Incumbent Joan Brady and Democratic challenger Beth Bernstein are in a rare close race for the House District 78 seat – one of the few swing districts left in gerrymandered South Carolina.
Of the 170 S.C. House and state Senate races statewide, 69 percent are uncontested. Only 30 races have the traditional Democrat vs. Republican matchup, in part because one political party usually dominates a district.
Then, there is House District 78 in suburban Richland County with its mix of Democratic and Republican voters. Republicans and Democrats have traded the seat twice since 1999.
But Brady has beaten back Democratic challengers twice in her four terms in the S.C. House, winning re-election even when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen carried the district two years ago. Brady, a former WIS reporter, excels on the stage in public forums where Bernstein, a real estate attorney who has never run for public office, struggles.
Both candidates have $54,000 in their campaign accounts, and both have big-time endorsements. Brady has the Conservation Voters of South Carolina and the S.C. Education Association, two liberal-leaning groups that the Republican touts as showing her bipartisan appeal. Bernstein has Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and state Sen. Joel Lourie, the last Democrat to hold the House District 78 seat, in her corner.
Brady is trying to define Bernstein as a trial attorney whose law firm profits from suing doctors and defending DUI cases. Bernstein is trying to portray Brady as an enabler of the state’s ethical problems, citing her vote to dismiss the ethics charges against Gov. Nikki Haley earlier this year.
The winner on Nov. 6 will not affect the balance of power in the House, where Republicans will continue to have a majority regardless. But a Democratic win in the district could solidify Richland County as the Democratic capital of South Carolina.
‘Just excellent training’
Bernstein and Brady both were born and raised in Richland County. Brady graduated from A.C. Flora High School, and Bernstein graduated from Richland Northeast High School.
Brady earned her journalism degree from the University of South Carolina and got her start reading pre-recorded public service announcements on WCAY Radio. But she was best known locally as a reporter for WIS, where she anchored the morning newscast as Joan Barrett and later co-hosted Carolina Today with Joe Pinner.
“It was just excellent training to be able to look at all the sides of the issue and try to come out with the story to present it fairly, balanced,” Brady said of her journalism background. “It served me well to just not jump to conclusions on any issue.”
After leaving WIS, Brady was a stay-at-home mother to her three children and a volunteer, organizing a neighborhood watch in her Arcadia Lakes neighborhood. When that town’s mayor retired, Brady ran to succeed him and won. Four years later, she ran unopposed for the Richland County Council District 8 seat. Four years after that, when then-state Rep. Joel Lourie announced his candidacy for the state Senate, Brady ran to replace him in House District 78, winning a four-way Republican primary and the November general election.
Bernstein is one of six children, the daughter of a general practice attorney. When she was 11, her 18-year-old brother, a passenger in a three-car accident involving a drunk driver, was killed. That tragedy, she said, spurred her and her siblings to value education and pursue advanced degrees. Two siblings are attorneys. Her twin sister is a doctor, and another sister is a psychiatrist.
After graduating from the University of Georgia, Bernstein earned her law degree from USC and went to work at her father’s law firm. When Bernstein’s mother died nine years ago, she and her husband moved back into her childhood home to care for her father. He died in 2010, but Bernstein and her family still live there.
“That’s one of the reasons why I decided to run. This community does mean a lot to me,” she said. “When bad things are happening, responsible people need to step up and really make a difference.”
Making Haley the issue?
Democrats think Gov. Haley could be their ticket to taking back the District 78 seat.
Haley, a Lexington Republican, lost the district by a large margin two years ago to Sheheen, a Democrat from nearby Kershaw County. Bernstein has tried to tie Brady to Haley, particularly when it comes to ethics.
Strengthening the state’s ethics laws likely will be a major issue in the Legislature next year. Earlier this year, Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned after he was accused of breaking state ethics laws. Subsequently, the House Ethics Committee investigated Haley’s lobbying activities while a House member.
Brady, a member of the Ethics Committee, missed a meeting when lawmakers voted to investigate the governor. The committee’s chairman, state Rep. Roland Smith, later apologized for not notifying Brady. Bernstein criticizes Brady for missing the meeting and later voting to dismiss the charges against Haley, saying Brady voted to “protect the governor.”
“She (Brady) is part of the problem, and she represents the status quo,” Bernstein said.
Brady said she wanted the state attorney general to investigate the allegations against Haley. And she said the vote to dismiss the allegations was unanimous. (It was on five of the seven charges, but state Rep. Laurie Funderburk, D-Kershaw, voted to uphold two charges.)
Brady said while she commends Haley for her economic-development work, it would be “very disingenuous to paint me with the same brush as the governor’s policies.” For example, Brady said she vehemently opposed Haley’s budget veto of money for the state’s rape crisis centers.
“I am very proud that I am a Republican, but certainly I am probably the most independent Republican in the State House,” she said.
Brady portrays Bernstein as a “trial lawyer,” a term Republicans have tried to turn into an insult.
“We do have an over surplus of trial lawyers in the General Assembly and especially on the issues that I work on: criminal domestic violence and children’s issues,” Brady said. “It is always the trial lawyers who are thwarting and trying to stop that legislation.”
Bernstein said she primarily does real estate and probate law, spending most of her time on real estate closings. She said she can “count on one hand” the number of times that she has had to go to trial.
Instead, she counters Brady is the one beholden to special interests, pointing to the political action committees that have donated to the Republican incumbent.
“I’m only beholden to the voters of our district,” Bernstein said.