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Harpootlian beats Dunn in race for deposed Courson’s former Senate seat

Republican Benjamin Dunn, left, faced Democrat Dick Harpootlian, right, in a race to replace deposed S.C. Sen. John Courson.
Republican Benjamin Dunn, left, faced Democrat Dick Harpootlian, right, in a race to replace deposed S.C. Sen. John Courson.

Dick Harpootlian, a former prosecutor and onetime state Democratic Party chairman, defeated Republican Benjamin Dunn in Tuesday’s race for the Columbia-area state Senate seat once held by Republican John Courson, who resigned during a State House corruption investigation.

The Associated Press called the Senate race in Harpootlian’s favor shortly after midnight. Harpootlian’s victory is the first time that Democrats have added a Senate seat in years in a state that solidly has trended Republican during the past three decades.

Harpootlian, 69, said those supporting him shared his dissatisfaction with how the Legislature operates, as well as his concern with recent public corruption cases involving elected leaders. Harpootlian said he ran well in his Democratic stronghold of Shandon and the area around the University of South Carolina, but also in some suburban districts near St. Andrews Road.

“With what’s going on in the public corruption prosecutions, I found (support) among many people that they wanted somebody who would be very aggressive in addressing the corruption issues,’’ Harpootlian said after receiving a congratulatory phone call from former Vice President Joe Biden.

The race between Harpootlian and Dunn showed distinct differences between the candidates. Dunn, a 48-year-old Ballentine attorney and Afghanistan war veteran, waged a campaign promising low taxes and limited government, ripping Harpootlian for what he called liberal stances and his support for 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Dunn said he had been hopeful the district would elect him, but said the margin between Republicans and Democrats in Courson’s old district wasn’t a large one. Courson, a moderate Republican, had for years enjoyed support from Democrats.

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Harpootlian, known in Columbia for his sharp tongue and acid wit, spent much of the campaign railing against public corruption, calling for the elimination of perks for lawmakers and pushing to make government more efficient. The Shandon-area resident said he would be a more forceful voice for change than Dunn.

The Harpootlian-Dunn race would not have been needed if not for this year’s resignation and guilty plea of Courson to a charge of misconduct in office. Courson, a senator since 1985, had been indicted in a State House corruption probe into the relationship between lawmakers and a political consultant. The winner of Tuesday’s race will serve the two years remaining on Courson’s Senate term.

Harpootlian said the Republican establishment needs challenging, but he also wants to be a “team player.’’

“The team is not the Democratic Caucus, the team is the Senate,’’ he said. “I want to work with Republicans and Democrats to address issues, whether education or transportation or whatever. I want to do that in a bi-partisan but aggressive fashion.’’

Tuesday’s Senate contest was the only one for a seat in the upper chamber, but there were more than two dozen contests across the state between Democrats and Republicans for S.C. House seats.

In key Columbia area races, Republican Chris Wooten defeated Democrat Beth Ann Rocheleau in District 69; Democratic incumbent Chris Hart beat Republican Ralph Bell in District 73; Republican incumbent Kirkman Finlay defeated Democrat John Crangle in District 75; Republican incumbent Chip Huggins beat Democrat Sam Edwards in District 85; Republican Paula Rawl Calhoon won over Democrat Diane Summers in District 87; and Republican incumbent Kit Spires cruised past Democrat Bob Vanlue in District 96, according to unofficial returns.

Democratic state Sen. Nikki Setzler, the Senate minority leader, said Harpootlian’s election brings the number of Democrats in the state Senate to 19 for the first time since 2000. The GOP still holds a solid edge with 27 seats.

“He was razor focused ... on the local issues and what was important to the people in that district and to the people of the state,’’ said Setzler, who said he has known Harpootlian for 25 years.

Harpootlian is a Columbia trial attorney well known for high-profile legal cases and a blunt-spoken style. Recently, he has fought in court to close some Five Points bars that he and others say are too rowdy.

A former Richland County solicitor, Harpootlian has prosecuted some of the highest profile public corruption cases in South Carolina in the past 30 years, including former University of South Carolina president James Holderman.

In the 1990s, Harpootlian successfully prosecuted members of the old state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission during a public corruption probe. He also served on Richland County Council in the 1980s and two terms as state Democratic Party chairman, most recently from 2011-2013.

S.C. Senate 20

48 of 48 precincts reporting

Harpootlian (D) -- 18,680

Dunn (R) -- 17,676

SOURCE: Associated Press