Politics & Government

Who might be the next SC state senator in race to replace Courson?

Suspended senator John Courson pleads guilty to common law misconduct in office

Sen. John Courson, 72, R-Richland, was charged with criminal conspiracy and statutory misconduct in office. During court proceedings Courson pleaded guilty to common law misconduct in office.
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Sen. John Courson, 72, R-Richland, was charged with criminal conspiracy and statutory misconduct in office. During court proceedings Courson pleaded guilty to common law misconduct in office.

The resignation of longtime Sen. John Courson on Monday has some Columbia Democrats looking at potentially flipping the Midlands Senate seat from the GOP in a special election.

Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, a Democrat, says he is "seriously considering" running for Courson's seat. Meanwhile, a Republican state representative declined to say whether he might enter the race.

A former chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, Harpootlian would follow a Republican who has held the seat since 1984.

He could be joined in the race by Ann Burch Smith, a retired Columbia schoolteacher who says she wants to focus on education and women's issues.

Courson resigned after pleading guilty to official misconduct charges in the long-running State House corruption investigation, triggering a special election later this year.

Harpootlian signaled some of the issues he would run on in speaking with The State Monday. The longtime former prosecutor — now engaged in a legal battle to close several Five Points bars — said, as a state senator, he would work to make the Legislature more efficient with a shorter session.

Lawmakers spend most of the current five-month session enjoying themselves for three days at a time in Columbia, Harpootlian said.

"They waste a lot of time," Harpootlian said. "Those of us in private business, we'd go broke if we approached our job like the Legislature. I just don't know that they accomplish anything."

Smith says she was frustrated by the lack of representation she had in the Legislature this year due to Courson's suspension.

Smith, who previously taught in Richland District 1 and worked with the S.C. Department of Education, said she would have wanted to participate in a lengthy Senate filibuster against a proposed abortion ban. That ban fell one vote short of passage in the Senate.

"It's important for women to have their say-so on health care and reproductive rights," Smith said. "A woman's viewpoint can be very valuable.

"Men often don't understand women or even children. I've given birth to children."

The attorney has been in the news most recently for representing several neighbors who lives near Columbia's Five Points entertainment district in their quest to close the Roost and its sister establishment, the Rooftop Bar, over concerns about illegal behavior late at night, and accusations the bars don't serve enough food to meet the legal requirement for a venue to serve alcohol.

An administrative law judge ruled in his favor in April, a decision that could impact other bars in Five Points and beyond.

Harpootlian said his recent scuffle with the S.C. Department of Revenue over enforcing state laws governing bars has pushed him closer to running, a decision he said he would make over the next two weeks.

"They've basically conceded that they're not going to enforce the law," Harpootlian said. "That typifies what you see with a lot of state government. There's no accountability. State government has forgotten who hires them, and that's the citizens, the voters."

Another potential candidate for the seat, state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, declined to speculate on a possible run. Ballentine faces a primary challenge for his S.C. House seat next week.

"Like many others, I am saddened by the events of the day," Ballentine said of Courson's resignation. "The fact remains that I am in a primary election fight for the State House, and all of my focus and interests are on that race. Any speculation on the Senate seat will have to wait till a later date."

Senate District 20 stretches from the southern neighborhoods of Columbia to the northwestern corner of Richland County, including some communities in the northeastern part of Lexington County.

Filing for candidates to succeed Courson will be open from June 22 to June 30 — after the June 12 primary. Any potential runoff elections — on June 26 — will fall in the middle of the filing period.

Party primaries for the Senate special election will take place on Aug. 14, with voters choosing a new senator during this fall's regular election on Nov. 6.

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