Lexington County race: Setzler faces latest GOP challenge

tflach@thestate.comOctober 29, 2012 

  • The candidates Nikki Setzler, Democrat Age: 67 Occupation: Lawyer Political experience: State senator, first elected in 1976 Family: Married, four adult children, six grandchildren Sources of campaign money: Took in $234,912 through Oct. 10. That includes nearly $40,000 from lawyers, nearly $20,000 from medical interests, more than $18,000 from builders and developers, and nearly $11,000 from utilities. Among major donors: developer Don Tomlin, Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, car dealer Jim Hudson, lawyer Beth Drake, lawyer David Dukes, South Carolina Education Association Fund for Children, Grace Outdoor, Harbison Properties, state Democratic chairman Dick Harpootlian, investor and USC donor Darla Moore, McWhirter, Bellinger and Associates law firm, lawn irrigation businessman William Mill, engineer Deepal Eliatamby, South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, trucking executive Richard Ryan, Health Care political action committee, Friends of Farm Bureau political action committee, Garvin Oil, Livingston Insurance Agency, developer Ben Kelly, Manufactured Housing Institute of South Carolina political action committee, developer Charles Small, McCrory Construction, SCANA Employee political action committee, lawyer Richard Breibart, Agape Management Services, Southeastern Freight Liner, builder Kevin Connelly, Trial Lawyers Association of South Carolina political action committee, Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association, realtor Joe Taylor, Columbia Aggregates, Medpac, Centene Management Co., SCANA, McGee Real Estate, Walker Legal & Consulting Services, lawyer S. Kirkpatrick Morgan Jr., lawyer John Freeman, Pal-Med, Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough law firm, Association of Convenience Stores of South Carolina, Carolina Associated General Contractors political action committee, TitleMax, Nucor Corporation political action committee, Pond Branch Telephone, agribusiness operator Bill Amick, Petroleum Marketers Association of South Carolina, Ben Arnold Beverage Co., McNair Law Firm, BlueCross/BlueShield of South Carolina, Hospital Association of South Carolina, South Carolina Bankers Association political action committee, Trucking Industry nonpartisan political action committee, Phillip Morris and Allergan Other: Setzler’s law firm received more than $76,000 last year for work done for West Columbia, the Joint Municipal Water and Sewer Commission, Lexington Medical Center, Springdale and Lexington and for handling a worker’s compensation matter. Some of that work is done by partners for which he isn’t paid, Setzler said.
    Deedee Vaughters, Republican
    Age: 43 Occupation: Business manager of husband’s medical practice and owner of home clean-up service Political experience: First try for elected office; former member appointed to South Carolina Lottery Commission Family: Married, three children Sources of campaign money: Took in $129,650 through Oct. 10. That doesn’t include assistance from separate groups supporting her campaign. Of the money she raised, $62,461 is a loan from herself. Other sources include more than $21,000 from retirees and just over $8,600 from medical groups. Major donors include physician David Cundey, Aiken Surgical Associates, retiree Stephen Parker, financial analyst Sean Fieler, insurer David Ellison, businessman William Lowndes III, Prime Steakhouse, businessman James Oremus, pharmacist Leonard Browder, auditor Kimberly Canada, retiree Larry Barnett, Palmetto Liberty political action committee and retiree William Blalock. Other: Her husband’s medical practice received more than $28,000 in Medicaid payments last year. Her junk removal company was paid $1,900 for work by the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

— It’s common to see State Sen. Nikki Setzler’s campaign signs mixed among others promoting Republicans in dozens of yards in Lexington County.

That blend underscores a popularity that has enabled the Democrat to withstand persistent GOP efforts to oust him during 36 years as a lawmaker.

But that sentiment is being tested as Setzler faces Republican Deedee Vaughters of Aiken in a showdown on the Nov. 6 ballot.

It’s a contest of contrasts for voters in Senate District 26, composed of parts of Lexington and three other counties.

Setzler promotes himself as a “caring conservative.”

Vaughters, a favorite of the Tea Party and social conservatives, says he is “not conservative enough.”

Setzler is banking on deep-seated family roots in the area to parry a barrage of personal attacks.

