Vincent Sheheen says, half joking, that he is not the first face his supporters want to see on the campaign trail.
“They’d rather see my dad, or Anthony or Amy,” said the Democratic state senator from Camden, referring to his father Fred, his youngest son and wife, in a recent interview with The State about his bid to unseat Republican Gov. Nikki Haley in November.
“Maybe it’s not a joke. Maybe it’s real.”
Self-deprecating humility is textbook Sheheen, the 14-year legislator’s Democratic and Republican allies say.
With that quality, Sheheen has become a go-to guy for smart policy insights or a capable bridge across party lines for building support for legislation, House and Senate colleagues say.
“Vincent’s smart, and you figure that out pretty quickly,” said his friend and sometimes-legislative partner, state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who also is close to Haley. “He also works hard ... and when you combine the intellect, and the willingness to work hard, that will get you attention in the Senate.”
Lawmakers also say Sheheen is known for taking on tough issues. On some, he pushes publicly. Other times, however, he works quietly while others take the lead, fearful his candidacy for governor might doom a bill in the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
Sheheen pushed hard – first publicly, then more behind the scenes – to expand the state’s 4-year-old kindergarten program. He also aided in the successful passage of a statewide texting-while-driving ban this year. Sheheen authored another successful bill giving lawmakers and the governor more oversight of state agencies, but said he knew when to stop talking during the debate and say, “Shane Massey, go to the podium. Please.”
“None of those things are small,” said Massey, who co-sponsored the government reform bill with Sheheen. “You have to give him credit for tackling the big, hard issues. You may disagree with his position on them, but he doesn't shy away from the fights.”
With the November election about two months away, Sheheen is hoping to best his 2010 performance against Haley, who as a relatively unknown Lexington state representative beat him by 4.5 percentage points.
Even though Sheheen faces a tough – some say insurmountable – battle, a few of his GOP allies see little difference between the two candidates in their ability to lead the state.
“Four years ago, the choice might have been a little clearer” between Haley and Sheheen, said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York. “But I don’t really think it’s quite as bright a definition. Sheheen would do a good job, but I think that Gov. Haley is already doing a good job. I don't see a huge amount of difference between the two. Both of them would like to see us do something to improve our roads; both have been outspoken on educational issues.”
So far, however, Sheheen’s campaign has been low-key – perhaps too much so, political observers say.
He has run just two television ads to Haley’s four. He has focused instead mostly on shoe-leather politicking, talking to groups of Democrats statewide to encourage higher voter turnout. While one political scientist recently called Sheheen’s effort “lackluster,” Democrats say the campaign really doesn’t start until Labor Day.
Haley has a tremendous head start, finishing the June fundraising quarter with $4.5 million in the bank to Sheheen’s $1.7 million. Haley and her allies also have worked hard to tout the incumbent’s advantages.
Haley’s campaign ads portray her as a jobs creator and a politician who has moved people “from welfare to work,” numbers Sheheen disputed last week. Meanwhile, the governor’s allies have run ads attacking Sheheen for defending violent criminals and supporting the expansion of Medicaid, the federal health-care program for the poor, under President Obama’s health-care law.
But some polls suggest Haley’s advantage over Sheheen is not decisive.
Two polls this summer, including one commissioned by the S.C. Democratic Party, show Haley with a 3- to 4-percentage-point lead. A conservative-leaning poll out Thursday showed Haley ahead by 15 points. Two July polls by Clemson University and CBS News also showed Haley with a double-digit lead.
So far, Sheheen has aimed to cast Haley as an incompetent leader whose state agencies are in disarray. He cites the 2012 hacking of taxpayers’ information or a delay in notifying Greenwood parents of a tuberculosis case in their children’s school.
But convincing voters that Haley is to blame for those incidents could be a tough sell, political scientists say, because it requires explanation. Meanwhile, Haley already is imprinting on voters’ minds images of her cutting ribbons at business openings and touting falling jobless rates.
Everywhere he goes, Sheheen tells voters that S.C. incomes have declined, and Haley refused to accept federal money to expand Medicaid, a decision that cost the state economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, according to a University of South Carolina study.
For Sheheen, who is accustomed to the low-key corners of the State House, shining brighter than Haley on issues is difficult. Haley also has laid claim to many of the issues that Sheheen championed, including education funding.
Democrats remain hopeful.
“It's a challenge being a Democrat in this state,” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, one of Sheheen’s longtime legislative friends. “But people know Vincent, and those who certainly know him respect him and think a great deal of him. Nobody looks at him and says, ‘He's not prepared to be governor.’ ”
‘Realistically change the state’
Sheheen says out of his entire family, his son Anthony, now 13 years old and a frequent companion with him on the campaign trail, took his 2010 loss to Haley the hardest.
“About three weeks after I lost, we were in church and, just out of the blue, he turned to me and was like, ‘Dad, I really want you to run for governor again. Will you run for governor again?’ ” Sheheen recalled. “He liked being out there with people. He liked seeing people and being exposed to new things.”
