Politics & Government

Dick Harpootlian thinks the SC Legislature is incompetent. So he's running for Senate

Former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian applauds during the South Carolina Democratic Party 2015 Dem Weekend at the Columbia Convention Center.
Former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian applauds during the South Carolina Democratic Party 2015 Dem Weekend at the Columbia Convention Center.

Dick Harpootlian is fed up with the S.C. Legislature.

So the sharp-tongued former S.C. Democratic Party chairman is running for the state Senate, saying he wants to fix what he sees as legislative incompetence.

The multimillionaire Columbia trial lawyer and former prosecutor will announce his campaign officially Thursday for the Senate's District 20 seat, vacated by the resignation of Republican John Courson. Harpootlian told The State he will run on a platform that calls for eliminating special pay perks for part-time legislators, shortening the legislative session and requiring lawmakers’ email records to be available publicly.

Beer conferences, fit bits and "peace pipes" - SC lawmakers received gifts, trips and meals from big businesses in 2016 worth over a quarter million dollars.

Harpootlian also said he would file a bill to require jail time for S.C. lawmakers convicted of corruption. He said he would let S.C. voters know when their legislators — who he says spend more time enjoying themselves in Columbia than tackling issues — vote against his proposals.

“They’re incompetent. They are distracted. They’re not focused on doing the public’s business,” Harpootlian said of the Legislature.

Harpootlian said he made up his mind to run for the state Senate only after lawmakers failed to pass the 2018-19 budget, which takes effect July 1, before the end of their regular session in early May, pushing the issue to a special meeting later this month. “In my opinion," he said, "we have too many people who come to Columbia in the Legislature whose No. 1 priority is not doing good for the public but getting re-elected.”

Harpootlian is the first candidate to announce for the special election to replace former Senate Education Committee chairman Courson, a Richland Republican who resigned on June 4 and entered a guilty plea to a corruption charge as part of an ongoing State House investigation.

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.

District 20 stretches from downtown Columbia to the Irmo-Ballentine-Chapin area. The district has been redrawn in recent years to increase the probability of a Republican winning it.

Harpootlian said he already has raised $142,000, including $100,000 of his own cash, for the race. “I’m going to spend whatever it takes to get my message out,” said Harpootlian, a former Richland County councilman and solicitor who backed Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

Candidates can’t officially file for the seat until June 22.

No Republicans publicly have thrown their hat into the ring, though state Rep. Nathan Ballentine is said to be interested in the seat, held by Courson since 1985.

Reached Wednesday about his interest, the Richland Republican — fresh off an outright victory in his House GOP primary Tuesday — said he would “talk it over with family and friends next week."

“Whatever I do, I want to be sure we always have representation in Columbia.”

Retired Columbia school teacher Ann Burch Smith also has expressed interest in running for the seat as a Democrat.

Friends describe the ever-quotable Harpootlian as a shrewd hell-raiser who would make his mark in the Senate.

“When he digs in on something, in Fairfield County, we’d say he’s like a snapping turtle,” said Boyd Brown, a Fairfield Democrat who was in the S.C. House during Harpootlian’s second stint as Democratic Party chairman. “Once he catches onto something, he doesn’t let go. … If you’re in a sparring contest, you don’t want to be in the opposite corner of Dick Harpootlian.”

Former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble remembers being on Richland County Council with Harpootlian in the late 1980s. During one debate, Coble said: “He turned to me, and he said, ‘Watch this,’ and he proceeded to throw a hand grenade into the whole thing. I’ve been 'watching this' ever since."

Over the years, Harpootlian's shoot-first mentality and quick wit have tickled supporters and irked rivals.

In 2012, as chairman of the state Democratic Party, Harpootlian refused to apologize after comparing Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun.

In 2001, during his first reign as party chairman, Harpootlian said then-U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham was “a little too light in the loafers” to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. Harpootlian later said he had no idea the phrase often refers to someone who is gay, pushing back after Graham accused him of slander.

During Harpootlian’s 1986 County Council run, a reporter quoted him as saying he didn’t want to buy the black vote; he just wanted to rent it for a day.

“If nothing else, Dick Harpootlian will be entertainment,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who leads the Senate's GOP caucus, which supports Republican candidates for the Senate. “He’s always wanting to seek the limelight, and this is one way to stay in the headlines.”

Harpootlian said he won’t change, adding he has carried the African-American vote in each of his elections. He pointed to his record as 5th Circuit solicitor as proof that he is capable of more than turning a phrase, noting he put serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins in the electric chair and prosecuted former University of South Carolina president Jim Holderman for corruption.

“Most folks understand that I have a sense of humor and, to the extent that I feel compelled to say something that I think is funny, I’ll continue to do that,” he said.

Harpootlian knows his ethics proposals would be a tough sell in the Legislature, where many similar efforts have died.

"But they will be popular with the public," he said. "If the bill gets killed in committee, there are voters. There’s got to be a vote somewhere. I will make sure that the constituents of those different legislators understand what their legislator did.”

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Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.