State Rep. James Smith tried Monday night to hold onto his frontrunner status in the race for the Democratic nomination for governor.
But the Columbia attorney faced a barrage of jabs from his two opponents in their final debate — most notably on his association with former Republican lawmakers who have pleaded guilty to State House corruption charges and resigned from office.
"There's smoke-filled rooms in the State House. Mr. Smith smells like smoke because he's friends with the Quinns," said Florence anti-trust attorney Marguerite Willis, referring to longtime state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, who pleaded guilty last year to misconduct in office, and his powerful political consultant father, Richard Quinn Sr.
"Where there's smoke, sometimes they're fires."
With just a week left before the June 12 primary — and absent recent polling on where all three Democratic candidates stand — Smith has had to continually defend his legislative career in the House from his two opponents, running as outsiders.
At their final three-way debate Monday, that defense included questions about his friendship with former House Majority Leader Rick Quinn and working relationship with Republican S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, another former Quinn ally.
In 2017, Attorney General Wilson's office sued opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma on behalf of the state, alleging the company used deceptive tactics to market painkillers that, in turn, helped ignite the state's growing opioid epidemic. Smith's law firm — James E. Smith Jr. P.A. — was one of several hired to assist the attorney general's office in the case, a payoff, his opponents alleged, for helping Wilson with a campaign finance disclosure problem.
"You ought to just tell the truth, James," said Charleston technology consultant Phil Noble. "It's really not that hard."
Smith slammed his opponents for their "personal, political attacks," saying their assertions bore no "relation to the truth."
"Reality is we need to stop this garbage," he said. "I didn't run for office to attack my opponents. I ran to attack the problems facing every day South Carolinians, and that's what I'll do as governor."
The voters of South Carolina have not elected a Democrat to the Governor's Mansion since 2002.
Yet all three Democratic candidates said Monday they are the candidate to change that drought.
"If you want to do more of the same, then we ought to elect ... career politicians, corporate lawyers with their lobbyists, people who spend their time, their energy and their careers, making money, working the system for themselves," Noble said, a slam at both Smith and Willis. "Or we can try to do something different. We can have bold ideas. We can have new reform leadership."
Smith focused on his experience working across the aisle in the GOP-controlled Legislature..
"I've worked really hard to build coalitions, to focus on the issues that matter," he said.
While President Donald Trump is not on the June 12 Democratic gubernatorial ballot, the former New York real estate mogul was heavy on the minds of some of the Democratic candidates Monday.
"Donald Trump, the racist, sexist president of these United States, is what caused me to run for office because as a woman, I felt devalued by his election,” Willis said. "As a woman, girl power is here to stay."
Smith and Willis agreed South Carolina's midterm election is a referendum on Trump's 2016 election. Since taking office 500 days ago, both said Trump has brushed aside the Palmetto State — for example, in deciding to explore expanding offshore drilling on the state's coast despite widespread opposition.
McMaster — the first statewide elected official in the country to endorse Trump ahead of the state's 2016 GOP presidential primary — has been seeking an exemption to offshore drilling for South Carolina.
But, Smith said, the Republican governor has failed to "stand up to his friend when it matters most to South Carolinians."
"Maybe if we gave him a golf course and named it Trump International and put it in Myrtle Beach, he wouldn’t drill off our shore," Willis said.
But Noble said he did not see where Trump fit into the state's Democratic primary for governor.
The race is not about Trump, Noble said. "This is a referendum on South Carolina’s future."
The five Republican candidates, including McMaster, debate Tuesday at USC.
Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter