Warthen: Looking ahead to 2010: Are we hopeful yet?

Editorial Page EditorFebruary 22, 2009 

Since the current occupant has sort of put the whole being-governor-of-South-Carolina thing behind him — nowadays you have to track national media to know what he’s up to — let’s follow his lead, and look forward to the time when he no longer holds the office even technically.

In the spirit of getting us to that point as quickly as possible, I spoke last week with the one declared candidate for the 2010 gubernatorial election, Sen. Vincent Sheheen.

If you don’t know the 37-year-old Camden attorney, you might know his daddy, former Higher Education Commissioner Fred, or his uncle, former House Speaker Bob. He is like them in his dedication to public service, yet very different. His uncle was the last Democrat to run the House, while the nephew has been shaped by having to get things done in a world run by Republicans. It’s made him a consensus-builder, and he thinks that has prepared him well for this moment.

Not only does he think he has a good chance of gaining the Democratic nomination among those who have been mentioned — and his close allies who might have drawn from the same base of support, Rep. James Smith and Sen. Joel Lourie, are not running — but, “at this point in the state’s history, I have a good chance in the general election,” whoever the GOP nominee is. Why? “Because people are not satisfied.”

He can identify with that: “I’ve reached this point out of frustration and hope.”

“We have been stuck in a rut for a long time,” he said, and “I am not seeing things changing at all. And that’s very frustrating.” He senses a similar frustration in the electorate. He thinks voters realize that “if we keep... not doing anything, then we’re not going to improve.”

So what does he want to do?

• “Get real again about job creation and economic development.” He says the state needs a governor who will treat that as a priority, playing an active part in recruiting business, and working to see that the whole state, including the rural parts, benefits.

• “Pulling South Carolina’s governmental structure into at least the 20th century, and maybe the 21st century.” Some of what he wants to do is what the current governor has said he wanted to do. But the plan that Mr. Sheheen has put forward (parts of which he explains on the facing page) actually has some traction — enough so that Mark Sanford mentioned it favorably in his State of the State address this year. Sen. Sheheen believes the time has come to move restructuring past the starting line, and he thinks he can do it: “I’m not knocking anybody; I’m just saying it’s time to have somebody who can build consensus.”

• “Change the way we spend our money.” As he rightly describes the process, “We budget in the dark.” He wants to see a programmatic budget, followed by the legislative oversight that has been missing, to make sure the spending does what it’s intended to do.

• Combine conservation with economic development. He thinks we need to move beyond setting aside just to conserve, but convert what is conserved to benefit “the humans in a community.” He points to the ways the Camden battlefield has been used to promote tourism.

• Change the way we fund education. Make funding equitable, based on pupils, not districts, so that “a similarly situated student will have the same opportunities ... regardless of where they live.”

When I ask whether there’s anything else, he confesses: “I’m a geek. I could keep going, but ... I’ve got to think of something that’s politically catchy. I’m supposed to do that.”

At which point he proves his geekhood by mentioning comprehensive tax reform, which he’s been advocating “since my first day in the House.”

But while that issue might not make voters’ hearts beat faster, he speaks again of what he sees as “a growing consensus that we need to do something.”

And he thinks the high-profile, counterproductive “contention between the current governor and the Legislature” has created an opportunity for someone who wants to move beyond that.

But how would a Democrat fare in that task in a State House run by Republicans? Quite well, he says. He calls Republican Carroll Campbell “one of the most effective governors,” a fact he attributes in part to the “constructive friction” between him and the Democratic Legislature that his Uncle Bob helped lead.

Ironically, Vincent Sheheen seems to be suggesting that his party has become enough of an outsider in the halls of state power that a consensus-minded Democrat could be less threatening to, and more successful in working with, the GOP leadership. “Someone who is not jockeying for position within their own party could actually help to bring together some of the different factions.”

As a representative of “swing counties” — Chesterfield, Lancaster and Kershaw — he sees himself as having the ability to be that Democrat.

Thus far — perhaps because he’s the only declared candidate in either party — he wears the burden of this campaign lightly. At one point he asks me, “Am I making you hopeful?” — then chuckles when I decline to answer.

But I will say this to you, the reader: He’s talking about the right issues, and he’s talking about them the right way. That’s a start. Here’s hoping that the candidates yet to declare, in both parties, do the same. Then perhaps we can have a gubernatorial choice, for once, between good and better.

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