The Buzz: Shake-ups loom in S.C. House caucuses

abeam@November 11, 2012 

When one election ends, another begins.

On Dec. 4, state lawmakers will return to Columbia for an organizational session, electing new officers and deciding committee assignments. The Buzz does not expect any of the big posts – including embattled Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, or Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland – to change.

But there will be a shake-up in the House Democratic and Republican caucuses.

House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, is resigning because the House GOP limits its leaders to two terms. Several state representatives are trying to round up votes for that job, including Bruce Bannister of Greenville and Phillip Lowe of Florence.

“I want to continue the caucus focus on limited government and focus on the conservative issues that have built a very strong majority in the House of Representatives,” Bannister said.

Sources tell Buzz that Bannister has the votes locked up, so look for him to replace Bingham. (Unless, of course, Richland County election officials run the election. Then, anything could happen.)

The race for the House minority leader’s job is much more interesting.

Rep. Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, has the job now. But he has had it for eight years and is thinking about stepping down.

“Right now, I would say it’s a 50-50,” Ott said. “It’s definitely getting time for the caucus to be looking for somebody. This isn’t a permanent job.”

Stepping down as leader of the House’s minority party Democrats could be the first step in a race for governor for Ott, which, multiple sources tell Buzz, is what Ott wants to do.

Why?

It’s not good for a gubernatorial candidate to be the face of the opposition in the House, yelling on the floor when Republicans push through legislation that Democrats don’t support. All it takes is one out-of-context quote to birth a potentially fatal attack ad.

But Ott would not discuss his future political plans last week. “I’m certainly not going that far today.”

If Ott quits the post, two Richland County state representatives are the early favorites to succeed him: James Smith and Todd Rutherford.

Smith already has been House minority leader once, resigning to prepare for a deployment to Afghanistan with the S.C. National Guard. He is popular and a sought-after endorsement among House Democrats.

But Smith also is mulling a race for governor. So why would he run for minority leader?

“There are ways to serve in that capacity and not be shrill and unnecessarily partisan,” Smith said, adding he has not decided if he will run for either job.

Rutherford has the support of the Legislative Black Caucus, a powerful Democratic House faction. He could run, and win, regardless of what Ott and Smith decide.

“We need to pick up the pace and just see what we can do to make a difference to the people in South Carolina,” Rutherford said. “It’s important to me. It’s what I do this for, and I think I would be good at it.”

‘Jedi’ Bright? (What would Obi Wan Kenobi do?)

Running for re-election in a race he heavily was favored to win, state Sen. Lee Bright did not go negative.

He went Star Wars.

Bright’s campaign released a video on YouTube in the style of the 1977 Star Wars movie, complete with a John Williams score and scrolling yellow text.

“The battle between Senator Bright and Henri Thompson is expected to be … quite boring,” the scrolling text read. “I mean Senator Bright is like a Jedi with major wins under his belt, while Henri is – well, no one quite knows who Henri is or what he’s done. In fact, the only thing he seems to boast about is ‘perfect high school attendance’, but seriously, who cares about that??”

The video shows footage of an earnest Thompson talking about South Carolina’s unemployment rate. “South Carolina’s unemployment rate remains one of the highest in the nation, and people here are hurting,” Thompson says. “Hours are being cut back –”

But that’s as far as Thompson gets on the video.

Suddenly, his head is replaced by that of President Barack Obama, who begins a deep, evil laugh as fire erupts around him. Admiral Ackbar screams “it’s a trap” as the camera cuts to a smiling Bright, whose face is superimposed onto Luke Skywalker’s body as he pilots a T-65 X-wing starfighter to blow up the Death Star – and Obama-Thompson along with it.

“I’m not a big Star Wars fan,” Bright told Buzz. “The only one I’ve watched all the way through was the first one ... when I was in elementary school.”

“It’s something my campaign guy wanted to do at the last minute,” Bright added. “I still laugh thinking about it.”

Bright won re-election with 64 percent of the vote. Attempts to reach Thompson, doubtless now stranded on Tatooine, were unsuccessful.

Fooshe’s odd couple: One doesn’t shave; other doesn’t need to

One of the biggest winners on Election Day? Political consultant Steve Fooshe.

The former executive director of the House Democratic Caucus advised two candidates, and both were winners.

The strange thing? One was a Republican, and the other was a Democrat.

Fresh-faced Democrat Thomas McElveen defeated Republican Tony Barwick in Senate District 35 to succeed retiring Democrat Phil Leventis. Meanwhile, Republican Kirkman Finlay, aka The Beard, defeated Democrat Joe McCulloch in House District 78 to succeed retiring Republican Jim Harrison. (Well, Finlay was declared the winner before a court-ordered recount, halted Friday by the state Supreme Court. Stay tuned.)

“I don’t think it’s unusual,” Fooshe said. “I’ve always had people want me to help on their campaigns. You know, I’m happy to be asked by Kirkman and Thomas, and I’m glad we were able to pull it out for them.”

This sounds like the plot of a sitcom. The Buzz can picture Fooshe sending out a pro-Finlay news release blasting those liberal tax-and-spend Democrats – only to realize he sent it out in the race of Democratic candidate McElveen.

But Fooshe said he is a professional and never got his wires crossed.

“Once I agree to work for somebody, I work for them,” he said.

Memorial quote of the week

In honor of state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, who lost to Gov. Nikki Haley’s BFF, Katrina Shealy, on Tuesday, The Buzz presents this gem of a quote from Knotts, uttered during the legislative debate about legalizing tattoo parlors:

“If the Lord wanted you to have a tattoo, He would have put it on you.”

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