Politics & Government

March 29, 2014

Upstate attorney to oppose Nikki Haley in GOP primary

Gov. Nikki Haley has a primary challenger.

Gov. Nikki Haley has a primary challenger.

Former S.C. Rep. Tom Ervin, a Greenville attorney and radio station owner who was once a Democrat, filed Saturday to run for the Republican nomination against the first-term governor.

“This is out of nowhere,” S.C. GOP political consultant Chip Felkel said.

With filing ending at noon Sunday, Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen does not have a primary opponent. Libertarian Steve French has filed, and the newly formed American Party also is expected to field a candidate.

Ervin, 62, said he decided to run because he wants to protect children from problems highlighted in ongoing Senate hearings this year on allegations of mismanagement at the S.C. Department of Social Services. Coroners, social workers and former department employees testified that managers at the cabinet agency return children to unsafe homes and underreport abuse claims in their quest to meet goals.

“Haley and her cabinet director are more concerned with lowering numbers for their political purposes than for the safety of the children,” he said.

Ervin said he prosecuted child abuse and neglect cases in Anderson County early in his career. He said he would explain more reasons for running at a news conference later this week.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, told a Richland County Democratic gathering on Saturday that questions Ervin raises in his campaign could help take away the governor’s mansion from Haley.

“It will expose that soft underbelly that Vincent Sheheen will take advantage of in November,” he said in a recording of his speech obtained by The State.

Ervin was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives in 1979 two years after graduating from the University of South Carolina law school, according to his biography on a law firm website. He served for four years in the General Assembly.

After leaving the legislature, he spent two years as a commissioner on the S.C. Workers’ Compensation Commission and 14 years as a circuit court judge. His biography says he was the youngest circuit court judge ever elected by the General Assembly.

Ervin unsuccessfully challenged Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal in a re-election bid in 1996 – the first time a sitting justice had opposition in a century.

He was a Democrat before switching to the Republican Party to run in the 2005 special election to succeed House Speaker David Wilkins, who had been named the U.S. Ambassador to Canada. Bruce Bannister, now the majority House leader, won the seat.

“The Democratic party left me,” he said. “I’m pro-life and a born-again Christian. My values fit the profile” of the Republicans.

Ervin worked on Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, including hosting a fundraiser in his Greenville home. Ervin and his wife, Kathryn Williams, also hosted fundraisers for S.C. Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson.

He has donated to GOP candidates, but his wife contributed $4,500 to Sheheen’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, according to state records.

Ervin practices law with Williams in Greenville. He concentrates on Social Security disability benefits cases. He also bought three radio stations in Anderson last year.

Ervin said he plans to self finance his race because he entered just 10 weeks before the June 10 primary date.

Felkel said Ervin is a long shot against the well-financed Haley, who has raised more than $5 million for her re-election bid.

“He’s a great guy, but it’s an odd choice to do this,” Felkel said. “There’s no natural constituency for him.”

Political observers have said a Tea Party-style candidate could score some points against Haley for not making enough budget cuts or for giving away incentives to lure businesses.

“Tom is not that guy,” Felkel said.

Haley’s campaign did not address Ervin’s candidacy when asked for comment Saturday.

“The governor is looking forward to the campaign as a whole because it’s a chance to celebrate all the good that’s happening in South Carolina,” campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey said.

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