S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has the happy look of a politician who knows that come Election Day, Nov. 6, he will cruise to a third four-year term as the state’s chief prosecutor.
“I feel really good about our chances — really good,” said Wilson, 45, a Lexington Republican who is running against Democrat Constance Anastopoulo, 55, a Charleston School of Law ethics professor.
While Anastopoulo has made Wilson’s alleged lack of ethics — as reported in a scathing state grand jury report released earlier this month — a centerpiece of her campaign, it is unlikely the report will sink Wilson, S.C. political observers say.
“I just don’t think many voters pay much attention to that kind of thing,” absent a criminal charge, said Citadel political scientist DuBose Kapeluck, who studies Southern electoral politics.
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Thus far, Wilson has survived the State House corruption scandal, a bruising June primary runoff and, according to a recent Trafalgar poll of likely voters, is leading Anastopoulo, 53 percent to 30 percent, with 16 percent undecided.
Wilson has embraced President Donald Trump, who is popular in Republican South Carolina, and also won support by using the attorney general’s office to push bipartisan programs, including anti-domestic violence initiatives. The two-term incumbent has been endorsed by some 50 current and former sheriffs and solicitors, and distributed $46 million in grant money to law enforcement and victims’ groups this year alone.
Wilson also has curried favor with South Carolina’s conservatives by weaponizing his office to file lawsuits, legal briefs and letters on causes championed by the GOP’s right wing — from lower government regulation, particularly concerning the environment, to opposition to gay rights, abortion and gun control.
For example, Wilson signed a letter backing Trump’s decision to quit the Paris Climate Accords, regarded by most scientists as necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.
The attorney also has:
▪ Filed legal papers backing the right of Christian-owned businesses to discriminate against gays in certain kinds of sales
▪ Signed a brief arguing the Maryland Legislature did not have the right to ban certain assault weapons, used in many mass killings
▪ Filed briefs supporting weakening regulations that protect the air and water from coal and fossil fuel pollution
Wilson gets blame and praise.
“In seeking to roll back core air and water quality protections, Attorney General Wilson ... risks exposing the most vulnerable South Carolinians to dangerous air and water pollution,” said John Tynan, executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina.
Others like Wilson’s initiatives.
“You couldn’t have a better friend for crime victims,” said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council.
Wilson plays down criticism, saying his office’s positions follow the law as he sees it.
Anastopoulo says she is not bothered by the long odds that she faces to beat Wilson.
“That’s why we have elections,” Anastopoulo said. “It’s not up to the pollsters or the sheriffs to determine who the attorney general is going to be. ”
Still, Wilson’s political stances resonate with conservative S.C. voters, said University of South Carolina political scientist Robert Oldendick, who calls Wilson “the clear favorite.”
“He is an astute politician,” said Oldendick. “He has identified those types of issues that will certainly increase his popularity among the voters that he needs to win the election.”
Wilson also has other advantages, Oldendick added.
He is a Republican in a Republican state. He is the incumbent. And he has high name recognition — earned in his own right and inherited from his adoptive father, longtime U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Lexington.
‘You couldn’t indict me’
The ethical charges in play in the Wilson-Anastopoulo race go to the heart of the secretive, money-greased dynamics that have allowed major corporations and institutions to get their way in the S.C. General Assembly for years.
The state grand jury report, issued two weeks ago, focuses on one of the power centers behind those dynamics — the once-legendary, now-disgraced political operative Richard Quinn. Quinn’s political consulting and strategy firm, Richard Quinn & Associates, helped many powerful S.C. politicians get elected, almost all of them Republicans, including Wilson.
However, the state grand jury report also revealed RQ&A ran a secret lobbying operation for big S.C. businesses and institutions — from AT&T to Palmetto Health to SCANA to USC to the trial lawyers’ association — while also paying S.C. legislators, who did not disclose their financial ties to Quinn.
Wilson, a longtime RQA political client, had a close personal and professional relationship with Quinn. Because of his ties to Quinn, Wilson “impeded” the state grand jury’s two-year investigation into State House corruption, the grand jurors said in their report. Those Wilson-caused delays allowed the statute of limitations to run out “on a number of potential criminal charges against individuals and entities,” the state grand jury said.
Criminal indictments produced by the state grand jury have forced the resignations three veteran GOP legislators, who also pleaded guilty to misconduct. Two more former GOP legislators await trial.
Wilson, who has severed his Quinn ties, calls the grand jury report a “political smear,” saying it was orchestrated by special prosecutor David Pascoe, a Democrat.
Wilson appointed Pascoe as special prosecutor. But the Republican attorney general now says Pascoe used the position to manipulate the state grand jury into writing its report and releasing it, only weeks before the November election.
“You couldn’t indict me,” Wilson said this week of Pascoe. “You couldn’t fine me. So what do you do?
