Haley-Sheheen Round 2 isn’t the only rematch on the November general election ballot. It might not even be the closest.
Only 308 votes separated Republican state Rep. Kirkman Finlay and Democratic candidate Joe McCulloch in 2012.
And in November, they’re back for a rematch, one of a handful of contested S.C. House races in Richland and Lexington counties.
The issues in the Richland County district – parts of Forest Drive, Fort Jackson Boulevard and the Shandon areas as well as the Kings Grant neighborhood – range from ethics to bond reform.
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McCulloch says the close 51-49 race last time – when the results were delayed because of a bungled election that left voters waiting in line for hours – means he has a good chance of beating Finlay.
“A number of television stations thought I won it until a couple of days later, when votes appeared from closets and bags of votes that nobody knew existed,” McCulloch said. “I’m not only a contender, but I can win this race and intend to.”
Finlay is unfazed, saying he expects to win by a larger margin this time.
He cites factors that he says worked against him in 2012, including the high Democratic turnout because of the presidential election, that won’t affect this November’s election.
Finlay acknowledges the majority of voters in Richland County vote Democratic. “But what you’re really focused on is the makeup of your individual district, and that leans more Republican,” he said.
Finlay knows politics.
Finlay’s father, Kirkman Jr., was mayor of the City of Columbia from the time that Kirkman III was in second grade until he was in high school. But that was a different kind politics – much calmer, he said. There were no tweets, no Facebook, no Internet.
Finlay did his own stint on City Council from 2006 to 2010.
“That was not calm,” he said, pointing to fights over the city’s budget and his efforts to bring down city costs.
During his two years in the House, Finlay worked to pass a bill reforming the granting of bond to accused criminals, broadening the ability of judges to deny or revoke bond if a person commits a violent crime while out of jail on bond.
The bill was introduced after Martha Childress, a University of South Carolina freshman, was paralyzed by a stray bullet while waiting for a taxi near the Five Points fountain.
To get the legislation passed, Finlay said he worked across party lines with Democratic Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.
“This was a pretty good example of letting the county officials and state officials get together,” Finlay said.
McCulloch, who held a press conference with the Childress family shortly after the shooting, says judges and prosecutors already had the authority to revoke a bond when an accused criminal re-offends while out on bond. “We don’t need legislation.”
McCulloch also criticizes Finlay’s bond reform law for creating a bond study committee.
“God knows, we do not need another study committee,” McCulloch said. “I don’t know how anybody gets anything done with committees ad nauseam.”
The ethics debate
McCulloch calls himself a son of the district.
He lives a block away from where he was born and attended public schools in Richland County.
Two years ago was the first time he ran for office since 1973, when he ran for USC student body vice president, a race he also lost.
McCulloch says he wanted to get involved in state politics in 2012 because of the political gridlock at the General Assembly, which meets for six months a year and gets “virtually nothing done.”
He says he is running again for the same reason.
For example, he said the General Assembly talked about the need to pass ethics reform this session but failed to do so. He faults Finlay, in part.
Finlay introduced a bill “that would allow a person to misspend campaign funds as long as they (pay) it back,” McCulloch said.
Finlay said his proposal bill only defined what the State Ethics Commission already is doing – giving candidates a grace period to fix their ethics reports for technical violations. “In essence, it’s clarifying the process that exists today.”
Finlay also noted a ethics reform bill did pass the House this year, only to die in the Senate.
Conservation or regulation?
McCulloch, who says conservation and the environment are important to residents in the Midlands district, also criticizes Finlay for supporting a bill that critics say would have given out-of-state trash companies control over S.C. landfills, potentially bringing in more out-of-state waste.
Major national waste corporations pushed the legislation, spending about $1.5 million from 2008-2012 to lobby the Legislature.
The corporations said they wanted the opportunity to compete for more of the state’s garbage business.
But environmentalists and local government advocates said the bill, which failed to pass, was written to force counties out of the trash business, a move that critics said could drive up consumers’ costs.
Finlay defends the proposal, saying he would rather have private industry deal with trash than local government.
“I’m about conservation,” said Finlay, who has farming businesses. “I’m not about excessive regulation.”
‘We need more money?’
The issue of government entitlements also could divide the candidates.
Finlay’s farms – Gonzales Land and Timber and Two Rivers Farm – have received about $1.1 million in conservation, disaster and commodity subsidies since 1998, according to a database compiled by the Environmental Working Group.
Those subsidies, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pay farmers for their conservation efforts and to offset environmental disasters.
About 20 other farmers in the same ZIP code as Finlay’s two farms received subsidies, with the next highest recipient receiving about $39,000 since 1995.
McCulloch said he is not running on the subsidies issue. But he said voters should know about them.
“It’s perfectly legal to take these agricultural subsidies. But I think it does create a difficult juxtaposition when you look at his position or votes against (expanding) Medicaid” insurance to low-income South Carolinians, McCulloch said. “They’re both government welfare ... and that’s important to consider, for whatever it means for the individual voters.”
But Finlay said comparing farm subsidies to Medicaid is like comparing apples to oranges.
S.C. hospitals, many of which have lobbied to expand Medicaid to cover uninsured patients, made a combined profit of more than $1 billion last year, he notes.
“The argument is we need more money?” Finlay asked, rhetorically.
‘We’re done for’
If he is re-elected, Finlay says he plans to reintroduce a patent-trolling bill that died in the Senate this year.
The bill would combat those who threaten to file frivolous lawsuits against businesses alleging patent infringement, Finlay said, adding that numerous states have enacted similar laws.
McCulloch wants to bring the success of Trenholm Plaza to Richland Mall, and to push ethics and conservation issues.
“If we ruin our air and our water and our land, we’re done for,” McCulloch said.