Some Democrats question Sheheen's 'fire in the belly'

A Camden favorite son might shine statewide

gnsmith@thestate.comOctober 4, 2009 

Camden Sen. Vincent Sheheen is a Democratic candidate for governor.

FILE PHOTO

  • Vincent Sheheen

    Age: 37

    Residence: Camden

    Occupation: Attorney

    Education: Bachelor's degree, Clemson University; law degree, USC

    Political experience: S.C. House, 2001-04; S.C. Senate, 2004 to present

    Status: Declared

    Why he's running: Sheheen says he will push job creation, government accountability and improving public education as his top priorities.

    What he must overcome: Sheheen is not well-known outside the Midlands.

    Web site: vincentsheheen.com

    Accomplishments: Sheheen counts among his top accomplishments his efforts to create a conservation land bank in the House that has preserved thousands of S.C. acres. He also worked to more closely regulate payday lenders and helped lead a Senate effort to bypass Republican Gov. Mark Sanford and claim about $700 million in federal stimulus money for the state.

    Failures: Despite advocating government restructuring, Sheheen has not been able to persuade his fellow senators to pass legislation to reorganize state government. He has also been unable to persuade lawmakers to reform the state's tax code in a comprehensive way.

As Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen strolls around his hometown of Camden, people can't help but call out to him.

"Hey, Vincent!" called a woman on a recent sunny morning as she piled into her car on Camden's Broad Street. "We're pulling for you, honey."

Sheheen, tall and lanky, raised a friendly palm in the air and called a greeting back to the mother of one of his childhood football friends.

In this sleepy town known for steeplechase horse racing and Revolutionary War battlefields, Sheheen, 37, is a local celebrity.

But it remains to be seen if Sheheen, considered by many the frontrunner for his party's nomination for governor, can capture the Camden-like following that he will need in the rest of the Palmetto State to stave off four Democratic challengers.

FIRE IN THE BELLY

Some Democrats, eager to take the governor's office after a nearly seven-year absence from power, say Sheheen isn't the guy to pull it off.

They worry he lacks the "fire in the belly" to excite voters and take advantage of the anti-Republican sentiment that GOP Gov. Mark Sanford has created among voters - one of the biggest political boons gifted to Democrats in years.

They also doubt Vincent Sheheen can escape the shadow of the other Sheheen men.

Despite two terms in the S.C. House and one in the state Senate, the face of the Sheheen family remains Sheheen's father and uncle. Sheheen's father, Fred Sheheen, is a former executive director of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, and his uncle, Bob Sheheen, is a former speaker of the S.C. House.

"I don't think he can give a punch, and I don't think he can take a punch," Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of the state Democratic Party and a longtime friend of the Sheheen family, said of Vincent Sheheen. "That isn't to say he's not a good guy."

Harpootlian said he wrote Sheheen a $3,500 check, the maximum amount allowed, but is backing his opponent, Columbia attorney and former lobbyist Dwight Drake, in the Democratic primary.

"(Sheheen) is tentative," said Harpootlian, who says Sheheen should have come out earlier and stronger against Sanford's ideas, even before the governor secretly left the state for five days and reappeared only to announce an extramarital affair. "We need strong, tough leadership in our party and our state, and he's not the guy."

Asked about the criticism, Sheheen shook his head as he vigorously peppered a sandwich at a Camden lunch spot.

"I realize this is a transformative election. Either we transform the state now or we're going to keep doing the same things and getting the same poor results," he said. "We can't have just a 'nice guy' or a 'nice lady' governor right now."

Sheheen said he is the visionary leader the state needs who will focus on the twin issues that have propelled other Democrats to statewide office, including Govs. Jim Hodges and Dick Riley - growing jobs and attracting industry, and improving public education.

In that vein, Sheheen envisions a health-care economy to entice patients in other states to seek niche care in South Carolina.

An avid outdoorsman and history buff, he envisions a historical and recreational tourism industry to attract visitors to the interior of the state.

He talks excitedly about transforming empty textile mills into manufacturing spots for wind turbines and other alternative-energy devices while simultaneously luring manufacturing and distribution businesses to rural South Carolina.

And, similar to Sanford, Sheheen says state government and its budgeting process must be restructured.

Case in point: "When we (lawmakers) budget money, we have no idea how money is spent on the ground (at the state agencies) and whether the funding is successful," he said. "Most people are really surprised when I tell them that. It needs to change."

CROSSOVER APPEAL

As a child, Sheheen and his sister, Maria, made pocket money by working at their father's Broad Street print shop, folding and stapling newspapers.

Today, just a few blocks down the same street, Sheheen hunkers in the back room of a former furniture store, making dozens of calls, asking for money to pay for his campaign.

Sheheen temporarily has stopped practicing law at a small Camden firm to run for governor full-time.

Thus far, the married father of three has raised more than $700,000. It's more than any other Democrat, but two Republican contenders already have surpassed the $1 million mark, according to the latest campaign figures available.

It will take thousands more phone calls and millions more dollars to pay for Sheheen's constant shuttling around the state, speaking to nearly any organization that extends an invitation.

Sheheen's energy level and fresh views guarantee his success in the primary, said Don Fowler, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a Sheheen supporter.

"We need someone like Vincent who is of a younger generation with newer life experiences in the same way that Obama symbolized that in the presidential race," Fowler said, alluding to state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and Drake, two of Sheheen's Democratic opponents, both over 60. (State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, a long-shot candidate, is 60.)

"We are in such a different world now than what we were even 20 or 30 years ago, that I think it takes younger people with newer experiences and different perspectives to deal with this new modern world," Fowler said.

Dave Woodard, a Republican strategist and Clemson professor who taught Sheheen, said his former pupil's biggest attribute is his moderate appeal.

"The (Sanford) stain is going to be pretty deep and pretty wide, and it will affect the Republicans in ways they don't even anticipate right now," said Woodard, who is backing U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett for the GOP's nomination for governor.

"The Democrats' chances are unusually good this time. (Sheheen) is a moderate who is respected by even Republicans. He could have the crossover appeal to win."

Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.

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