“You publish a report over stuff you couldn’t take legal action against,” said the attorney general, who derisively calls the grand jury’s report ”the Pascoe report.”
Neither Pascoe nor Anastopoulo are buying that.
“This is not my report,” responded Pascoe. “The state grand jury was a microcosm of South Carolina, made up of Republicans, Democrats and independents from all over the state. They took their job very seriously. What they did was a public service.”
Said Anastopoulo: “The state grand jury found ... Wilson was more loyal to the Quinn family than to his constituents who were his clients. That’s a failure.”
That failure, Anastopoulo added, inspired her to run for attorney general.
“As a litigator, a wife, a mother, a law professor, I really don’t need another job,” she said. But, she added, “Citizens deserve someone who is going to go to Columbia and clean up the culture of corruption.”
Wilson insists he is not soft on public corruption.
In the past eight years, his office has prosecuted three sheriffs; several lawmakers, including former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, R-Florence, and former state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston; and others, including a Berkeley County school superintendent.
Wilson prefers to speak about his own record rather than Anastopoulo.
But the S.C. Republican Party put out a press release showing the Democrat — now in her mid-50s — had two drunken-driving convictions in North Carolina in her early 20s.
That’s “pitiful” mudslinging, Anastopoulo said.
“If they have to go back 35 years to find something on me and not focus on what Alan Wilson is doing as the current attorney general, that’s pitiful. I’m focused on his dereliction of duty... If they didn’t think I was a serious threat, they wouldn’t try to sling all this mud.”
The positions of the two candidates on issues couldn’t be more different.
▪ Environmental regulation. Anastopoulo believes the conclusions of nearly all scientists that man-man climate change will bring catastrophic changes to the planet unless reversed and supports increased protections.
Wilson disagrees, using a talking point promoted by fossil fuel companies. “The science is all over the map on how long term those effects are and what the short-term and long-term effects are,” said the attorney general, whose positions generally favor business over the environment.
Gay rights. Anastopoulo believes sexual orientation is determined at birth and gay rights should be protected.
Wilson is less sure. “I do believe there are some people who are born that way,” he said, adding, “Whether it’s nurture or nature, to me it’s irrelevant. It’s what does the law say?’’ Gays can be discriminated against in certain situations if, for example, a Christian doesn’t want to bake wedding cakes for gay couples, Wilson says.
Gun control. Anastopoulo favors “reasonable gun-safety measures, including limiting the number of guns any individual can own. The Florence man charged with killing a police officer recently, for instance, had 129 guns. That is too many, Anastopoulo said.
Wilson favors minimal gun controls and has filed legal briefs arguing against state bans on assault rifles.
▪ Abortion. Anastopoulo is pro-choice, saying a woman’s decision to get an abortion should be left to “my partner, my doctor and me. I don’t believe it should be legislated by a bunch of guys in Columbia.”
Wilson says abortion is murder. “I am pro-life.”
‘Where has he been?’
As attorney general, Wilson oversees a $78 million-a-year budget (including federal grants Wilson distributes), a staff of 287, including 87 lawyers and 24 investigators, and thousands of civil and criminal legal actions each year.
Wilson says his $95,000-a-year salary as attorney general is “probably a tenth” of what someone running a similarly sized law firm would make.
“The private sector looks more and more appealing to me all the time,” said Wilson. But, he added, “I love this job.”
As attorney general, Wilson has sued major opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma for its alleged role in spreading opioid addiction and doing harm to South Carolinians.
He also has moved in court to declare unconstitutional the Base Load Review Act, which allowed SCANA to charge its customers billions of dollars to build two now-abandoned nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.
If elected, Anastopoulo says she, too, will crack down on opioid manufacturers.
She criticizes Wilson for taking legal action against SCANA only after it became obvious the utility’s failed nuclear expansion project was one of the biggest fiascoes in S.C. history.
“Where has he been for the last eight years? It (the Base Load Review Act) has been on the books since 2007.”
The two candidates for SC attorney general
Born: Roanoke, Va.
Education: University of Virginia, University of North Carolina law school
Family: Married to Akim Anastopoulo, Charleston lawyer; two children, 23 and 18
Occupation: Lawyer; ethics professor, Charleston School of Law
Hobbies: Running, outdoors activities, reading, college basketball
Last books read: “Supernormal” and “Y is for Yesterday”
Born: Fort Walters, Texas
Education: Francis Marion University, University of South Carolina law school
Family: Married to Jennifer Wilson, public relations manager, Lexington Medical Center; two children, 10 and 8
Occupation: Attorney general, also colonel in the S.C. National Guard
Hobbies: Running, being with his children, going to USC football games
Last book read: “Barron’s Dog Bible,” German shepherd section