State Sen. Lee Bright has at least $1.4 million in debt related to a failed trucking business.
Bright, one of four Republicans planning to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in June’s GOP primary, said he is personally responsible for about $500,000 of that debt, most stemming from the failure of the trucking business that he started in 1997.
Bright, R-Spartanburg, reported his debt and earnings – $92,911 from January 2012 to August of this year – on a personal finance disclosure that he filed with the U.S. Senate this week and provided to The State.
Bright said Thursday that he included all of his firm’s debt on his personal disclosure in the interest of transparency. He reported owing 29 creditors between $1.4 million and $3.1 million on the disclosure, which candidates for U.S. Senate are required to file. That report includes ranges for a candidate’s assets and debts, not specific amounts.
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The report provides details about Bright’s finances four months after he announced he would run against Graham. One Democrat, Jay Stamper, also has said he will run for the Senate seat.
Bright is an early frontrunner among Graham’s challengers, favored by 15 percent of likely GOP primary voters in a recent poll, ranking second to Graham, who was favored by 51 percent. Graham’s other GOP challengers -- Easley businessman Richard Cash, Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor and Charleston PR executive Nancy Mace – each received 4 percent support. (Connor has not entered the race at the time of that poll.)
What will voters think?
Bright’s financial woes could prove an impediment to his campaign to oust Seneca’s Graham.
Bright’s move to report all his debt is a smart move, said Bob Oldendick, a University of South Carolina political science professor.
“Get it all out there. Disclose everything at the beginning,” Oldendick advised, adding anticipating questions and answering them first will allow Bright to focus on his message.
But Bright’s financial woes could come in handy for his fellow anti-Graham challengers, all Tea Party-libertarian candidates who are trying to find ways to set themselves apart. Oldendick said they could raise questions about why Bright is running: “Is trying to get in the Senate a way to get out of this bad financial situation?”
Bright, a two-term Spartanburg state senator, said his firm’s failure, which he blames on federal policies, led him to run for the U.S. Senate. Bright said his experience with debt is why he opposed a widely supported plan for the state to borrow money to pay for road and bridge improvements.
Bright’s explanation that his own experience has taught him to steer clear of debt as a lawmaker is “like having an alcoholic telling you not to drink,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and, sometimes, a Republican operative. “It has some credibility. But, when it’s all said and done, every candidate’s personal ethics are up for review when you get into politics,” and voters will pass judgment.
“It’s going to be real hard to talk about debt reduction when he has his personal finances in disarray,” Woodard said.
Bright is the only Graham opponent who has held public office. He also has picked up an endorsement from the Republican Liberty Caucus, a group that claims to have helped launch U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to hero status among Tea Party Republicans.
Bright, a state Senate favorite among S.C. Tea Party members, is looking outside South Carolina for financial assistance in his challenge to Graham, who has $7 million in the bank as he seeks his third term. Bright raised about $20,000 at a recent fundraiser in Oklahoma. This week, Bright was in Washington, D.C., meeting with other potential supporters whom he declined to identify.
‘Rather be transparent’
Bright said that about $500,000 of the debt that he reported is owed to his trucking company’s three shareholders, including Bright, who loaned money to the firm. Among all the debts, that amount would be paid back last – if ever, he said.
Between $100,000 and $200,000 of the debt stems from two lawsuits against his business that ended in judgments, according to the report.
The report also gives insight into Bright’s personal income.
Bright’s greatest source of income over the past two years has been his job as a state senator, where he was paid $42,800. As president of the trucking company, Bright reported $3,200 in income.
In more recent business ventures, Bright reported being paid $24,411 by a business development company and $22,500 from sales work that he did for an hazardous waste company.
According to the report, Bright has five investment funds that combined are valued somewhere between $33,000 and $145,000. Together, they generated between $2,600 and $8,000 in income over the reporting period. Bright also owns a rental property that generated between $5,000 and $15,000 in income.
So far, Bright is the only candidate opposing Graham to report having significant debts.
Cash and Mace reported their finances earlier this year. Connor, who entered the race in November, has filed for an extension to report his finances.
Since announcing his candidacy, Bright has sought extensions for filing the disclosure, telling The State that he wanted added time to ensure he reported his debts accurately.
Bright said Thursday he did not think he had to report debt belonging to his business, not to him personally, but wanted to report it anyway.
“I may be disclosing more than I have to, but I would rather be transparent.”