairs to the home. At that point, Pinckney said he moved in with a cousin who lived about two miles away. However, Bessinger challenged that during Tuesday’s hearing. The Republican, who acted as her own attorney, questioned why Pinckney’s wife and daughter have lived in Lexington County (135 miles away from Ridgeland) since 2010. Pinckney responded that his wife is caring for her aging parents and teaching in Aiken while he is serving as a Methodist minister in Charleston.
Pinckney’s attorney Tanya Gee produced bank statements, tax documents, and other financial data that still showed his Jasper County address. She said Pinckney is registered to vote in Jasper County and that his cousin’s home is in the same precinct as the Sunset Avenue home.
“Ridgeland is home. It’s where I’ve been nurtured. It’s where I played T-ball. It’s where I learned values,” Pinckney said during Bessinger’s questioning, “It’s home. It’s who I am. I’ve never considered leaving.”
He said he hopes to eventually return to the Sunset Avenue home. But Bessinger questioned why Kenya Pinckney had begun renting out the home over the past year. Sen. Pinckney responded that his brother hoped to recoup the higher-than-expected renovation costs. Kenya Pinckney is in the military and is currently stationed in Washington state.
“I’m wondering how the house was good enough for renters to live in, but not good enough for you,” Bessinger said.
While Bessinger raised questions about Pinckney’s residence, commissioners noted that she was not able to prove Pinckney lived outside Senate District 45. At the same time, several family members (most notably his cousin Hilda Stevenson-Stewart) vouched for the senator’s comments. In the end, the Election Commission voted 5-0 to rule in Pinckney’s favor.
Bessinger called the decision disappointing, saying she had trouble believing Pinckney’s testimony. “If you think that you’re a responsible adult when you’re (his age) and you can live off your family for $150 a month, more power to you.”
Pinckney did not speak to reporters afterward, saying he would prefer to put the matter to rest.