Politics & Government

2 Republicans to run against Harpootlian in special SC Senate race

Christian Stegmaier, left, and Bill Turbeville
Christian Stegmaier, left, and Bill Turbeville

The race for a vacant Columbia-area state Senate seat is heating up, with two more candidates now joining the race.

Columbia attorney Christian Stegmaier said he will file Thursday to run for the District 20 seat, vacated by the resignation of GOP Sen. John Courson, who entered a guilty plea to an ethics charge. A Republican, Stegmaier will challenge former state Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian, who already has filed to seek the seat in November.

A second candidate, Columbia insurance agent Bill Turbeville, has filed an initial campaign expense report with the S.C. Ethics Commission showing a $20,000 personal loan to his campaign. Turbeville said Thursday he also plans to run for the seat as a Republican.

Both Stegmaier and Turbeville said they planned to run campaigns focusing on ethics, drawing a contrast with Courson, who resigned after pleading guilty to misconduct in office in the State House corruption probe.

"I believe an elected official has to be a servant of the people," said Stegmaier, a University of South Carolina graduate who heads the retail and hospitality practice at Columbia's Collins and Lacy law firm. "They are a trustee of the office they hold. There is no room for vanity or self-interest."

Turbeville notes that, as an insurance agent, he is required to complete an ethics course every year, something lawmakers are not required to do.

"The penalties need to be more severe" for ethics violations, said Turbeville, a Columbia native who attended USC and started the Turbeville Insurance Agency in Columbia in 1991. "If you have people who are consciously taking advantage of the system, they should not receive a slap on the wrist."

Because he doesn't have a political background, Turbeville thinks he would be better able to work with both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature.

"The majority of people want to take their child to a safe school where teachers have the opportunity to educate them, drive on safe roads and pay their bills without feeling like they're getting taken advantage of," Turbeville said.

Stegmaier said he supports legislative term limits, pledging to serve only six years if elected — the two years remaining in Courson's term plus a four-year term after the 2020 election. He also said he won't accept the per-diem payments available to state lawmakers or join the state retirement system.

"I won't even put a legislative license plate on the back of my car," said Stegmaier, who lives in the Chapin area in northwestern Richland County with his wife, Paige, and two daughters.

Stegmaier expects Harpootlian, a multimillionaire lawyer, will have a "well-funded" campaign. However, he added he cannot self-fund his own campaign. Instead, he's loaned his campaign $10,000 and will depend on "my fellow citizens' support as we talk about our message."

Harpootlian, in contrast, reported $142,000 in initial contributions to the S.C. Ethics Commission, including a $100,000 loan to his own campaign.

Money can have an impact on a special election. Ann Burch Smith, a retired Columbia schoolteacher who had planned to run for the seat as a Democrat, now says she won't file to seek the seat, doubting she could compete with Harpootlian.

If more than one candidate files for either party, primary elections will be held Aug. 14. Runoffs, if necessary, will be held Aug. 28. The election in District 20 — which stretches from the southern neighborhoods of Columbia to the northwest, along Interstate 26 into portions of Lexington County — will be held at the same time as this fall's general election on Nov. 6.

Filing for the seat remains open until noon on Saturday.