The underdogs in the Democratic primary for S.C. governor took aim at their party's front-runner Tuesday night, casting themselves as the outsiders needed to shake up the State House.
Charleston businessman Phil Noble and Florence attorney Marguerite Willis took jabs at state Rep. James Smith of Columbia — who has spent 22 years in the S.C. House's minority party — saying he had failed to enact real change from his position.
"If we're going to change Columbia, change the broken and corrupt State House, (then) we need outsiders, people who are not part of the problem," Noble said.
"James Smith is not a very effective legislator," Willis told reporters. "He doesn't have much legislation that he's actually authored or sponsored and passed."
The Democrats tussled over S.C. policy — from gun control to offshore drilling to race relations — at the College of Charleston, where the GOP candidates for governor — with the exception of Gov. Henry McMaster — will take the same stage Wednesday.
Tuesday's debate was the first time all three Democratic candidates had shared the same stage. Smith skipped a debate at Furman University in April to travel to Chicago for a meeting of the Democratic Governors Association.
Smith, an Afghanistan war veteran, said Tuesday that Noble and Willis were more intent on attacking him than discussing policy.
"I'm intent on attacking the problems facing our people," Smith told reporters. "I've been shot at for real. So, I'm not concerned about a few shots from a debate stage."
As an outsider, Noble said he and his lieutenant governor-running mate pick — former Atlanta City councilwoman Gloria Tinubu — could walk in to the State House with a clean slate on Day 1. "We don't have anybody that has bought us or compromised us."
Absent a legislative career, Willis pointed to her legal background and the experience of her running mate — longtime state Sen John Scott, D-Richland.
"Senator Scott brings experience and substance," Willis said. "He as a long record of substantive work."
But in a state with a GOP-controlled Legislature, Smith said succeeding as governor will require building bipartisan support.
"We need to not nominate somebody who has no experience of getting legislation done," said Smith, adding his running mate — state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster — has experience working across the aisle, too. "I have a long history of building bipartisan support and getting meaningful legislation passed."
Vying for the African-American vote
The three Democratic candidates for governor noted winning the African-American vote, which accounts for a majority of Democratic ballots, will be important to win their party's nomination June 12.
Smith is the only Democratic candidate who did not pick an African-American running mate. However, he has received endorsements from key African-American S.C. lawmakers and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state's senior member of Congress and third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House.
"I've seen him fight for the (S.C. Legislative) Black Caucus and fight for minority issues," state Rep. Terry Alexander, D-Florence, said Tuesday at the debate. "Not just on the side but up front."
But, as the only female Democratic candidate, Willis said she can offer voters something the other candidates can't.
"I'm a woman. Most of the African-American voters, the majority are women," she said. "I don't know what it's like to live in a black person's skin. But I do know what it's like to live in a woman's skin. I have worked tirelessly for women and women's economic independence."