Sparks flew between candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Monday night when Sen. Tim Scott, Democratic challenger Thomas Dixon, Rep. Trey Gowdy and Democratic challenger Chris Fedalei met at Furman University for a forum-style discussion.
The event, titled "A Conversation with South Carolina Congressional Candidates: An Experiment in Civility and Substance,” featured each set of candidates one-on-one, followed by all four in discussion. Gowdy and Fedalei, facing off in the election for South Carolina's 4th Congressional District, met on stage first in the event moderated by political science professor Danielle Vinson.
"If you haven't already noticed, civility and substance have been in short supply in this campaign," Vinson said, referencing the tenor of the presidential campaign. "We've got to be able to have the conversations that are in the national interest, not just in our own interest."
While the conversations were mostly civil, they were not without jabs or barbs. Fedalei repeatedly pointed to the House of Representatives as an ineffective institution, questioning why Gowdy had not gotten an immigration reform bill passed during his time as chairman of the House subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. Gowdy said that the most effective way to move immigration reform forward was incrementally, beginning with legislation that would increase the security on American borders and prevent people from overstaying visas.
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"You can talk about my six years in Congress all you want," Gowdy said. "[Border security] is a question of political will, not a question of resources."
"You may have been in elementary school."
Rep. Trey Gowdy, to 26-year-old challenger Chris Fedalei
Gowdy and Fedalei agreed that reform to mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug-related offenses needed to be enacted, but Fedalei again questioned why nothing had been passed on the issue in the House of Representatives. Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, said that he had been openly opposed to the existing mandatory minimum laws since 1997 and is currently working on the issue with Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, both Democrats.
"You may have been in elementary school," Gowdy said to Fedalei, a 26-year-old lawyer. "I’m not a Johnny-Come-Lately to the issue."
Scott and Dixon, opponents in South Carolina's Senate race, were the next pair in the discussion. They had an extensive conversation about the issue of school choice and how to best provide education to poor communities and communities of color in South Carolina.
Scott, who grew up in poverty in North Charleston, cited charter and magnet schools as a solution for children in communities without strong local schools, citing high-performing, majority African-American charters in Washington, D.C. and New York as examples. Dixon, a pastor in the Charleston area, said that the current charter school system in South Carolina was perpetuating segregation. Academic Magnet High School, a high-performing magnet school in Charleston, is in a majority black neighborhood, but its students are largely white.
"I think we on similar pages," Scott said. "Maybe you're on the top of the page and I'm on the bottom. But we agree it's not working."
I’ve been black a long time.
Sen. Tim Scott, to questions about his ‘blackness’
While Scott and Dixon's exchange in the one-on-one portion of the event was calm, their conversation got heated when all four candidates were on stage. Fedalei had implied that Scott and Gowdy vote with their political party more often than with the will of their constituents. Scott responded by detailing the "undercover senator" tour of South Carolina he took after being appointed to the Senate in 2013, riding buses around the state and working at a Moe's Southwest Grill, and the 46-county tour of the state he's taken every year since.
Dixon, who served three years in prison for a drug-related offense, questioned if Scott was truly in touch with the needs of his constituents who are incarcerated or working minimum-wage jobs, saying that on these tours, Scott may be asking questions of those who will give him the answers he "wants to hear."
Scott cited his meetings with groups like the NAACP, which gave him an "F" for his Senate voting record, as evidence that he actively seeks out input from those who don't always agree with him.
Gowdy, defending Scott, invoked a press release Dixon's campaign had previously released that said, in part, that Scott had "just realized he was black."
"I have listened to him called an Uncle Tom," Gowdy said. "I have listened to his blackness questioned because his opinions are different than others."
Scott, standing up from his chair, said, "I've been black a long time."