SC GOP threatens to sue candidate for governor

jself@thestate.comApril 24, 2014 

Former state Rep. and judge Tom Ervin, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, speaks at a news conference in Columbia on Tuesday along with his wife, Kathryn Williams.

ASHAIN@THESTATE.COM — Andrew Shain

— The S.C. Republican Party on Thursday had an attorney tell Tom Ervin, a petition candidate running for governor, to stop calling himself an “Independent Republican” in campaign ads, threatening a lawsuit.

By afternoon, the S.C. Democratic Party had called a press conference to accuse Gov. Nikki Haley of breaking state ethics law by accepting a donation twice the maximum amount allowed from one contributor, reported on Haley's campaign disclosures as two contributions from the same name and address.

Haley’s campaign refuted the claim, producing two checks written from two different businesses.

So went the dueling news conferences in the S.C. governor’s race: the April 24 edition.

At his news conference Thursday, S.C. GOP chairman Matt Moore threatened to sue Greenville’s Ervin, a former judge and state lawmaker. Ervin had filed to run as a Republican against Haley in June’s GOP primary but withdrew, saying he wanted more time to campaign and would run as a petition candidate on November’s ballot.

Ervin, who started running TV ads Monday, said he is “not worried at all” about the state GOP’s request, coming, he said, “from the status quo, special-interest politicians.”

“I’ve got a card in my pocket from the S.C. Republican Party that confirms that I’m a sustaining member,” Ervin said. “Thankfully, we live in a country where we have freedom of speech.

“I’m a Republican. I’m also an independent.”

The state GOP’s “cease-and-desist” letter says Ervin “forfeited the right” to call himself a Republican when he exited the primary.

Continuing to call himself a Republican could mislead voters into thinking he is the GOP’s candidate, the party contends.

“It’s false advertising,” Moore said. “As a former judge, he should know better.

“There is no way to be a Republican unless you win one of our primaries in June or you run unopposed in the primary and are declared the nominee by the party.”

Asked whether that would apply to the dozens of Republicans kicked off the June 2012 primary ballot for improperly filing paperwork who later ran calling themselves Republican petition candidates, Moore said those candidates did not count because they were endorsed by the Republican Party.

Moore said the state party is reviewing its legal options if Ervin refuses to comply, but he could cite no state law that makes Ervin’s actions illegal. Instead, the GOP cited a 1961 New York state case, limiting the right to use the Republican Party’s name.

“If the Republican Party is relying on New York law, I guess gay marriage is going to be OK here,” said Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, a former S.C. Democratic Party chairman, when asked to review the case.

Cathy Hazelwood, general counsel with the State Ethics Commission, said nothing in state ethics law bars candidates from calling themselves members of any party.

State election law only defines how candidates are nominated to represent a party on the ballot.

No matter what Ervin calls himself, if he is running as a petition candidate, he will be identified as such on the ballot, said Chris Whitmire with the State Election Commission.

Ervin said the GOP does not “have a trademark on being Republican,” Later, in an email, Ervin encouraged Haley to join him in “opposing frivolous lawsuits.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story erroneously said the campaign checks Haley's campaign presented were from the same address. The addresses were different.

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