The race for South Carolina attorney general might seem a little imbalanced.
Incumbent Attorney General Alan Wilson has raised nearly $1 million this year for his campaign and has statewide name recognition as an officeholder and with a congressman father, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.
Moreover, Wilson’s conservative positions on issues from gay marriage to voter registration are in sync with a majority in a diehard red state like South Carolina. And, in four years, Wilson has avoided blunders that might leave him vulnerable as he runs for his second four-year term in the $92,007-a-year post.
Wilson’s opponent, Parnell Diggs, a Grand Strand lawyer, is blind, has no statewide name recognition and, at last ethics report filing, had raised only $16,398. He has never held elective office. He placed third in the Democratic primary in 2012 for the state’s newly created 7th Congressional District.
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“Diggs has quite a mountain to climb – but it’s not that he’s a bad candidate,” says longtime pundit Neal Thigpen, a retired Francis Marion University political science professor. “Most Democratic challengers to down-ballot statewide constitutional offices lack money and do have a hard time getting attention.”
But, say Thigpen and others, Diggs is an able, accomplished person who leads a productive life despite being blind.
Diggs, 45, who graduated from Irmo High School, has qualifications that include: graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1991 with a double major in religion and political science and the USC School of Law in 1994.
A Myrtle Beach resident whose law offices are in the Garden City area, Diggs has been an activist in pushing for state and federal legislation for disabled persons. He is also current president of the 2,000-member National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina and sits on the board of the national umbrella organization.
Harrell and more
Wilson, 41, is already the clear winner in getting free publicity.
With this year’s high-profile investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell – an investigation that led to Harrell’s indictment on criminal misconduct charges last month – and Wilson’s ongoing legal fight to deny same-sex couples equal marriage rights, the attorney general has rarely been out of the news in recent months.
To Republicans such as longtime state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, Wilson’s efforts to indict Harrell – despite legal roadblocks – mark the incumbent as someone special.
“Speaker Harrell is innocent until proven guilty, of course, but the fact that a freshman attorney general in an election year would investigate one of the two most powerful political figures in the state – a person who is a member of his own party – one has to admire and respect Wilson for doing that,” Courson said. “The guy’s got guts.”
The Harrell saga is still playing out. In July, Wilson, facing questions over whether he should be disqualified, authorized 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe to prosecute the case. Early in September, Pascoe orchestrated Harrell’s indictment by the Richland County grand jury. Harrell, now suspended from his post, is apparently the first S.C. House speaker ever indicted in office.
The Harrell case might be Wilson’s main accomplishment, but it also occasioned one of his biggest missteps.
That happened in April 2013, when Wilson met top Harrell aide Brad Wright alone in Wilson’s office. According to the aide, Wilson made a threat about what might happen if Harrell didn’t vote for certain ethics legislation. Wilson denied that allegation. That meeting, which came during a SLED investigation into Harrell’s affairs, became the legal reason why Harrell’s lawyers requested a state judge to remove Wilson from the State Grand Jury investigation.
“Meeting somebody in a room without a witness – that is something I never will do again – ever,” Wilson says.
Apart from that, Wilson cites actions he’s proud of:
• Fighting against President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Although it is now law, Wilson said he fought successfully with other attorneys general to make sure states could chose not to expand Medicaid.
• Working to pass in 2012 a strong human sex and labor trafficking law in South Carolina.
• Coordinating the state Internet Crimes Against Childrren Task Force that tracks and arrests Internet sexual predators. Dozens have been arrested during Wilson’s four years. Wilson and his staff also travel to schools explaining the dangers of the Internet to young people.
• Speaking out against domestic violence and holding an annual memorial for victims.
Wilson also points out he worked with politicians of both parties to help pass Emma’s Law – stiffening the laws for drunk drivers – and a gun control bill that helps keep firearms out of the hands of mentally ill people.
“He can reach across the aisle,” said Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, who happens to be both Democratic deputy leader in the S.C. House and Wilson’s campaign attorney.
Smith also knows Diggs, having gone to law school with him in the 1990s. “Parnell was an impressive individual then, and he is now,” Smith says. “He’s a serious guy who cares deeply about issues facing the state.”
Diggs, who was born in Charlotte and moved to South Carolina at the age of 9, knows he’s an underdog.
He doesn’t hide his handicap. The first sentence in his campaign bio starts, “Parnell Diggs was born blind ... ”
That didn’t stop him, his bio says. As a child, he climbed trees and rode bikes. In high school, he was on the varsity wrestling team and made the all-state honors chorus. While at USC, he couldn’t wait tables or work a cash register, so he played the guitar and sang Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel songs at nightspots for $50 an hour to make money.
In 1994, then-Sen. Warren Giese, R-Richland, hired Diggs to be a Senate page, one of the first blind pages in the Legislature. Giese had met Diggs while Diggs was lobbying for Braille literacy and other laws to enhance blind people’s opportunities.
“What I look for in pages is superior people in terms of brightness and the ability to be creative and deal with whatever comes up,” the late Giese told The State in 1994 for a newspaper article. “I think Parnell has all those qualities.”
Jaime Harrison, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said, “Parnell is a very serious candidate and represents the diversity of the party. He’s been going across the state making speeches, helping with get-out-the-vote efforts. And what he definitely lacks in resources, he makes up in heart and spirit.”
Although Diggs clearly has “an uphill battle,” variables such as how well state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, does in his race against Gov. Nikki Haley could propel him to victory, Harrison said.
Diggs believes in an activist government. When he was 6, Congress passed legislation – now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – that for the first time mandated that blind and other handicapped children be given opportunities equal to sighted people in public schools. That law made it possible for him to go to public school and get the same education as sighted children, he said.
“So I have a very strong belief we need an effective local government, state government and federal government,” Diggs says. “Without a strong federal government, I wouldn’t have had a chance to go to public schools. The feds forced the Charlotte schools to put me in a class with sighted children.”
Diggs gets around with a white-tipped cane and uses various software to allow him to “read” text on his computer and his smartphone. If need be, he might bring a sighted person into a courtroom to serve as his eyes. A driver takes him from place to place.
Where they differ
Diggs and Wilson take sharply different positions on:
• Same-sex marriage rights. Diggs is for it. Facing almost certain defeat in federal court, Wilson continues to fight against it, saying 80 percent of South Carolinians voted to deny gay couples equal rights in a state constitutional amendment and he is bound to uphold the state Constitution. “My job is to represent the state’s interests until there are no more interests to represent.”
• Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion. Diggs is for it. Wilson is against it and has fought to get them declared unconstitutional.
• Voter identification. Diggs thinks it should be easier to vote. Wilson successfully fought to require voters to show a photo ID to avoid voter fraud, although no substantial evidence of fraud has been found in South Carolina.
With candidates’ differing views, it might have been educational for voters to see a televised debate. But neither candidate sought a debate, and one will not be held.
Blind politicians who win office are rare.
In recent years, legally blind David Paterson, a New York state lieutenant governor, served two years as governor after Gov. Eliot Spitzer was forced from office in a scandal. Paterson did not run for re-election. In South Carolina, no blind persons have been elected to statewide office in memory.
Diggs says the grit he has shown in overcoming his blindness has given him the character to serve as attorney general. “Blindness is not the characteristic that defines me.”
Wilson wants another four years. “I feel I’ve upheld the dignity of the office and operated on a plane a lot of people didn’t expect.”
He said he doesn’t mind criticism. “My job is to take a position – so I’m always going to offend somebody. I try to do the right thing and trust it will all play out.”