CONWAY — State Sen. Vincent Sheheen was speaking to a group of local business owners here last week when a man raised his hand and asked a question.
How close was your last election?
The question is part of a larger one Sheheen must answer leading up to the 2014 election and his much-anticipated rematch with Republican Nikki Haley: If Sheheen lost the 2010 governors race by 4.5 percentage points to a then little-known Lexington state representative, fighting severe ethics questions, what makes him think next year will be any different?
Sheheens comments, plus his maneuvering during the latest legislative session, make his strategy clear: The Camden Democrat is placing all of his chips on running against Haleys record as governor.
A fundamental part of this governors race has to be about accountability and responsibility, Sheheen told The State newspaper. What we havent seen for a decade and certainly not in the last three years is accountability for the failures of state government.
We need better government
In Conway, and elsewhere across the state in his public appearances, Sheheen has hit the governor hard on the cyber-security breach at the Department of Revenue, where hackers stole the personal information of 6.4 million consumers.
Lately, he has attacked Haley for how the Department of Health and Environmental Control has handled a tuberculosis outbreak in Greenwood County. Haley does not appoint the agencys director, but she appointed a majority of the agencys board that hired the director, a Haley protégé.
Sheheen said after a speech at the Columbia Rotary Club on Monday that he considers DHEC an agency that reports to the governor, who should start an investigation and fire the director or top administrators if they are found responsible. The governor must accept responsibility, and that hasnt happened, Sheheen said.
Haleys office said DHEC is providing updates on its investigation with the governor, who plans to meet with agency leaders soon.
In the state Senate, Sheheen has introduced legislation designed both to outmaneuver Haley on those debacles and to soften the impact of any of her victories.
While Haley was setting up credit monitoring for everyone affected by the data breach and developing a statewide computer security plan, Sheheen introduced a joint resolution that would apologize formally to S.C. taxpayers for the state losing their personal information stolen something he says Haley still has not done. Later, during the budget process, Sheheen set aside $400,000 in the states budget to compensate people who could prove they lost money because of the data breach.
Your tax returns, my tax returns, 3.7 million people had their tax information stolen from our Department of Revenue. Were the only state in the Union that has happened, Sheheen told the audience at the Agape Senior Center in Conway last week. Right now, there is a report saying what happened, and we cant read it. I can read it if I sign a confidentiality agreement, but I wont do it because I think you should know what happened to your information. We need better government than that.
While Haley made public education a focus of her State of the State address promising to start a conversation with teachers and parents in preparation for rolling out an education-reform proposal before the 2014 legislative session Sheheen was introducing a bill that would expand 4-year-old kindergarten in South Carolina. While the bill did not pass, $26 million was added to the state budget to expand the 4-year-old kindergarten program into 17 low-income school districts, part of a key budget compromise that secured enough Democratic votes in the Senate to pass the budget.
Sheheen is unimpressed that Haley now wants to focus on education.
A failure to come up with any education policy or proposals during the first three years of a governorship speaks volumes about the commitment to education, and coming up with proposals during an election year is not a good way to try to improve public education, Sheheen said. Proposals that come up during an election year tend to be more about election and less about change.
Furthering his own ... ambitions
Haleys camp fires back that Sheheen is a political hack.
Sheheens actions during the most recent legislative session were focused on furthering his own political ambitions and doing so at the expense of the taxpayer, charges Tim Pearson, Haleys political advisor.
Like many career politicians, Vince Sheheen has always been about whats best for him which explains why he voted repeatedly against ethics reform, Pearson said, referring to three procedural votes by Sheheen on May 23 that delayed Senate action on ethics reform, which ultimately did not pass.
Democrats bridle at any suggestion that the often ethics-challenged Haley can claim ethics as a cause, adding Sheheen has a long record of working for ethics reform.
As for the need for more accountability, Pearson points to the Department of Employment and Workforce, the agency that distributes unemployment benefits and once was overseen by the 170-member Legislature.
In 2010 the year Haley was elected the Legislature moved the agency into the governors Cabinet. The agency long has been haunted by problems, including paying more than it should in benefits sometimes because of fraud.
The agency, which now reports directly to the governor, says those overpayments have been decreasing falling to 11.6 percent of all benefits for the last six months of 2012 from a high of 18 percent in 2010-11, according to The Associated Press.
While Sheheen and the GOP-majority Legislature was overseeing the agency, before it was in the Cabinet, he allowed it to go bankrupt and South Carolina was forced to borrow a billion dollars from the federal government just to make ends meet, Pearson said, referring to a loan the Legislature approved to keep the agency solvent as unemployment exploded during the Great Recession.
He can win
A truism in politics is that challengers like Sheheen do not defeat incumbents like Haley. Incumbents defeat themselves.
The problem for Sheheen is that all of these scandals that the Democrat is counting on to help defeat Haley have kind of peaked and moved on, said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University who has done extensive polling on Haley and Sheheen.
The question is: Can he successfully combine those two things of keeping in the forefront of the publics mind what he says are failures of the Haley administration combined with how he will do things differently and better ... (and), by the way, reminding people you are not a national Democrat, you are a South Carolina Democrat? Huffmon said Thats three balls in the air. If he can successfully juggle them, he can win.
As for that question in Conway the 2010 election results Sheheen laughed.
It was extremely close, Sheheen replied to the questioner. Haley got 51 percent of the vote. It was the second-closest election in America that year.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.