Citizens for Better Government, created in response to the county’s 2012 election fiasco, has thrown its support to Sheriff Leon Lott in next week’s Democratic primary, organization leader Michael Letts tells The State newspaper.
It is the first time the Republican-leaning citizens’ watchdog organization has endorsed a political candidate in a Richland County race, Letts said.
The group has 3,800 active members in the county, he said.
“We do not typically endorse (candidates),” the organization’s chairman said. “We typically only endorse policy issues.”
But after Lott’s campaign reached out two weeks ago to group vice chairman Stephen Gilchrist, the organization decided to establish a precedent, Letts said. Gilchrist also is a founder of the activist Richland 2 Black Parents Association, but that group is not part of the Lott endorsement, Gilchrist said.
Letts said he interprets the incumbent’s outreach as an indication that retired State Law Enforcement Division agent James Flowers poses a real threat to Lott’s re-election to a sixth term.
“I think he definitely has a strong possibility of making it a very competitive race,” Letts said of Flowers.
The endorsement is not a criticism of Flowers, Letts said. Instead, he said, it reflects the organization siding with continuity in the office at a critical time in corruption investigations. The sheriff’s department is part of a probe of the Richland County Recreation Commission, whose director is under scrutiny for allegations of bribery and sexual harassment of employees. Further, the county’s spending of penny sales tax revenue also being investigated by state officials.
“It would be hard to have someone step in at the same level (of knowledge about the case),” Letts said. “It’s a learning curve, for lack of a better term.”
In an open letter addressed to “Our dear Republican neighbors and friends,” Citizens for Better Government wrote: “Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has proven to be tough on crime, impartial in administering justice and providing for the needs of his officers to serve our communities ...
“ For this, among many reasons, we invite you to join us and cross party lines ....,” the letter states.
No Republican has filed for the seat, so Tuesday’s winner will be the sheriff for the next four years.
Gilchrist, who is African-American, said a Lott campaign staffer bumped into him at a convenience store on May 24 and asked if Citizens for Good Government would “take a look at” the race. This campaign is the first in eight years to present Lott with a challenger.
Gilchrist said the organization’s board met and voted unanimously to back Lott.