Sheheen’s political roots run deep in Camden. His grandfather was mayor. His father, Fred, was commissioner on the state’s higher education board. Sheheen’s uncle, Bob Sheheen, brought the family name to the State House, spending 24 years in the Legislature, including eight years as House speaker.
Just as his family led him to politics, Sheheen said the needs of his community – including a desire to fight a plan to pump North Carolina wastewater into the state – drove him to run for office in 2000.
He said he helped the community by working on expanding Camden’s technical college, working with conservationists to protect a Revolutionary War battlefield site where colonial soldiers are buried and helping with the creation of the S.C. Equine Park, a 40-acre horse park.
The rest of the state has similar educational, conservation and economic needs, he said. So when Anthony asked him to run for governor again, Sheheen talked to his wife, Amy.
The couple did not, he says, discuss the difficulty of beating a majority-party incumbent.
Instead, they asked whether, if elected, they “could realistically change the state.”
Growing the grassroots
Sheheen has traveled across the state, meeting with Democratic groups and trying to build coalitions of supporters among women, teachers, small business owners, students and even Republicans who can help spread his message.
The senator has a chance to appeal to a range of voters because he is not fiercely partisan – a trait that makes him a good Democratic candidate in a red state, political observers say.
Stumping at a fish fry at the Cherry Hill Missionary Baptist Church, an African-American church in Conway, Sheheen asked parishioners to “remind (their) neighbors what we have experienced” for four years under Haley – dropping wages and tax dollars paid into a federal health-care program that are not coming back home, he said. The group of about a few dozen people applauded when he said all 4-year-old children should have access to full-day kindergarten.
But in Loris, Sheheen told Horry County Democrats to reach across party lines with his message.
“It doesn’t even matter if you're a Republican or Democrat, and if you believe that, you’re part of the team,” said Sheheen, who lost the county to Haley in 2010 by a nearly 2-1 margin.
Alissa Warters, a Francis Marion University political scientist, recently said during a forum on the governor’s race that Sheheen’s campaign has been “lackluster.” In the same discussion, however, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said Sheheen likely has been “active more behind the scenes, building his base, making sure that they’re going to turn out in large numbers.”
Sheheen’s opposition to gay marriage – an issue energizing some activists, shifting state and national Democrats increasingly left – should not hurt his efforts in a red state, Huffmon said. Instead of demanding their candidates adopt more left-leaning policies, S.C. Democratic activists are mobilizing against a GOP leadership that they see as too far to the right, he said.
Sheheen says he would rather focus on issues where he can make a difference, including advocating for laws that ban workplace discrimination because of sexual orientation.
A Democratic candidate is “not going to win an election in South Carolina by playing to the furthest left coalition,” Huffmon said. “That coalition is simply not large enough.”
If all the Democrats who voted in 2008 had voted in 2010, Sheheen would be the governor, Democratic consultants say.
The party’s hope may lie in S.C. newcomers, including conservatives who find themselves out of place in the state’s GOP, said Scott Buchanan, a Citadel political scientist.
“The demographics are changing,” said Joan Furlong, chairwoman of the Horry County Democratic Party who moved to South Carolina from Washington to retire two years ago. “New arrivals, like me, have moved here in the last 10 years” and many of them are more progressive.
Behind the scenes
Since his 2010 loss, Sheheen has continued his behind-the-scenes work in the Senate, but his higher profile as the presumed again-Democratic nominee for governor has helped push some legislation into law.
When Haley opposed offering online retailer Amazon a 20-year tax break and an exemption on collecting sales taxes for a distribution center in her home county, Sheheen urged lawmakers to back the deal and helped broker an agreement.
Lexington business consultant Scott Adams, a Republican who gave to Haley’s campaign in 2010 and led a grassroots coalition pushing for the deal, said Amazon would not have brought its 2,000 jobs to the state without Sheheen’s help. Though Adams said he is still undecided on who will get his vote in November, he did say that he was “extremely grateful to him for what he did. Because of that, I could easily vote for him.”
The new Department of Administration, which Haley has championed, also would not have passed this year without Sheheen’s work authoring and pushing the bill, Republican and Democratic lawmakers say.
State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, once filibustered a government restructuring bill to create a Department of Administration, calling it “Dead on Arrival” on the Senate floor. Then, Jackson says, Sheheen worked to convince him and other Democrats that the bill was sorely needed.
Haley thanked Sheheen for his work on the bill in her State of the State address and invited him to the ceremonial bill signing where she gave him a pen.
“I've worked on that for years and years and years and years, and it was crazy cool to see it come to fruition,” Sheheen said.
‘Don’t achieve a lot on my own’
Though Sheheen has seen some of his long-sought policy wishes come true, he’s also been somewhat in the shadow of Haley.
Like the governor, Sheheen also has written a book, “The Right Way.” The book is an outline for fixing the state’s battered roads, bringing jobs and improving its public schools by changing the way tax collections pay for public education.
Expanding the state’s free, 4-year-old kindergarten is something he has “fought and bled for” since he was a House member, he said, and this year a bill became law that lays the groundwork to offer that program statewide.