“People here know me, that I’m part of the community,” he said, a theme that’s part of ads to offset claims he is getting rich at taxpayer expense.

His family ran restaurants in Cayce and West Columbia, including a drive-in at which Setzler sometimes could be found serving ice cream cones until it closed in 1994.

Vaughters hopes support from Gov. Nikki Haley helps counter any benefit Setzler may enjoy from that.

Meanwhile, divergent outlooks between the candidates are coming to the forefront.

Amazon and more

To Setzler, the drumbeat of criticism stems from his success in overcoming opposition to a sales tax collection exemption given to Amazon.

The online retailer wanted that break to open a distribution center near Cayce last year that is bringing hundreds of new jobs to the Midlands.

“This is all about Amazon,” he said. “Many of these groups didn’t want it to happen.”

Vaughters is a former leader of the South Carolina Policy Council, a group opposed to corporate incentives like those for Amazon.

Haley didn’t like the break given Amazon but accepted it, since it was included in the deal made by her predecessor.

But a new political action committee created by her allies and business groups who favor Republicans are launching an ad blitz targeting Setzler that he estimates will be as much as a $200,000 shot at him.

In part, their ads rap him for taking a legislative pension that is triple the legislative salary of $10,400. The tactic has worked elsewhere.

Setzler is one of 19 senators who did so, leading to a change that bans the practice in the future.

He also is under fire from those sources for $131 in daily expenses allotted lawmakers intended to pay for room and meals when his residence is less that five miles from the State House.

Setzler declined to discuss the situation except to say he declares the expenses as income and pays taxes on it .

Vaughters promises to donate the legislative salary to charity and reject expenses reimbursement except for mileage.

She also pledged to serve as a senator no more than 12 years.

Both candidates have thrown elbows at each other.

Setzler’s campaign lost an attempt in court to force Vaughters off the ballot for alleged failure to file ethics reports on personal income properly.

Vaughters has taken out a billboard near Setzler’s law office and home scolding him for refusing to debate her.

Setzler said his style is to go door-to-door instead of participating in forums and staged events.

Vaughters say she has knocked on more than 9,100 doors.

Left unsaid is that the shots at Setzler may be about more than Amazon.

His survival in a GOP stronghold rankles rabid Republicans.

Setzler also is in position to become the Democratic leader in the Senate next year.

He is among a handful of centrist lawmakers who decry rising partisanship.

“We don’t need the gridlock here that we see in Washington,” he said of Congress. “We need more bipartisan cooperation.”

Vaughters intends to be “a sister to the back-row boys,” a group of senators who disdain compromise on conservative ideals.

Different interests

Setzler’s goals if re-elected include:

• Finding ways to bring more jobs, saying the effort to attract Amazon is a catalyst increasing cooperation in the Midlands for that.

• Helping educators adapt to instruction using the Internet. “We need to do things differently, to adjust to our instantly changing world.”

• Continuing to restructure state operations to make them “more efficient and effective.”

• Updating political ethics standards.

Vaughters’ goals echo those of many conservatives:

• Making lawmakers disclose which companies pay them as consultants and how much they earn in those respective roles, a practice for which Haley got into trouble.

• Opposing upcoming changes in health care, a federal plan on which lawmakers have little say.

• Halving five-month legislative sessions.

• Ending health insurance and pensions for lawmakers.

• Abolishing the Budget and Control Board and turn over its job to an agency under gubernatorial control.

Edge for Setzler?

The contest is taking place in a district that Setzler – like other incumbents – reshaped to his liking.

Those changes are made every 10 years to reflect population shifts.

The reshaped district stretches across four counties – Lexington, Calhoun, Aiken and Saluda.

Just over 60 percent of its population is in Lexington County, an area that includes West Columbia, Cayce, Springdale, Gaston, Swansea and Dixiana.

New is the northern half of Democratic-leaning Calhoun. The plan retains the Ridge Spring area in Saluda while expanding further into Vaughter’s home area in northern Aiken.

Slightly less than a third of the population is in the Aiken area, but Vaughters isn’t fazed at the advantage that Setzler may enjoy.

“It’s poised to flip,” she said.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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