In the first televised debate of the GOP race for governor Wednesday, three of Gov. Henry McMaster's four challengers did their best to tie McMaster to State House corruption.
“His name is synonymous with State House corruption,” said Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton, thought to be McMaster’s strongest challenger in the June primary. “Henry McMaster has had the corrupt good ol’ boys on his payroll for the past 30 years.”
McMaster skipped the College of Charleston debate to campaign in Georgetown but could not escape a flurry of barbs about his relationship with his longtime, former political consultant, Richard Quinn, who was indicted last October as part of the ongoing State House corruption probe.
McMaster has not been charged with any wrongdoing or called to testify in the state grand jury's probe. He ended his three-decade-long consulting relationship with Quinn last May. But Templeton, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson and Greenville businessman John Warren were quick to highlight McMaster’s association with Quinn and his son, former state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington.
The younger Quinn pleaded guilty to one count of misconduct in office, accepting two years of probation and a $1,000 fine in a plea deal that saw charges dropped against his father.
“He’s part of the swamp, and we need to drain it,” Bryant said of McMaster. “We need to return this government to the taxpayer.”
Bryant went on to say the State House probe — being led by Democratic Solicitor David Pascoe — could be part of a conspiracy to elect a Democrat governor of the state for the first time in 20 years.
McMaster spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg fired back Wednesday night, saying, “It is ludicrous that a woman (Templeton) who has taken secret consulting contracts is calling into question the integrity of a man who has dedicated his entire life to prosecuting and locking up criminals on behalf of the people of South Carolina.”
“When (former S.C. Gov.) Nikki Haley wanted to take on ethics reform, she called on two people to lead the charge, and one was Henry McMaster. He created real ethics reform and has vowed to see every last recommendation implemented as governor.”
Former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill of Williamsburg was the only Republican not to take a swing at the governor, saying he did not know the specifics of special prosecutor David Pascoe’s State House corruption investigation and didn’t want to make an unfounded accusation.
“I don’t have the knowledge of what the prosecutor is doing,” McGill said after the debate. “I don’t have any clue of the relationship the governor had with the Quinns. I can just tell you that the public is looking for big answers.”
Much was made of McMaster’s absence from the debate.
Its organizers left a lectern vacant to highlight his no-show, and an ABC News 4 anchor started the event by saying the governor had declined repeated invitations to attend.
“He’s a failed governor,” said Warren. “He’s too afraid to even show up for a debate. He’s skipping three of five.”
McMaster has said he will attend only the two S.C. GOP-sponsored debates, one at Clemson University on May 24 and the other at the University of South Carolina on June 5.
The four candidates present struggled to stay within the one-minute time limits they were allotted to reply to a bevy of questions that touched on everything from the Interstate 526-Wando bridge closure to the recent prison riot and the “Me Too” movement.
They were unanimous that the state Department of Transportation should become a cabinet agency, which, they said, would give S.C. voters one person — the governor — to blame when roads are filled with potholes and bridges crumble.
They also agreed that S.C. power customers should not have to pay a dime more for the failed V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project, which has cost SCE&G and Santee Cooper power customers more than $2.5 billion dollars combined. McMaster shares that view, having threatened to veto any legislative proposal that does not block SCE&G from continuing to charge its customers for the unfinished reactors.
McMaster has at least a 20-point lead over the rest of the field, according to the most recent polls.