Politics & Government

Will McMaster’s, Smith’s ties to Quinn hurt them in governor’s race?

Who will be SC’s next governor? Here’s what you need to know

Henry McMaster and James Smith are the two candidates for South Carolina Governor in the 2018 midterm elections on November 6.
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Henry McMaster and James Smith are the two candidates for South Carolina Governor in the 2018 midterm elections on November 6.

Both major candidates in South Carolina’s governor’s race have ties to Richard Quinn, the longtime Columbia consultant whose political kingmaker image has been shattered by an investigation into State House corruption.

But Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic state Rep. James Smith, both of Columbia, said Wednesday they had no involvement in pay-for-influence schemes the state grand jury says Quinn orchestrated in the General Assembly.

“(The Quinns) were (a) campaign consultant and helped with advertisements and political consulting, and that’s all,” McMaster told reporters Wednesday when asked about the state grand jury’s report, released Tuesday.

Smith was mentioned three times in the grand jury report, including one email in which Quinn, who normally consulted for GOP political candidates, referred to Smith and another Democrat as “friends” of his firm’s “team” and another where Quinn’s son — former House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, R-Lexington — was instructed to speak with Smith about a possible state agency board appointment.

Smith’s campaign said Wednesday the Columbia attorney wasn’t involved in the meetings and plans discussed in those emails.

Asked if he ever saw the Quinns do anything that made him uncomfortable, Smith replied: “No. Never. Not once.

“I’ve never been involved in their business. I’m grateful to have great deal many friends in the General Assembly on both sides of the aisle,” Smith said. “Former Rep. Quinn and I worked on a number of issues together. ... We did a number of bipartisan initiatives that were very, very positive for our state. But I have not been involved at all in the sense of whoever they represented and have not been involved in any of those meetings.”

Questions about the Quinns dogged the two candidates during the primary races earlier this year.

McMaster’s GOP primary opponents called him a corrupt good ol’ boy, noting Quinn had been his top political consultant since 1993, including two terms as state attorney general and one as lieutenant governor.

During the Democratic primary, Smith opponents blasted the Columbia attorney for his friendship with Rick Quinn, who resigned and pleaded guilty to misconduct in office last year.

However, political pundits don’t expect those ties to become kryptonite for either candidate in November’s election.

The State House corruption investigation’s findings are inside baseball to average S.C. voters, they say, and since both sides have had relationships with the Quinns, neither will want to throw stones on the issue.

“Their relationships cancel each other out,” said Amanda Alpert Loveday, former executive director of the S.C. Democratic Party. “If there were any other candidate on one side or the other, it would become a campaign talking point. But it’s not going to now.”

Rob Godfrey, a Columbia communications strategist, said the grand jury report’s findings will be just “white noise” over the next month as the two candidates push issue-based platforms with TV and digital ads.

“The people of South Carolina care about issues like this when indictments come down, when people go to trial and people end up going to jail,” said Godfrey, the chief spokesman on McMaster’s 2010 gubernatorial run. “But that’s not the case for anybody who is on the ballot. The people on the ballot are well-known commodities and well-known not to have done anything wrong throughout this process. All the grand jury report did was confirm that.”

The report mentioned McMaster only in passing, noting the Richland Republican was among a stable of powerful S.C. lawmakers under Quinn’s wing.

Still, McMaster has taken steps to distance himself from Quinn’s firm. He broke ties with Quinn in April 2017 and replaced him with former Nikki Haley strategist Tim Pearson. After Quinn’s indictment last year, Pearson said McMaster’s campaign wasn’t worried because the governor is “squeaky clean.”

The Richland Republican said Wednesday he was not aware or involved of any of the Quinn schemes alleged by the grand jury.

However, the governor’s chief of staff, Trey Walker, was mentioned in the report in connection with his role as a former lobbyist for the University of South Carolina.

Emails attached to the report show Quinn and Walker emailed to discuss providing the university’s legislative and budget priorities to Quinn and asking him to assemble his legislative “team” to discuss them.

Walker has said he participated in the probe only as a witness, and that neither he nor McMaster are targets of the investigation.

The governor Wednesday called for state lawmakers to strengthen S.C. ethics laws to require more transparency from special interests that lobby the Legislature and to give more teeth to the State Ethics Commission, which investigates ethics complaints.

Smith is featured slightly more in the grand jury report. Emails attached to the report show that when Quinn set up a 2015 meeting between SCANA executives and a “team” of legislators in his orbit, he asked if two of their Democratic “friends” — Smith and state Rep. Beth Bernstein of Columbia — should come along.

Six months earlier, Smith’s name was mentioned on an emailed to-do list for Rep. Quinn, who was supposed to speak with Smith as part of the Quinn firm’s effort to facilitate the sale of the Charleston School of Law, according to the grand jury report.

Smith said he never attended the meeting with the SCANA executives — or any other meeting between Quinn and his corporate clients. Also, Smith did nothing to support Infilaw’s attempted purchase — later abandoned — of the Charleston law school, his campaign said.

“He would not do anything to facilitate that purchase because Infilaw is a for-profit company, and that acquisition would have devalued the degrees for all who graduated from that institution,” said Brad Warthen, Smith’s campaign spokesman.

Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks; Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83