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The ‘tyranny’ of having to choose

OVER THE last 10 days, we’ve started running our endorsements of candidates for state and local offices in the June 10 primaries.

Our choices are the end result of a process based in years, even decades, of observation of the issues and institutions involved — and in some case, long exposure to the candidates. The most visible and obvious part of the process is the candidate interview (we’ve done 41 so far). But the process doesn’t start, and usually doesn’t end, with that ritual.

Sometimes, our editorial board will produce a ringing, enthusiastic endorsement of one candidate over his or her competition. Examples of that are the ones favoring John McCain and Barack Obama in their respective primaries back in January.

Such clear, unequivocal choices are rare. Far more often, we’ll pick our way through a thicket of pros and cons.

But we always try to choose in the end. That’s because one of these candidates is going to occupy the office, and that matters. It affects your life. It determines the laws you will live under, how those laws are enforced, and the taxes you will pay. On rare occasion in years past we have thrown up our hands and said “We can’t in good conscience endorse either of these candidates.” But that is a cop-out and a disservice to readers, and I regard each time it has happened as a failure.

In fact, I suspect that the most difficult and uncomfortable endorsements are sometimes the most valuable, because you can see us wrestling more strenuously than usual with the very issues you must consider as the voter, whether you agree with where we end up or not.

Consider this excerpt from our endorsement of Rep. John Scott last week for the Senate seat being vacated by Kay Patterson (his opponent is Vince Ford, longtime Richland 1 school board member):

Mr. Scott is the fighter, the man with a chip on his shoulder who, although he understands the big picture, often gravitates to smaller matters. Mr. Ford is the consensus-builder, smooth and polished and focused on the big picture.

Normally, with such similar positions on policy, the better choice for the gentleman’s club that is the state Senate would be the candidate with Mr. Ford’s profile....

But in the end, there is probably no greater unresolved challenge in the Midlands than the failure of our largest school district to overcome its problems. If we endorsed Mr. Ford for higher office, at what point would we hold anyone accountable for the turmoil, confusion and failures of the district?

We wouldn’t have been comfortable either way. But we made a choice, and we stated why; make of it what you will.

To contradict a widely held assumption, endorsements aren’t about who we like personally. If that were the case, we’d have endorsed Sheri Few for the Republican nomination to replace Rep. Bill Cotty in House District 79. She’s smart, energetic, personable, and understands how the Legislature works.

She came in with a deficit on our scorecard — her vehement advocacy for vouchers and/or tax credits for private school tuition. That made the choice easy two years ago, when she ran against Mr. Cotty — one of the most dedicated and effective supporters of public education in the Republican caucus.

But as important as that issue is, it doesn’t automatically trump everything. And during our interview this time, I found myself mentally building a case for endorsing Ms. Few. But then, she brought up the cigarette tax, in order to make sure we knew she would never increase it, even in order to lower another tax. The good that a higher cigarette tax would do, in terms of fewer teens hooked on tobacco, did not move her. Her dedication to the ideology of never, ever raising a tax under any circumstances reminded me of how shockingly rigid she is. I was reminded of something I had written on my blog after we met her in 2006, that “she clings firmly to ideology, even when it doesn’t seem to fit her own experience....”

She has many traits that would make her an effective lawmaker. But effectiveness in the service of an ideology more extreme than that held by Gov. Mark Sanford would not be a good thing. So we endorsed the less experienced, less savvy David Herndon, who was motivated to run by his wish to stand against some of the worst things Ms. Few stands for.

Other difficult choices lie ahead. We haven’t decided yet what to do in Senate District 23. There, the leading candidates are Jake Knotts, a populist with quite a few, shall we say, rough edges, and the much smoother, more conventional Republican Katrina Shealy, whom powerful interests are backing in an effort to take out Mr. Knotts for the sin of having made an enemy of our governor.

That one won’t be easy. It’s the kind of choice that causes me to have to remind myself that we are blessed to have choices. As tough as some of them are for us — and more to the point, for you as the voter — the “tyranny” of having to choose is far better than the real tyranny of not having a choice.

And please, don’t you cop out. Read our endorsements — and read the rest of the paper, and the mailings you get from the candidates. Go to candidate forums; debate the options with your neighbors. And then, whatever your decision, go out and apply it on June 10. Because in each and every case, one of these folks is going to win that office, and will be calling the shots for all of us until the next election.

To read all of our endorsements, and see video from candidate interviews, go to thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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