Opinion Extra

Lourie: What I learned in 17 years in the SC Legislature

SC Sen Joel Lourie speaks at a rally to support Emma's Law, which increased penalties for drunken drivers and required repeat offenders to have ignition interlock devices installed in their vehicles.
SC Sen Joel Lourie speaks at a rally to support Emma's Law, which increased penalties for drunken drivers and required repeat offenders to have ignition interlock devices installed in their vehicles. tglantz@thestate.com

In the 17 years I have had the privilege of representing the citizens of Richland and Kershaw counties, one of the most important things I have learned is what a difference our citizens can make in improving our state.

Some of the most important changes we’ve accomplished were the result of private, everyday citizens who came to the State House to advocate and plea for support.

There were Lisa and Mike Strebler, who lost their son Jacob in a tragic 15-passenger-van accident in 1994. Through their tireless and emotional advocacy, we were able to pass Jacob’s Law in 2000, which banned the use of these vehicles to transport children.

There were the angels for autism, Lorri Unumb, Lisa Rollins and Marcella Ridley. These moms came to the State House regularly in 2006 and 2007 and worked tirelessly to help pass Ryan’s Law, one of the most comprehensive autism insurance coverage laws in the country.

Most recently, it was David and Karen Longstreet, a wonderful family who lost their precious 6-year-old daughter, Emma, on New Year’s Day in 2012 in an automobile accident caused by a repeat DUI offender. For the next two years, they planted themselves at the State House and helped pass Emma’s Law, which substantially toughened penalties and required ignition interlock machines for DUI repeat offenders.

These are just three examples of what the legislative process can be all about: citizens working with legislators of both parties to bring about positive change for our state. For me, these were life-changing experiences, and I am grateful for being able to contribute.

I have been privileged to work on so many important issues, including seat belts, the cigarette tax, a nuclear waste ban, child protection, payday lending and alcohol and tobacco prevention for teenagers. Our greatest successes came when both Democrats and Republicans worked together and found common ground for the good of our state.

One of the most powerful examples of this unfolded over the past two months. What happened at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston changed us all, and showed that sometimes, when there is complete darkness and madness, there can also be light and hope. We saw a tragedy that was impossible to comprehend: the loss of nine innocent people, in a church, among them a longtime friend and colleague, Sen. Clementa Pinckney. We witnessed how incredibly the families of the victims and the overall community responded, and then, with great intensity and speed, we came together and removed the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.

When I first ran for the House in 1998, I talked about the need for independent and less partisan leadership. These recent events demonstrate how much more we can do when we all put our heads together, respect one another and put all the partisan rhetoric aside for the good of South Carolina. This was one of those rare times that happened, and I want to believe there will be many more.

However, soon this responsibility will fall on a new senator. After 17 years of service, and with much personal reflection and consultation from family and close friends, I have decided that next year will be my last in the Senate. I will not seek re-election.

I enjoy serving in the Senate and working for the betterment of our state. Every day is an adventure, and to be part of it is truly exhilarating. However, I never intended to stay in office for 25 or 30 years. I have great respect for those who do, but there are other things I would like to do in my life, both personally and professionally.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to serve my community and look forward to my final year of service. I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to the people of Richland and Kershaw counties for having the confidence and trust in me to be your voice of reason at the State House. I love my state, and I will always look for ways to give back and make it better.

Contact Sen. Lourie at jlourie@lourieconsulting.com.