Thursday night’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates’ debate had a feistier feel than the Republicans a day earlier.
State Rep. James Smith defended his Statehouse record from barbs by the two non-officeholders running against him for the nomination. Charleston businessman Phil Noble and Florence attorney Marguerite Willis spent more time criticizing Smith and the legislature by name than the current Republican Gov. Henry McMaster.
Willis claimed Smith did little to help the state during his 21 years in the House, particularly on education. “He is talking big now, but he hasn’t done much in the past,” she said. “That matters because what someone does on the job is what you look at when you’re hiring them to do a similar job.”
Smith retorted that his powers to pass legislation in the House are somewhat limited. “It’s either naive or dishonest to not understand that the legislature is run by the other party,” he said. “Yes, we’ve fought to make sure to prevent a lot of other bad things from happening.” He went on to say that he has still helped sponsor and pass legislation on solar energy and early childhood education.
Thursday’s debate at Clemson University was the Democratic edition of the two debates in two days sponsored by SCETV and the Charleston Post & Courier newspaper. It was moderated by former CNN reporter and University of South Carolina communications dean emeritus Charles Bierbauer.
Noble said South Carolina needs to overhaul education. “We need to junk the system we’ve got now because we can have radically better,” he said. “And we can do that by first doubling the pay of teachers, which brings new people in, keeps good teachers here and changes the dynamic where teachers leave.”
Willis knocked Noble for previously saying his plan would likely fire “one third” of all teachers in South Carolina who were ineffective. Noble insisted Willis was misquoting him, although he had been quoted as saying that such firings would come after five years in an interview with The State newspaper.
Noble said the state needs a radical change in leadership and that it is currently run with “plantation politics” by both parties. Smith criticized him for the catchphrase, joking it would help some audience members with their “debate bingo cards. Noble said he will keep using it.
Noble criticized Smith for having at least four years of positive ratings from the NRA. Smith responded those ratings require context. “You look at those scores, some of them were related to preventing nuisance lawsuits over (gun) ranges in rural areas,” he insisted. “That had nothing to do with gun safety reform and it was the only bill that was rated that year.”
But Noble accused Smith of only making an effort to distance himself from the gun rights group in recent years.
Some shots were reserved for McMaster and other Republicans, often in the context of President Trump. Smith said “Number 45” was evidence for why voters should choose a political veteran over inexperienced newcomers.
Willis said South Carolina needs a governor who will stand up to Trump, unlike McMaster. “He went up and begged and said please, please don’t drill off our shore, “Donald Trump said forget it. He said please, please take the tariffs off Samsung. Donald Trump did nothing. Listen: our governor is no friend of Donald Trump’s and (Trump) is no friend of ours.”
The candidates will meet again for another debate on June 4 at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. It will be their final time together before the June 12 primary. The Republican candidates will have their final debate at the same venue a day later.