The gloves came off Tuesday for Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, in their first televised debate.
The sharpest exchange came when Sheheen took a swipe at Haley for her brushes with ethics laws.
“We are never going to have ethical leadership in South Carolina if we have ... a governor who has been fined for violating the ethics laws, a governor who has abused the state plane and had to repay our taxpayer dollars, a governor who didn’t report income from doing consulting for a contractor who does work for the government, and that’s what we have right now,” said the Camden Democrat.
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“It's amazing to me that Sen. Sheheen can say these things knowing that we had ethics reform the last two years in a row, and he voted to kill it,” Haley fired back, starting her comment with laughter.
“If you're going to talk about ethics reform, it’s not about what you say, it’s about what you do, and to have him vote against it twice is really a slap in the face to everybody here,” the Lexington Republican said.
To Sheheen’s charge that she is unethical, Haley said, “I was found not guilty on any of those things, and the reason y’all got mad that I took the plane was because I was calling you out for what you were doing in the Legislature.”
“It’s mighty funny that you didn't do anything wrong, Governor Haley, when you were fined for doing it,” Sheheen quipped, adding he voted last spring against a proposed ethics bill because he did not want to support a “fake” ethics bill that legislators could celebrate.
In 2012, the House Ethics Committee twice cleared Haley of allegations that she illegally lobbied while a state legislator. However, Haley was forced to pay fines for incomplete campaign finance records, and reimburse the state for using the state plane for bill signings and news conferences, prohibited uses.
Aside from that exchange, Haley and Sheheen had little opportunity for rebuttals as they shared the stage with three challengers, all polling below 5 percent.
The debate was crucial for Sheheen, an opportunity to make his case, with Haley nearby, on why voters should pick him over Haley, who defeated the Democrat in 2010 by 4.5 percentage points.
Then, Haley was a little-known state legislator from Lexington. Now, Haley is a well-funded incumbent with a 10 percentage-point lead over Sheheen, according to the latest Winthrop Poll.
Leading the underdogs on the debate stage — at 3.9 percent in that poll — was self-financed petition candidate Tom Ervin, a former Greenville judge and lawmaker who has poured about $4 million of his own money into his campaign.
Ervin targeted Haley and Sheheen as “career politicians” who have no real plan for fixing the state’s roads and bridges. Ervin said raising the gas tax – a user fee that out-of-state motorists and truckers help pay – is the best way to address the more than $1 billion-a-year road liability facing the state.
Libertarian Steven French of Charleston talked about economic freedom, saying he opposes raising the minimum wage “not because I’m a mean old Libertarian, but because I know what that's going to do to jobs in this state.”
United Citizens candidate Morgan Bruce Reeves of Columbia spent most of his time saying his vision for the state includes legalizing marijuana to pump more tax money into the economy.
Sheheen also drove home his support for expanding the Medicaid insurance program for the poor and disabled under the Affordable Care Act.
“That would create 45,000 new jobs in the state. Instead,” Sheheen said, referring to Haley’s opposition to that expansion, “our tax dollars are being sent to other states and our jobs are being sent to other states. That’s just wrong.”
Haley leaned on her economic record, touting announcing almost 57,000 jobs during her first term in 45 of 46 counties, adding more jobs are on the way.
“We need a governor who will shoot straight with us,” Sheheen countered, saying only half of those announced jobs have “actually show(n) up and people are able to get those jobs and work.”
The debate also veered into questions about whether the Confederate flag on the State House grounds hurts the state’s economy.
Sheheen, who called for the flag’s retirement this month, said he is “not afraid to take a stand so that my kids will have a better state than we have today.”
Haley countered saying she has not had a single conversation with a corporate executive about the flag. She also said perception of the state is changing.
“We really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian-American female governor, when we appointed the first African-American U.S. senator (Tim Scott),” she said. “That sent a huge message.”
Sheheen sends a “strange message,” she added, when he objects to the flag’s presence on the State House grounds, during the campaign, without having ever brought up the issue as a legislator.