Creighton Coleman went to the S.C. General Assembly 16 years ago, eager to find ways to help people in the rural communities he called home.
He backed the South Carolina I-77 Alliance for economic progress and sponsored tax credit legislation to encourage the redevelopment of abandoned mills and other eyesores. He was part of a move to get the Confederate flag taken off the Statehouse grounds last year, after the deaths of nine black people shot during a Bible study in a Charleston church.
But Coleman lost the Senate 17 seat he’d held for eight years last week by 1,040 votes in a Democratic runoff election against former educator Mike Fanning. Fanning, from the Great Falls area, will face Republican Mark Palmer of York in the November general election.
Senate 17 includes part of York County, including the southern area of Rock Hill, the city of York and the surrounding rural area and all of Chester and Fairfield counties.
Coleman, who served eight years in the House before winning election to the Senate, said Friday he was disappointed in the loss, but “I’m ready to move on.”
The 60-year-old Winnsboro attorney lost his seat as part of an anti-incumbency surge that has turned out longtime representatives in both parties, including Rock Hill Republican Sen. Wes Hayes, who served the area for 30 years.
“I can understand the frustration of the public with incumbents,” said Coleman. He said the Senate’s failure to pass a state gas tax for road improvements this year “stopped progress, and we were all held accountable for that.”
Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University professor of political science, said he sees the anti-incumbency move about different things in the Democratic Party.
While an anti-insider movement on the Republican side has been fueled by a powerful opposition to big government, Huffmon said, “on the Democratic side it’s more wanting to move the party ahead of the status quo.”
Both Republican and Democratic candidates who are seeking to replace Coleman in Senate 17 seat charge that state government is broken and fresh representation is needed.
But Coleman said he is not optimistic that “any major change is going to occur.” He said part of that is due to problems integral to state government.
“In the Senate, one person can hold up a major piece of legislation, which they did this past year with the roads bill,” he said, referring to a Republican filibuster against a proposed gas tax hike to raise money for road work. “I think that needs to change.”
But Coleman is proud of much of the progress that has been made. He said one of the greatest rewards of his service was being able to help people as individuals.
He recalled one constituent who was very sick, and who wanted to visit the Medical University of South Carolina for an evaluation, but could not get in.
“We got him in MUSC,” said Coleman, who said he was able to use his contacts to make that happen.
The man needed a double organ transplant, and was referred to Duke University to receive that treatment, Coleman said. “Now, he is doing very well, and he’s got kids,” he said. “You can’t put a price on that.”
Coleman said he also was successful in serving his community. A few years ago, during a severe drought, Coleman was able to arrange for the city of Winnsboro to get a million gallons of water a day from the city of Columbia.
He helped to secure $100,000 for rural fire departments in both Chester and Fairfield counties for fire suppression. And he argued for the renovation of the historic York County Courthouse in downtown York, when the York County Council was debating its future.
Hayes, a Rock Hill attorney who attended law school with Coleman at the University of South Carolina, said Coleman cared about his constituents.
“We were obviously in different parties,” Hayes said. “But we were still working across party lines to get things done. We could disagree and still remain good friends. And that’s not always true in politics.”
Coleman said the tax credit legislation that he sponsored to spur the development of abandoned buildings helped change the face of communities across the state. One of those changes is the old Bleachery textile area in Rock Hill, now home to a planned mixed-use development called University Center.
“It makes it economically more feasible to develop these buildings,” he said. “You don’t want them to be an eyesore, you want them to be used.”
He said he also backed the formation and funding of the South Carolina I-77 Alliance, a development organization which initially included York, Chester and Fairfield counties and later Lancaster and Richland counties.
“That is going to be very important for this district,” he said.
And he said he supported the creation of the state’s rural infrastructure bank, where rural communities can seek water and sewer grants at interest rates of less than 1 percent. The city of Winnsboro is using such a grant, he said, to run a large water line to the Broad River.
Coleman said he plans to continue his support of many smaller projects he has promoted in the district, including the establishment of a veterans monument in downtown York and the creation of a tourism and recreation plan for the Dearborn Island area in Great Falls.
Coleman, who said he followed his one-term state representative father into politics, said he’ll continue his general law practice in Winnsboro, an occupation he believes has parallels to his work in state government.
“They’re so similar,” Coleman said about his work as an attorney. “I enjoy helping people. That’s why I went in. I was reared that way, and my father was in politics. And I knew that I would get in politics, too.”
Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077