A debate among the Democratic candidates for governor was not as personally vicious as another event two weeks ago. That was, until the topic turned to ethics.
The two non-officeholders in the race used an ongoing Statehouse corruption probe to attack perceived frontrunner State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, for his work with two convicted Republican lawmakers. It was their final chance to do so in a debate format before next week’s June 12 primary.
The question in Tuesday’s SCETV debate came the same day that State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, resigned from office to plead guilty to a misconduct in office charge. He is the fourth lawmaker (all Republicans) to plead guilty in the probe.
Florence attorney Marguerite Willis tried to link Smith to Courson and former State Rep. Rick Quinn during his time in the chamber, claiming Smith met in “smoke-filled rooms” with men such as Quinn during his 22 years in the South Carolina House.
“Where there’s smoke, sometimes there’s fire,” she said during the debate at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “Mr. Smith has got to explain how he was in the legislature for 22 years, had drinks every week with Rick Quinn, worked with Sen. Courson and doesn’t know anything about this problem.”
Charleston activist Phil Noble hit Smith for representing Republican politicians such as Attorney General Alan Wilson during a campaign finance violation case, then working as an attorney representing Wilson’s office during state lawsuits.
“We need to have a strict code of ethics that says if you’re in the legislature you can’t be making money for yourself off your connections, your relationships and your lobbying,” he said.
Smith defended his private work during his time in the legislature, saying he has represented clients on all sides of the political spectrum. “The fact that I happen to be a good lawyer and I get hired by Republicans, Democrats and independents… I guess I’ll plead guilty to that.”
Willis persisted in tying Smith to Quinn, “If I’m hurting your feelings, I’m sorry and if I’m wrong, you tell me I’m wrong,” she said. “But from this day forward, every time I get a chance I’m going to tell the folks what you did or didn’t do.”
“I appreciate your concern for my feelings,” the Army veteran responded. “I’ve actually really been shot at, so the concern that you all might have for these dishonest political really is not (the point).”
Noble tried to portray himself as a one-man operation who would be willing to publicly call out his opponents in the legislature and state boards (particularly at Santee Cooper) to pressure them into supporting Democratic ideas. “I’ll call their donors and lobby them, I’ll call their girlfriends, their boyfriends. I’ll call whoever. I’ll call their mama. I don’t care,” he said.
Smith, however, insisted his very relationships with Republicans that Willis and Noble criticize could help promote some progressive ideas since Republicans will still control the House and Senate even if he wins the election. “I’ve already begun the effort and spoken with the (House) Speaker (Jay Lucas) about an agenda for public education, something that he is ready for and embraces. Things like making sure we work to raise teacher salaries… to lower class sizes to better the opportunities for our kids to have a relationship with their teacher.”
The six Republican candidates will appear at the final SCETV primary debate on Tuesday at 7 p.m. That debate will also be held at the University of South Carolina.