A debate over who voters should elect to look after the state’s seniors devolved into a joust over whether a 30-year-old Democratic state representative or a 67-year-old Republican former state attorney general has the experience and vision needed to lead South Carolina.
In Monday night’s ETV debate, Republican Henry McMaster cast himself as the experienced candidate with the “judgment, the maturity” needed to step in for the governor “in case something happens,” to run the state’s $40 million Office on Aging and to preside over the state Senate.
“Presiding over the Senate’s 46 members, some powerful, been there a long time? Not easy,” said McMaster of Columbia. “They must have respect for that person to get things done.”
But Bakari Sellers, also an attorney and a state House member since 2007, said he is the only candidate who has “actually created a job for someone other than themselves.”
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“We have an ‘experience’ discussion, and the irony is, I’m some 30 years the junior, but I think I actually bring more experience to the table.”
Sellers said that as a state representative, he helped bring 2,800 jobs to Bamberg, Barnwell and Orangeburg counties when a manufacturer moved to Denmark, Sellers’ hometown.
“I can’t take credit, like the governor does, for all those jobs,” Sellers said. “But I’ve been in that room before, and that’s the irony in this whole discussion about experience.”
Sellers also noted he has served in the House for two years longer than Gov. Nikki Haley before the Republican ran for governor, beating McMaster in the GOP primary.
McMaster touted his four years as a U.S. attorney under President Ronald Reagan and his eight years as state attorney general, saying he worked with the Legislature to expand the investigative powers of the state grand jury and prosecuted a high-profile investment fraud case.
McMaster said enlisting nonprofits and volunteer organizations to help provide services to seniors is part of his plan if elected.
As attorney general, McMaster said he recruited volunteer attorneys to prosecute criminal domestic violence cases in special courts that he set up for that purpose “at no additional cost to the taxpayers.”
“That is the spirit of volunteerism that we can use,” McMaster said. “We can’t look away from that.”
Criticizing McMaster’s plan, Sellers said “volunteers are no solution.”
“Hoping that someone comes and maybe picks up the senior to take them to their doctor’s appointment or to church, that’s not a vision,” Sellers said. “Volunteers being caregivers and having to do it out of their own pocket without any support from the state, that’s not a vision.”
Sellers said he wants to build a statewide transportation system for seniors and would push for tax credits for seniors and their caregivers, raise the homestead exemption, and make priorities of preventing fraud against seniors and Alzheimer’s research.
Saying he too would work for tax relief and prevention of fraud against seniors, McMaster said Sellers’ plan to push for the expansion of the state’s Medicaid insurance program for the poor as part of the Affordable Care Act is “expanding government ... a bad, old idea.”
Instead, McMaster said the state "could save a lot of money” with “new computer systems and programs that are coming out, a tele-medicine program, where you can have a doctor come to your house. If you have cellphone, you can look at the doctor and you can show him your hurt arm or show him your hurt eye. ... There are a number of companies out there that are doing that now. Why don't we do something like that?"
Sellers broke in, saying, “We actually did have a pilot program for telepsychiatry in Bamberg County. You know that hospital shut down. We would be able to reopen it if we expanded Medicaid.
“But more importantly, the hypocrisy of that statement, it fills the room; it’s overwhelming,” Sellers said, criticizing McMaster for not wanting to expand Medicaid when he received state health care benefits. “When you get sick, you get to go and give your insurance card to the doctor, but when somebody gets sick in Greenville, or Charleston or Horry County, they’re on the brink of bankruptcy.
“Not only that, Henry, but you’ve been receiving so many benefits in government benefits over your career, that there are some welfare queens out there that are probably jealous.”
McMaster said he measures progress by “how many people don’t need Medicaid – that is, how many are working, who have good-paying jobs.”
Throughout the debate, Sellers was quick with rebuttals, using every opportunity to critique McMaster, who has a 20-point lead over Sellers, according to a recent poll.
McMaster did not address Sellers directly, sticking to his talking points touting his experience, career as an attorney and his limited-government philosophy.
Neither candidate said he was running for lieutenant governor as a stepping stone to higher political office.
The Nov. 4 general election will be the last time anyone runs independently for the position. Starting in 2018, the governor and lieutenant governor will have to run as a team.
McMaster emphasized he would team well with Haley, who he supported in 2010 after his primary loss to the Lexington Republican.
Asked whether he’s planning a 2018 run for governor, McMaster said four years is “a long way off. ... I'm running because I love South Carolina.”
In closing, Sellers said people tell him he can’t win because he’s a “young, black Democrat,” but he says there is a clear contrast between him and McMaster.
“Henry’s gray hair doesn't denote leadership and vision,” Sellers said. “All I’m asking for is a chance.”
“By the way, most of the people who need that help do have gray hair, like I do,” McMaster countered in closing, adding voters are looking for “experience and track record.”
“I’m the man with that record and that experience.”