Two Lower Richland natives with deep family roots in the community are vying to fill the shoes of a 13-year Richland County Councilman who leaves behind a mixed reputation going into Tuesday’s election.
Democrat Chakisse Newton, who defeated Councilman Norman Jackson in the summer primary, will face Republican Zoe Pruitt Owen on the Nov. 6 ballot for Richland County Council District 11.
The election winner will join an often divided council that has struggled to maintain order at times in a rocky year that saw the controversial departure of county administrator Gerald Seals.
District 11’s three-term councilman, Jackson, was one of the driving forces behind Seals’ ouster and has been one of the county’s strongest voices for directing resources to Lower Richland, a vast swath of mostly rural communities that often have expressed feeling ignored by county leaders. But Jackson also has been a controversial figure attached to a number of ethical controversies.
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With the shadow of Jackson over the election — and an unabashed write-in campaign staged by persistent Jackson supporters — Newton and Owen hope to force new directions on council.
“It’s not (Jackson’s) seat. It’s the people’s seat,” Newton said.
““If the right people come on board, we can get this council to have a completely different look and feel in very little time,” Owen said.
She defeated Jackson; can she win the seat?
In her first run for office, Newton handily defeated Jackson in June’s Democratic primary.
To Newton, a 43-year-old marketing and public relations professional and owner of Cardinal Consulting, the primary results signaled that Lower Richland residents are ready for change.
She made the jump into local politics after growing frustrated with the national “political climate,” she said.
“I realize that while so many people are paying attention to what’s happening nationally, they’re taking their eyes off the prize locally,” Newton said. “The more I saw what was happening with Richland County and District 11, the more concerned I got. Once I embraced it as my problem, I realized that somebody needed to do something about it, and it should be me.”
County Council needs “more collegiality, more collaboration (and) a diversity of experiences” to work more effectively and be a “more attractive representation of our county,” Newton said.
If elected, Newton said she would work to improve accountability and transparency in county spending, be involved in the process of hiring a new county administrator, make sure county policies and procedures are followed, concentrate on infrastructure and quality of life issues in District 11, and talk to residents about the environment they want to create in Lower Richland.
“One of the problems on Richland County Council is people talk about what we don’t want, but County Council has the power to shape the policies for what you do want,” Newton said. “Is it going to be easy? No. Will people disagree? Yes. But the work is us coming together and finding that middle ground together.
‘There’s something amiss’ on County Council
Owen, a 47-year-old substitute teacher and businesswoman, will bring a fresh perspective and attention to policies and procedures if elected to County Council, she said.
“I just felt like the Lord was laying it on my heart that I had to do this,” Owen said.
As a Republican running in a traditionally Democratic district in a largely Democratic county, Owen said she’s seen a lot of good in Jackson’s representation of District 11.
But the overall decorum and reputation of County Council concerns her, Owen said.
“It seems like the way it’s been going, there’s something amiss. There’s something not right” on County Council, Owen said. “If a lot of people don’t seem to be acting right, maybe there needs to be some policy and procedure changes.”
Stepping onto council, Owen said her immediate focuses would include understanding and educating the full council on county rules, addressing environmental issues in Lower Richland such as the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant leak and trash along roadways, addressing road needs and examining the budget for the transportation penny sales tax program.
“The money is not getting to where it’s supposed to,” Owen said of the transportation penny program.
The shadow of Norman Jackson
Jackson has led efforts for county-provided sewer, tourism and recreational development and a medical facility in Lower Richland, among other projects.
But his efforts to pour resources into Lower Richland also have come under ethical scrutiny, including his role in a possibly illegal land purchase at Pinewood Lake Park and his political patronage of financially questionable organizations including the Pinewood Lake Park Foundation and Second Chance Afterschool Learning Environment (also known as SCALE).
Jackson also is one of two council members who double charged county taxpayers for hundreds of dollars in expenses in the past year, The State newspaper reported this month.
Jackson also was one of the driving forces behind the controversial firing of county administrator Seals earlier this year.
Despite the controversies that have been attached to Jackson, and despite his defeat in June’s Democratic primary against Newton, some residents of Lower Richland have been promoting him as a write-in candidate for the District 11 seat. Roadside signs throughout the district and paper fliers have urged voters to write-in Jackson on their ballots.
The S.C. Democratic Party has filed a temporary restraining order against Jackson for campaigning, according to party spokesperson Saloni Sharma.