SC House lawmaker says he is endorsing Tom Steyer for president

South Carolina House Rep. Russell Ott says he is publicly endorsing billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer for president Friday — but not for money.

The public announcement will unfold a day after Steyer’s campaign denied allegations reported Thursday by the Associated Press that a Steyer aide in Iowa offered campaign cash in exchange for endorsements.

Early Thursday, Ott told The State he had not heard of the Iowa dust up and he had already made his decision to back Steyer.

The moderate Democrat from Calhoun County said he plans to announce his support for Steyer’s 2020 bid Friday morning, when Steyer visits Ott’s district for a press conference at the Calhoun County Public Library in St. Matthews.

“I think he’s a really good guy at the end of the day,” Ott told The State. “I’ve gotten to know him over the last month and a half, and he seems to be a type of candidate that I can relate to. I’m not this ultra-left wing type of candidate. I always take a more moderate approach, and I am someone that prides myself on being able to listen and work with anyone. I think that Tom brings a more pragmatic approach, and I think that is what is going to appeal to a broad range of voters in November 2020. He clearly has staying power.”

Ott said he has never endorsed a presidential candidate but was drawn to back Steyer.

“This speaks volumes to how important this election is,” Ott said. “I gave great thought to sitting on the sidelines. But, at the end, my conscious wouldn’t allow me to do that. I think it’s too important to sit this one out. We should stand up and be accounted for.”

One of Ott’s House colleagues, state Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, has already joined the Steyer campaign as a paid senior adviser. Govan is the chairman of the House Legislative Black Caucus.

When asked by The State whether he would ever join Steyer’s campaign in a paid role, Ott said he has no plans to do so for now, but that he wants to help the campaign however he can.

“I don’t know what that looks like in the future,” Ott said.

Ott told The State it was difficult for him to speculate on an eyebrow raising Associated Press report Thursday that said a top aide to Steyer’s Iowa campaign — former Iowa state House Speaker Pat Murphy — had privately offered campaign contributions to area politicians in exchange for supporting Steyer’s presidential bid.

Ott said that Steyer, like any of the other Democratic presidential hopefuls, hire hundreds of people across the country, making it difficult for a candidate to keep tabs on every single staffer.

“Look, at the end of the day he (Steyer) has given to campaigns, and you can’t fault a guy for wanting to support a candidate that he wants to support,” Ott said. “The campaign made very clear that they are not trying to buy any support. That was an unequivocal answer from the (AP) story itself.”

Alberto Lammers, Steyer’s campaign press secretary, said Murphy was not authorized to make the offers and that the campaign leadership outside of Iowa was unaware that he was doing so until the issue was raised by The Associated Press.

Lammers, Steyer’s campaign press secretary, said the candidate hasn’t made any individual contributions to local officials in Iowa and won’t be making any this year. In an email, Lammers said Steyer’s endorsements “are earned because of Tom’s campaign message,” and distanced the candidate from Murphy.

“Our campaign policy is clear that we will not engage in this kind of activity, and anyone who does is not speaking for the campaign or does not know our policy,” Lammers said.

This latest controversy in Steyer’s campaign follows another first reported by The Post and Courier of Charleston.

An aide to Steyer in South Carolina resigned this month after accessing volunteer data that was collected by opponent U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.