The candidates running to be South Carolina’s next governor found some common ground Friday but clashed when it came to tariffs, selling the state-owned Santee Cooper utility and whether new gun-control laws are needed.
The two major party candidates — Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic state Rep. James Smith — answered questions at a Spartanburg forum hosted by the S.C. Economic Developers’ Association.
Asked to say something nice about Smith, McMaster called the Democrat “a good man from a very nice family,” whose military service he respects. But, the Republican added, he and Smith have “stark disagreements” on political issues.
Similarly, Smith said McMaster “is a good man who deeply cares about our state. We just have different views.”
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Those differences Include their views on the risks and harm posed to South Carolina’s export-reliant economy by tariffs imposed by the administration of Republican President Donald Trump, a McMaster ally.
McMaster stressed — again — that state and business leaders must be patient and let trade negotiations play out. “Don’t be hasty in too much doom and gloom” over Trump’s tariffs, he advised. McMaster said the president needs time to negotiate favorable international trade deals, noting a recently concluded U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
The governor, too, cited success in getting an exemption from Trump’s tariffs for Fairfield County TV maker Element Electronics.
Element made national news in August after it blamed Trump’s tariffs on imported Chinese components, used in its TVs, for its decision to close and lay off 126 workers. However, Element last month told local officials it would keep its Winnsboro plant open after receiving a critical exemption from the latest tariffs.
“We’ve been in contact with the administration on that,” McMaster said. “We have to work and guide and provide facts as much as we can. And I’m working with our congressional delegation to do that to make sure we do not hurt South Carolina businesses.”
Smith criticized McMaster for not taking a more active role in opposing the “job-killing tariffs” of his ally, President Trump.
“I will make it abundantly clear to this administration of the harms it does to this state … and not say, ‘Have patience. It will all work out,’ ” he said. “It’s not about patience but leadership … and caring more about South Carolina’s (economic) future than your political future.”
The two found a rare point of agreement on the topic of the environment. Both voiced opposition to offshore energy exploration for oil and gas along South Carolina’s coastline, also proposed by the Trump administration.
On energy policy, the governor has said he wants to sell the state-owned Santee Cooper utility — which supplies electricity to more than 2 million South Carolinians, directly and indirectly — to pay off its debt from the failed V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project.
Smith opposes selling the utility, saying it is an important economic development tool for the state. But, he added, “It should be more efficient and leverage the resources it has to explore renewable and more efficient energy.”
On school safety and gun violence, McMaster pledged to put a school resource officer in every S.C. public school — a move that would require legislative approval and could cost the state more than $40 million a year.
McMaster asked lawmakers to spend $5 million to hire armed guards last year. He intensified that push after the Valentine’s Day shooting in a Parkland, Fla., high school, saying at his March school-safety summit that every S.C. school should have a resource officer.
The Legislature, ultimately, approved $2 million to hire officers. Lawmakers also OK’d spending $15 million on school security. However, hundreds of S.C. schools still do not have resource officers.
“We need to enforce the laws vigorously about guns,” McMaster said. “There’s a mental health (component) to this as well. And we made some progress on that by allocating money in my executive budget.”
Smith said he is part of a legislative effort to hire resource officers for every school by 2020 and put a mental health counselor in every school by 2022.
He said he also opposes “constitutional carry” gun legislation in South Carolina, saying allowing someone to walk around brandishing an AR-15 does not promote a sense of community. He also wants to close a loophole in federal gun law that says the sale of a firearm can proceed if, after three days, a background check has not been completed. That loophole allowed Dylann Roof to buy a gun used in the 2015 Charleston church massacre.
“We can do better making sure that guns stay out of the hands of those that shouldn’t have them,” Smith said. “There are reasonable steps that can be taken and ought to be taken.”
The election is Nov. 6.