However, this year, Haley pushed her own education plan, causing some Democrats to grouse that the governor hijacked the traditionally Democratic issue in her re-election bid. Her education plan increased education spending by about $180 million for technology, reading coaches and more money to school districts for teaching students living in poverty.
While Haley’s plan received bipartisan praise, lawmakers and education advocates have said the state must change its tax code to finally fund schools fairly.
Asked whether he feels upstaged by Haley taking credit for issues that he has pushed, Sheheen said, “I work hard with other people. I don’t achieve a lot on my own.”
Politics or principle?
Just as lawmakers tout Sheheen’s ability to move bills past the finish line, one Republican Senate leader says the Democratic challenger’s absence from an effort could spell its doom.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said he and Sheheen worked together since last year on what supporters said was the most meaningful ethics reform in 20 years.
But then, Sheheen pulled his backing from the bill near the end of the session for political reasons, Martin says. Democrats wanted to deny Republican Haley a victory on ethics reform in an election year, he said.
Sheheen said the proposal lost its teeth. Two years of shuttling the bill between the House and Senate had stripped the proposal of a key element, ending the practice of lawmakers policing themselves when they are accused of violating the state’s ethics laws, Sheheen said.
Haley, though critical of the bill, had said she would support it without independent oversight of lawmakers since it included broader income disclosure. Sheheen had voted for an ethics bill without independent oversight. But in the dying minutes of the legislative session, Sheheen was clear he would not support it.
“I'm not just going to pass a bill so that Nikki Haley can pretend she's doing something,” Sheheen said at the time. “(I'm) not going to pass a bill that doesn't have real independent oversight of the governor, the Senate and the House. ... It didn't even do the things that she said should occur.”
Sheheen also agreed with government watchdogs who pulled their support: a watered-down bill would allow lawmakers to claim a victory on ethics and put it off for another 20 years.
But Republican Martin said he still does not understand Sheheen’s change of heart after supporting the proposal even without some of his priorities.
“(T)hat didn't sit well with me,” Martin said. “He will bend to the politics of the moment in that respect.”
Sheheen also takes heat from his own party on occasion. Sheheen opposed a bipartisan move by lawmakers to approve through the budget process a pay raise for themselves this year and the proposal failed in the Senate.
“Colleagues were literally up in his face saying, ‘You are costing us the ability to earn more money,’ ” Jackson said, recalling an intense debate over the issue in a private meeting of Senate Democrats.
House Democrats also were aggressive in their efforts to change Sheheen’s position, trying to enlist Smith, Sheheen’s friend, to talk to him. “I didn’t even put forth the effort,” Smith said, adding that he knew Sheheen had made up his mind.
Sheheen, who says he opposes legislative pay raises whenever they come up, told his colleagues the right way to get a raise was to introduce legislation that the public and a committee could vet.
“At the end of the day, although I was on the other side, I left there admiring him – because here's a man who sticks to his convictions,” Jackson said.
Attacking the attorney
In contrast, Haley’s campaign and her allies say Sheheen is someone who cannot be trusted, citing his work as a lawyer.
The hits on Sheheen started this year with attack ads from the Republican Governors Association. One called into question Sheheen’s judgment for defending violent criminals, including an 18-year-old convicted of a sex offense involving an underage teen. As a young attorney, Sheheen said he wanted to try different types of law. He handled a small number of defense cases before moving to mostly civil cases, he said.
Haley’s campaign also questioned Sheheen’s ethics for having cases pending before magistrate judges appointed by the S.C. General Assembly. Critical of the way lawmakers appoint judges, Sheheen has introduced bills to have the state Supreme Court appoint magistrates. Those bills have failed to gain traction.
Sheheen’s critics also say his attacks on Haley are unfair and dishonest. Sheheen’s recent TV ad said Haley intentionally hid the hacking of S.C. taxpayers’ information. She was asked by federal and state law enforcement to wait more than two weeks to make the breach public.
But some lawmakers who count Haley and Sheheen as allies say they see little difference between the two candidates in their leadership abilities.
Massey, the GOP senator who counts himself in a “small club” of lawmakers who have both Haley and Sheheen as friends, said voters have good options in November, despite their different approaches to policy.
“We have two very good people to choose from. Both of them ... are capable of leading the state, and both of them want to move the state forward, and they have good ideas to make that happen,” he said.
As the campaign season rolls on, voters can expect the allegations to fly from both camps, and those of the three other challengers in the race. But Sheheen says the charges and countercharges miss what South Carolinians care about.
When Sheheen was running for the state House, he said he was surprised when people remembered his great-grandfather, who ran a store in Camden and let farmers buy groceries on credit, paying after the crops came in.
That had to have occurred 60 years earlier, Sheheen said, standing on a Camden sidewalk and peering into his great-grandfather’s former store, where he remembers running around as a child and lobbying for a Coke.
“It reminded me of what's important and what people remember,” Sheheen said. “What they don't remember is a bunch of TV commercials and a bunch of hype and a bunch of political stuff.
“What they remember is if you help them or not.”