Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: A fresh new face

AGRICULTURE Commissioner Charlie Sharpe. Treasurer Thomas Ravenel. And now Lt. Gov. Ken Ard. Dick Harpootlian says the common thread of our criminal constitutional officers is their political party. A “long ten-year history of criminal conduct on the part of the Republican Party’s officials,” he calls it.

Of course that’s what you’d expect the chairman of the state Democratic Party to say.

A less partisan view suggests that the numbers alone explain why all three statewide officials whom three Republican prosecutors indicted in the past eight years were Republicans: If you toss an indictment into a roomful of S.C. politicians, you’ll probably hit a Republican. If the room is filled with statewide officeholders, you certainly will.

But there is another common thread, which does help explain our political crime wave: We didn’t know these people.

Mr. Ravenel had never run for office before he was elected our state’s top money manager. Mr. Ard had held only a local office, well outside the state’s political and media centers. Mr. Sharpe had served in the House for years, but he was a low-key, loyal foot soldier who was never watched closely and who ran for an office that was watched even less closely.

Once they filed, they weren’t properly vetted, so we still didn’t know them when we elected them.

As much as our dysfunctional political system makes us long for fresh new faces, drives us into the arms of “outsiders” untainted by politics, the harsh reality is that when we elect people we don’t know anything about, we increase our odds of winding up with someone we wish we hadn’t elected. It’s sort of like marrying someone after the first date. It might turn out fine. And it might not.

Voters aren’t the only ones to blame. As a veteran Republican political consultant was quick to remind me this week, we in the media have done an inadequate job of digging into the background, character and campaign activities of the candidates. Even as the blogosphere has exponentially expanded the commentary on elections, the contraction of the mainstream media has decreased the number of people whose job it is to research and write about politics in our state, using facts rather than rumors and innuendo.

In a state that wasn’t so dominated by one political party, the parties would take up some of the slack. Lacking that, though, there are ways to help the media, or somebody, do a better job of vetting the candidates.

The easiest is to move the party primaries from June to August or September.

Political reporters (and, yes, editorial writers) have to keep up with the vitally important, hectic and confusing final weeks of the annual legislative session while covering the campaigns. Inevitably, something gets short shrift; usually, it’s the elections. So voters don’t get as many candidate profiles, or as much examination of the candidates’ records and promises, or truth-squadding of campaign advertisements, which means high-priced distortions go unchallenged by any independent entity. Delaying the primaries to late summer would not only provide two more months of reporting but provide them at the time of year when journalists are starving for news.

Unfortunately, candidates for treasurer, agriculture commissioner and lieutenant governor probably won’t ever get fully investigated — except by prosecutors — because the jobs are so boring. These are not policy-making positions. These are not positions whose occupants are called upon to make discretionary decisions, or need to be able to act independently. They are not, in fact, offices whose occupants we should be electing.

The main reason we shouldn’t elect the lieutenant governor and treasurer and agriculture commissioner — or the education superintendent, adjutant general, secretary of state or comptroller general — is that we elect a governor to run the executive branch of government. She can’t very well do that when eight departments of the executive branch — including the largest one, education — are run by people over whom she has no control.

But having all those independently elected statewide officers also dilutes the attention of the media, and of voters. The more of them we have to elect, the less attention each race, and each candidate, receives. And, again, for no good reason.

Imagine how much more we’d all be able to focus on the race for governor and attorney general, and U.S. Senate, if our attention wasn’t diverted by all those people competing for the right to run state agencies or act as governor-in-waiting. We might even have time to pay attention to the people who hope to actually run our state. You know, legislators — two of whom are currently awaiting trial on criminal charges.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com.

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