Richland’s Hutchinson lost council seat to complacency

11/18/2012 12:00 AM

11/17/2012 9:17 PM

Richland County Councilwoman Val Hutchinson was unseated by a political newcomer who waged a low-key campaign in Northeast Richland boosted by a large turnout for the presidential race.

While political novice Julie-Ann Dixon was knocking on the doors of targeted independent voters, asking for their votes, Hutchinson was doing little to campaign. Friends say she was lulled into complacency.

“Her opponent didn’t look like she was doing anything” – no signs, literature or flyers, said Susan Brill, who voters returned to the Richland 2 school board.

“Val did not take Julie-Ann seriously,” said political consultant Tige Watts, who encouraged Dixon to run after recognizing the district, with its changing demographics, had reached a Democratic tipping point.

In the end, Dixon beat the two-term Republican incumbent by 217 votes, according to official results of the Nov. 6 election released by the county Friday. Countywide, 63 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Hutchinson, 66, is a political moderate, a well-to-do fiscal conservative with a focus on the local environment.

Dixon, 40, a school volunteer and president of the Richland County Neighborhood Council, is a single mother of three. She is originally from Jamaica, moving to Columbia with her family in 2002 and into council District 9 in 2010.

Dixon said that, as an underdog, she decided to wage a quiet campaign.

In an interview Saturday, Dixon said she was feeling “pretty strong and motivated” about her win.

Hutchinson said, “It was a great honor to serve the citizens of Richland County, and I hope the county prospers under its new leadership.”

Like Hutchinson, Larry McDaniel was among voters who may have been lulled into complacency.

McDaniel faced a four-hour wait at the Pontiac precinct. Recovering from surgery, and with a child waiting at home, he left without casting a ballot.

“My assumption was that Val would win handily,” he said. “If I’d known it was going to be close, we would have found a way for my wife and I to vote.”

Former Councilman John Monroe, who lives in the Northeast, said he encouraged Hutchinson to ramp up her campaign. “I put up a few signs for her, but she wasn’t sure if the lady was even running or not.”

Hutchinson’s last campaign report showed a balance of $10,322.

In contrast, Watts said Dixon struggled to raise money but developed a “rag-tag team of people from all walks of life” who supported her campaign as best they could. Dixon reported just $470 in contributions.

“Just because we weren’t campaigning on Val Hutchinson’s doorstep doesn’t mean she wasn’t campaigning,” Watts said.

“There was a lot of work done under the radar. She did targeted, door-to-door – launched a grassroots effort to go to the right kind of voters.”

State Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, said Dixon was elected because of an enthusiastic turnout by African-American voters supporting the re-election of President Barack Obama.

Her name appeared on 118,000 sample ballots sent through the mail to encourage Democrats to vote, he said.

“She did some things, but I don’t think she did enough to defeat an incumbent on her own,” Howard said of Dixon.

Howard said he met Dixon when James Solomon brought her by to introduce the two. Solomon, a one-time S.C. Department of Social Services director, works with Dixon at a nonprofit dedicated to addressing poverty and unemployment.

“She doesn’t seem to be that well-known throughout the political circle,” Howard said. “She brings a fresh, clean perspective with no hidden agenda.”

An analysis of the district’s straight-party voters shows that was not much of a factor: About 26 percent of voters in District 9 pushed the Democrat button, while 17 percent voted straight Republican.

Councilman Jim Manning and state Rep. Joe McEachern, D-Richland, agreed changing demographics in Northeast Richland played a big part in Hutchinson’s defeat.

“It was like a perfect storm for her. The district changed ... the president is on the ballot and then she has a constituency that’s not familiar with her,” McEachern said. “And I question how hard she campaigned.”

Hutchinson won seven of the district’s 11 boxes but, McEachern said, not at the numbers an incumbent should have. Dixon won big at two precincts serving people who live in the Summit, where she lives in Fox Run.

There, some said Hutchinson’s refusal to stake out a position on the penny sales tax could have hurt her: Hard Scrabble Road is one of the big widening projects on the county’s list for funding.

Said Manning, a Democrat who represents a neighboring district on County Council: “Ms. Dixon obviously ran a stealth campaign with no money, no anything, then did a little robo call over the weekend.

“Val didn’t do anything. Val put up a couple of signs. That’s all she did.”

In one of her few missteps in her eight years in office, Hutchinson voted for a 2010 Pontiac-area economic development deal that brought a Verizon call center to Woodcreek Farms’ doorstep. Residents blamed Hutchinson for not protecting them from the high-traffic, around-the-clock business right across Spears Creek Church Road from a local elementary school.

Hutchinson said she hadn’t recognized the potential impact on Woodcreek Farms, that details were worked out behind the scenes.

Granted, McDaniel said, a few people may have held a grudge against Hutchinson – but he doubts it would have been many. He said the councilwoman worked hard on after-the-fact concessions and managed to smooth things over with his neighbors.

On Election Day, she carried Pontiac.

Hutchinson, in a brief interview, said she stayed in touch with her supporters through email and by attending community meetings.

“I ran on my record,” she said, adding she has no regrets about that.

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