SUMTER, SC — Sumter Democrats got some politics alongside their breakfast muffins Saturday, when the county party received a visit from state Rep. Bakari Sellers.
Sellers, D-Denmark, at 28 one of the youngest members of the S.C. General Assembly, has announced he plans to run for lieutenant governor next year, likely against Republican incumbent Glenn McConnell. He laid out some of his concerns and motivations for running at a gathering at the Golden Corral on Broad Street.
To win a statewide race, Sellers said Democrats need to not only criticize the state's Republican officeholders, but also offer a positive program of their own.
"We take a lot of pride in not being them," he said. "(We say) Nikki Haley is dot dot dot. Ken Ard is. Lindsey Graham is and Jim DeMint is. But we need to focus on a message of who we are."
The son of civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers, the candidate said traveling to Sumter brought to mind the historic Briggs v. Elliott case against school segregation in Clarendon County in the 1950s. Sellers asked how much progress has been made since then.
"Many kids go to schools that don't have doors on the bathroom walls, and teachers who have to buy supplies out of their own pocket," he said. "The answer to the question is we have made great progress, but there's still a long way to go."
The state needs to make a greater investment in its education and infrastructure in order to give South Carolina a chance to compete in the global economy, Sellers said, citing his support for expanded 4-year-old kindergarten as an example of prioritizing early childhood education.
"Education used to be the pride of this state. It was so good our governor, Dick Riley, became the education secretary of the United States," he said. "Now our dropout rates are escalating, and the next generation may be less educated and less literate than the one before. Today, we have encyclopedias on our cellphones, yet our kids can't read."
Describing himself as a pro-business Democrat, Sellers said he opposes attempts to raise the state's gas tax because it would be too much of a burden on struggling motorists who "have to pull change out of the center console just so they can get to work."
"Tell me how you want to spend the money first," he said.
Organization will be key to Democrats winning races in 2014, he said, which is why Sellers is putting his campaign together more than a year ahead of time. In Sumter County, Sellers noted that 8,000 people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 didn't show up to vote for Vincent Sheheen for governor in 2010. In Clarendon County, the difference was 10,000 voters, and it was 3,000 in Lee County.
"You look around, and it adds up to a landslide," Sellers said.
Columbia businessman Jay Stamper, who is seeking to challenge U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., next year, made a similar point, noting the Democratic candidate who ran against Graham in 2008 managed to win more than 40 percent of the vote despite a much larger mismatch in campaign spending. "The base is there for us to work with," Stamper said.
Allen Bailey, Sumter County Democratic chairman, agreed with Sellers that "pro-business Democrat" is not an oxymoron.
"Some of the most conservative people financially are Democrats," Bailey said. "They know that investing in education and infrastructure is pro-business."
Going forward, Sellers said the Democrats' "better ideas and bigger vision" will produce results. "We can do better. We often talk about what divides us, but I want to talk about what brings us together," Sellers said. "I like to say I'm a South Carolinian before I'm a Democrat."