Senate District 20

Dems help GOP’s Courson hold job

Now longtime senator facing Robert Rikard

abeam@thestate.comSeptember 15, 2012 

SC Sen. John Courson-R, left, and Democratic challenger Robert Rikard

PROVIDED PHOTOGRAPHS

  • The race for Senate District 20 The district that includes parts of Richland and Lexington counties, extending from downtown Columbia to the northwest John Courson Age: 68 Education: University of South Carolina Occupation: Senior vice president, KeenanSuggs insurance Political experience: S.C. Senate, 1985 to present Family: Married to Elizabeth Poinsett Exum; three children Money: Courson has raised $183,899 this election cycle. Combined with money left over from previous campaigns, he had $242,715 available to spend as of July, his most-recent financial disclosure report said. Donors are a mix of Republicans, including developer and State Ports Authority chairman Bill Stern, and Democrats, including strategist Heyward Bannister. Corporate donors – including SCANA, Bank of America, BlueCross BlueShield and Wal-Mart – have given roughly $85,000. Robert Rikard Age: 41 Education: University of South Carolina Occupation: Attorney, Rikard & Protopapas Political experience: None Family: Three sons Money: Rikard has raised $102,555, not counting a $25,000 personal loan to his campaign. He had $54,005.56 available to spend, according to his most-recent financial disclosure. Most of his donations are from law firms and attorneys.

With framed pictures of Ronald Reagan and the Confederate flag in his State House office, state Sen. John Courson fits many Southern Republican stereotypes. Except for one: Democrats vote for him.

Twenty-eight years ago, Courson ousted 18-year Democratic incumbent Hyman Rubin. Since then, Richland County has grown more Democratic. Two years ago, for example, Courson’s district voted for Democrat Vincent Sheheen over Republican Nikki Haley in the governor’s race. But Republican Courson – elected earlier this year to the Senate’s top leadership position, president pro tempore – keeps winning, often with no opposition.

Courson is a regular in the early-morning Shandon dog-walking scene, leading Mary Greene, a Democrat in Courson’s district, to say it is hard to vote against your neighbor.

“Especially when your neighbor is likeable,” said Greene, a Courson supporter who was a staffer for former Democratic Gov. Dick Riley. “When you’ve got somebody like that, that is in place and in a position of leadership, you go with the winning team.”

Courson has not had a serious challenger in 12 years. Eventually, Courson expects his Senate District 20 to go Democratic, he said earlier this year. Just not the year, he hopes. But, in the Nov. 6 general election, Courson will face a likeable, reasonably funded Democratic challenger, attorney Robert Rikard, who could put Courson’s likability to the test.

Rikard, a former sheriff’s deputy, says his polling and conversations with District 20 voters show “people just hate politics, and are wary and concerned about government.” He hopes to connect with those voters by building his campaign around restricting how elected officials raise money and criticizing Courson for taking advantage of legislators’ taxpayer-funded pension system.

“Here you have an incumbent, with decades-long service in the State House, who has now risen to significant leadership position in the Senate and is somewhat presiding over state government, which, polling tells us, people are pretty dissatisfied with,” said Carey Crantford, a Rikard campaign consultant. “This is a classic new vs. old race, regardless of what the partisan identification numbers are in the district.”

Courson anchors his campaign around his support for public education – an important issue in his district, which includes the University of South Carolina, and many state and university employees. Courson is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and helps write the higher education portion of the state budget.

Also, as the Senate’s highest ranking officer, Courson can tout his power to drive the Senate’s agenda.

Courson says he is proud of the state Legislature’s work.

“We are one of few states that have maintained a AAA bond rating,” he said. “We are not facing the financial problems other states are facing. We’ve done a lot of things right in the Palmetto State.”

Obama a liability for Rikard?

The difference maker in the state Senate race could be the presidential election.

While Senate District 20 most recently voted for Democrat Sheheen, it consistently has voted for the Republican presidential candidate. This year, 62 percent of voters in the district have an unfavorable view of Democratic President Barack Obama, according to a poll commissioned by Richard Quinn, a Republican political consultant who works for Courson.

Courson traditionally does even better than the GOP presidential nominee in District 20, usually tallying four or five percentage points higher than his party’s candidate. That ability to attract crossover votes from Democrats is the key to Courson’s political success, both he and Rikard say.

“The conventional wisdom would be to, ‘Stay away from President Obama ... he’s a liability,’ ” Rikard said. “If you look at the presidential election, both sides are so vilified by the other, you really do have to stay out of it.”

But, Rikard added, “I’m not out there running as President Obama’s vice president. I’m running as District 20’s new senator.”

If he wins, Rikard says he wants to ban politicians from holding fundraisers while the Legislature is in session. He also wants to eliminate “Leadership PACs,” political action committees formed by politicians to raise money for other politicians. Rikard said the best example is the Palmetto Leadership Council, tied to House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

“You have elected officials who are voting on legislation that impacts various industries across the state, and those same elected officials are the head of (and) organize various leadership PACs where they tell the same people they are affecting to give them lots and lots of money to advance their agenda in the State House,” Rikard said.

Courson said he, too, favors abolishing leadership PACs, adding he does not have one. He said he and state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, are preparing a series of bills to reform the state’s ethics laws, including one that would ban lawmakers from creating leadership PACs.

“We need to look at the ethics laws in toto,” he said.

While he opposes leadership PACs, Courson has accepted $1,000 from Harrell’s PAC.

“I consider it a contribution from Bobby Harrell,” Courson said of his fellow Republican. “The speaker has never asked me to do anything at all.”

The specter of David Thomas?

Rikard also plans to make an issue of Courson’s state pension.

Lawmakers normally make $22,400 a year in salary and expenses. But some lawmakers retire – without giving up their seats – and earn more than that by starting to draw their legislative pension. Courson, for example, has retired while remaining in office. He said his annual pension benefit is $31,000.

USA Today highlighted a similar arrangement involving state Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, earlier this year in an article that many say contributed to Thomas’ defeat in the June GOP primary.

Courson said he was not allowed to opt out of the lawmaker pension system when he was elected. Now that he is in the system, “when benefits came due after paying into them, I accepted them.”

Courson did vote this year to abolish the separate retirement system for lawmakers, widely criticized as cushy. But that change only affects new legislators elected in November. Courson, and other incumbents, will not be affected by that change.

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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