Scoppe: Katrina Shealy v. Jake Knotts: no good option in SC Senate rematch

Associate EditorOctober 18, 2012 

FOUR YEARS ago, I squeezed my nose as tight as I could and wrote an endorsement of Sen. Jake Knotts. No one on our editorial board felt good about it, because the Lexington Republican has always gone out of his way to antagonize and provoke, to debase the debate, to fight changes that South Carolina needs and advance changes we don’t need.

But then-Gov. Mark Sanford had teamed up with Howie Rich to make Mr. Knotts the top target in the N.Y. multimillionaire’s quest to buy himself a Legislature that would pay parents to abandon the public schools. And challenger Katrina Shealy refused to denounce Mr. Rich and all the money he was pouring into her campaign — or even to state her position on his private-school-choice agenda. So we found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having to choose not a candidate but a team: the Sanford-Rich-public-education-assault team, or the other team.

Since then, Jake Knotts has become even less attractive.

He has continued his assault on efforts to empower the governor, this year helping to kill legislation on the cusp of passage that finally would have abolished the Budget and Control Board.

He has received the first-ever public reprimand from the Senate Ethics Committee, for accepting illegally large donations, some of which he didn’t even report. He spins this as a positive, saying it forced him to correct sloppy record-keeping and resulted in Senate rules changes that improved ethics compliance. Deliberate or not, he undermined two of the primary purposes of our campaign-finance law — to show voters who is trying to influence candidates, and to limit the influence of any one donor — and accepted illegal donations that helped him defeat Ms. Shealy in the 2008 GOP primary.

This spring, he acted as the happy front man to kill legislation to reinstate candidates kicked off the ballot because they filed their election paperwork the way state and party officials told them to, rather than the way the law required. Ms. Shealy was one of 250 candidates removed and one of 152 who worked their way back onto the ballot as petition candidates.

Meantime, the world around Mr. Knotts changed. Four years ago, the defund-public-education cabal was trying to take over our government. It still is, but it has competition now from the re-emergent video-gambling industry. This is the industry that took out a governor and nearly took over the Legislature before we were able to outlaw it 13 years ago.

Mr. Knotts is one of the banned industry’s most brazen supporters, so now that rogue operators are claiming that a loophole allows them to open back up, voters in Senate District 23 have to choose between the poker barons who nearly took over our state and the defund-education advocates who have been trying to follow in their footsteps.

Unfortunately, Ms. Shealy remains a frustratingly mixed bag. Clearly, she would present a better public image, would respect decorum, would work to persuade rather than intimidate, would fulfill her campaign pledge: “I’m not going to embarrass anyone when I get up and open my mouth.”

She is right on the need to give the governor more control of state government and reform our ethics laws, but most of her answers feel like memorized talking points. Rather than the sophisticated challenger you might expect for a former county party chair backed by two consecutive governors to take on the libertarian right’s favorite GOP nemesis, she comes across as a political novice who is sincere in her desire to improve a bad situation, but not particularly informed on the issues she challenges.

On government restructuring, she’s barely conversant beyond the idea of abolishing the Budget and Control Board, which certainly needs to be done but is far from the only thing that needs to be done.

She opposes video gambling, but her solution was a public referendum. When I asked why she would give the industry a chance to relegalize itself, it became clear that she didn’t realize it had been banned and that the issue now was whether lawmakers close real or perceived loopholes that operators are using to re-invade our state. Once I explained the situation, she said she would support closing the loopholes.

She seems like someone who can be reasoned with, but I couldn’t help wondering if some of that reflected an over-eager desire to be liked. For example, when she declared that she opposed school vouchers and I said I found them less objectionable than private-school tax credits, she responded that she was “not against vouchers per se.”

But let’s assume she’s sincere. The question, then, is who will reason with her: the more traditional Republicans her backers want to eradicate, or the libertarian, government-is-always-wrong, always-too-big crowd?

Unlike four years ago, when she bizarrely refused to say what she thought about Mr. Rich’s agenda, she now says she supports tax credits. She expresses hope that they would entice more private schools to poor communities and says the competition might give poor districts incentive to put more money into struggling schools, which is simultaneously unrealistic and completely at odds with the usual argument that competition would drive down costs. She says she would be willing to work with people with less extreme ideas to encourage innovation in the public schools, and I think she means it. But when someone presents the Howie Rich plan, she would vote for it.

She also advocates eliminating the property and income taxes and relying solely on a sales tax, which she thinks could be as low as 10 percent. The only way that would work — and even then it would make the tax system horribly unstable, and the sales tax far too high — is if we slashed state and local government services by half (or more) or the Legislature eliminated all the exemptions. Which it won’t do.

Mr. Knotts doesn’t advocate any smart tax-law changes, but at least he isn’t trying to undermine the tax system. And on public education, his brawl with the Rich-Sanford team seems to have made him a solid opponent of the tax-diversion plans. He has even learned to make the case fairly well, noting for instance (in contrast to Ms. Shealy’s dream of using tax dollars to inspire the creation of more private schools) that the state needs to improve the schools it owns rather than diverting tax money to support a separate school system.

So it comes down to this: Two candidates, one backed by deep-pocketed out-of-state interests that want to take over our Legislature to enact their destructive, extremist agenda, another backed by a home-grown, rogue industry that nearly did that once already, and is trying to make a comeback. A likeable candidate with some good ideas who supports terribly destructive, unworkable approaches on two of the most important subjects the Legislature deals with. Or an obstructionist who opposes long-overdue reforms but who won’t do any harm on education or tax policy.

One other thing has changed since 2008: Then, our editorial board endorsed in all elections; we no longer have the capacity or the compulsion to do that. Still, we felt like we had to try to do that in such a high-profile, high-stakes race as this. Unfortunately, we don’t see any way we can endorse Mr. Knotts, and we don’t feel comfortable endorsing Ms. Shealy. Starting next week, we will be making endorsements in some of the other high-profile local races.

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

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