Scoppe: In Lexington’s S.C. Senate races: Two challengers, one agenda

Associate EditorSeptember 21, 2012 

WHEN I asked S.C. Senate District 23 candidate Katrina Shealy her priorities if she wins her rematch against Sen. Jake Knotts, she noted that four years ago she would have said government restructuring and education. “But with the things that are going on right now, ethics reform, that’s the first thing we need to change,” she said.

“And judges don’t need to be appointed by the Senate,” she continued, arguing that the current selection system (it’s actually the full Legislature that appoints judges) is a problem because “you’ve got senators who make the law.”

Suddenly, I felt like I had been transported back in time. Not to four years ago, when Ms. Shealy first took on the Senate’s leading obstructionist bully, but to the meeting our editorial board had just a few hours earlier with Senate District 26 candidate Deedee Vaughters, who, when asked the same question, had responded: “We can talk about education and the economy, but until we get a handle on these (ethics) reform issues,” it doesn’t make sense to address the other issues.

Like Ms. Shealy, Ms. Vaughters quickly pivoted to how “we had our election stolen from us this year” and, hence, need to change the way judges are selected.

It hadn’t struck me as particularly strange that Ms. Vaughters would channel S.C. Policy Council President Ashley Landess, who is leading an anti-corruption campaign to overhaul our ethics law, the structure of the government and, yes, the way judges are selected. After all, Ms. Vaughters had been the Policy Council’s vice chairman until she resigned last year to challenge Lexington County’s other resident senator, Nikki Setzler.

And you’d expect Ms. Shealy to talk about corruption, given who she’s challenging, and to address this year’s ballot fiasco, since she was the target of the lawsuit that resulted in nearly 250 candidates being tossed off the ballot. (She’s one of 36 legislative and 116 local candidates who worked their way back onto the ballot as petition candidates.)

But there was something unsettling about the way both candidates pushed the idea that the Supreme Court’s order requiring candidates to obey a ridiculous law somehow suggests that the judiciary is corrupt, or lends weight to the sound idea that the governor, rather than the Legislature, should appoint judges.

It became impossible to write this off as mere coincidence when we started talking about tax policy, and both candidates advocated a much less mainstream “reform” — eliminating income taxes, and property taxes, in favor of a “consumption tax,” which is a fancy term for a sales tax.

Now it’s true that the so-called Fair Tax has a passionate following. But it’s not a particularly large following. Certainly not large enough that you’d expect to see two candidates in a row who consider it the solution to our tax problems, in the way you’d expect to see Republicans advocating lower taxes, or Democrats advocating more education funding. It’s the Ron Paul of campaign issues.

I’ve seen cookie-cutter campaigns before, but they’ve been anti-incumbent attacks by outside groups, cutting and pasting the target’s name into identical mail pieces and radio spots. In a quarter-century of covering legislative and statewide elections, these are the first cookie-cutter candidates I’ve seen: candidates who have swallowed somebody’s agenda, and talking points, whole, rather than picking and choosing parts of it.

That’s not to say that the candidates themselves are particularly similar. Ms. Vaughters, an Aiken business owner who won the GOP primary to take on the only Democratic legislator in Lexington County, fills the room, and she’s all about policy; she doesn’t always have her facts right, but she has a much deeper grasp of the issues than most challengers. Ms. Shealy, the former Lexington County Republican Party chairman who is urging people not to vote straight-party Republican so they can support her petition campaign, is low-key, at least by comparison, and she’s all about connecting with people; her passion seems sincere, but most of her answers feel like memorized talking points.

Nor is it to say that the shared agenda is an automatic disqualifier. To the contrary, we’re going to have a difficult decision to make in both of these races. It’s hard not to like candidates who have as their priorities long-overdue reforms — which Mr. Knotts fights tooth-and-nail and Mr. Setzler pays lip service to — from giving the governor a little power over the executive branch to cleaning out the cesspool of our ethics law.

The frustrating thing about these two candidates is that as right as they are on governmental reform, and as generally right as they are on their critiques of the incumbents, they are maddeningly wrong on two of the most important areas in the Legislature’s purview: tax policy and education policy.

Whatever the merits of consumption taxes, it’s fiscal folly to abandon a three-legged stool of sales, property and income tax for a system that relies entirely on the most unstable tax there is. See basket: Don’t put all your eggs in one. And absent the wholesale elimination of tax exemptions that our Legislature absolutely refuses to consider, making that switch would require either massive cuts to state and local government or a tax rate that’s three times the current rate. At least. Of course, both candidates hold as an article of faith that we need massive cuts in state government.

And while both candidates profess their support for public schools and seem to understand that paying parents to abandon the schools wouldn’t be a silver bullet, they leave no doubt that if given the opportunity, they would provide the votes that the incumbents would not to advance that very approach.

Also troubling, for one candidate who is so familiar with policy and one who is perceived as being so, is how clueless both candidates are about one of the most significant if underappreciated problems with our government: the Legislature’s refusal to allow city and county councils to control their local governments.

If you’re a doctrinaire libertarian who is certain that our taxes are too high and our state government is too big and that the “free” market can solve all of our problems — at least if we help it out through tax incentives — then there’s nothing difficult about picking a candidate in either of these races.

If you’re a more typical voter — one who is worried because our state is among the most corruptible and least transparent in the nation, but who believes that government has an important role to play in our society — it’s a tough call. I fear it’s not going to get any easier between now and Election Day.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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