Politics & Government

Maverick Republican SC senator bucks industry, votes for environmental causes

State Sen. Tom Davis is a Republican from Beaufort County. He often backs environmental causes.
State Sen. Tom Davis is a Republican from Beaufort County. He often backs environmental causes.

If one thing distinguishes Tom Davis from many Republicans in the S.C. Senate, it’s his support for the environment in a state where big business is king.

A GOP senator from Beaufort County, Davis has fought against offshore oil drilling, pushed for solar-energy expansion, supported local bans on plastic bags and backed the public’s right to sue when a company hurts the environment.

Those are positions that don’t make many friends at some businesses, but they’re stances that environmentalists appreciate.

For his efforts, Davis was among a handful of legislators recognized this fall by the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, an environmental group whose mission is to champion eco-friendly lawmakers. The group honored Davis at its annual fund-raising banquet in September in Columbia.

Davis, a 58-year-old lawyer, said it is nice to be honored for a cause that he cares about. But Davis said he really is just reflecting the views of Lowcountry residents who want to preserve marshes, beaches and rivers.

“You live in this estuary and ecosystem down here that is very fragile,’’ Davis said. “If you live in Beaufort County, you have got a heightened awareness of what an individual and company’s actions have on the environment.’’

Davis , a Furman University graduate and one-time chief of staff to former Gov. Mark Sanford, isn’t the only Republican who backs environmental causes. But many in the Senate don’t often share the former Maryland native’s views on environmental issues

This past spring, for instance, the Legislature passed a bill making it harder for the public to sue a polluting industry for causing a nuisance in neighborhoods. The legislation was supported by the S.C. Manufacturers’ Alliance and other industrial interests, who said they were trying to protect the state’s pro-business environment.

Most Republicans — and a few Democrats — backed the bill. But Davis said he couldn’t understand why it would be good for South Carolina.

“Making it easier for companies to come in and operate in a way that impacts neighbors, I was opposed to that,’’ he said.

Other legislators recognized by the Conservation Voters were state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who filibustered for days in an effort to stop a bill to loosen chicken farm regulations; and state Rep. Peter McCoy, a Charleston Republican who led a legislative probe of the failed V.C. Summer nuclear power project.

The group also recognized longtime conservationist Angela Viney, a former director of the state Wildlife Federation and staffer at Upstate Forever.

The Conservation Voters group backs lawmakers in political races and lobbies for environmental bills in the Legislature. This past year, it endorsed Democrat James Smith of Columbia for governor.

The group’s annual fundraiser, held at 701 Whaley in Columbia, typically raises $50,000 to $100,000.