I WISH I COULD remember the moment, like I can so vividly with Henry McMaster, when I first became impressed by James Smith. I can’t.
I don’t have a store of great stories about him. I can’t even recall the first time I met him.
I covered the Legislature for eight years before he was elected to the House, but in my mind, Rep. Smith is just one of those people I’ve never not known and respected.
He has been a steady force in the Legislature. Someone who was always involved in the important fights, willing to take the lead or work quietly behind the scenes. Someone who offered pragmatic solutions, who rejected demagoguery and extremism, who worked easily and deliberately across party lines.
Even if I didn’t know this in my bones, I could tell by looking through the 59 columns and news articles where the names “James Smith” and “Scoppe” occur together in our archives. In fact, the two things that struck me when I did that archive search were that 1) I’ve only mentioned him in 59 pieces in 22 years and 2) I’ve never written a whole column about him.
Since I have written numerous, glowing columns about Mr. McMaster (which you can in the links below), I thought it was time I tell you a little more about the other candidate I like in this year’s race for governor.
Read my 1990 profiles of Henry McMaster:
And a column from 2010: Henry McMaster’s boundless optimism
The first member of Mr. Smith’s family I ever quoted was not Mr. Smith, but his mother. I ran into Nina Nelson Smith at my polling place with her sister, Elizabeth Adams — mother of Robert Adams, whom James Smith defeated that day to win the Shandon House seat. The three of us chatted about the race, and the family, and I wrote a few paragraphs about it for the next day’s paper. It was the only time I actually referred to Rep. Smith in print by the nickname his now-communications director Brad Warthen and I used privately throughout Brad’s time as The State’s editorial page editor: “young James.”
Mr. Smith had been in office nearly a year before I ever quoted him; clearly, I was impressed by then, because I chose to include him in an article about the difficulties legislators can have balancing their careers with serving in the Legislature. Here’s the part that referred to him:
Smith’s great-great-grandfather was a founding partner of the legal powerhouse Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. Young Smith took a job with the Columbia firm straight out of law school in 1995 and expected to spend his career there, as four generations of his family had.
But two of the firm’s senior partners are high-profile lobbyists, so running for the House meant Smith had to quit. By last September, campaigning had cut into his work so much he couldn’t afford to pay the bills and had to move his wife and three children in with his parents.
Because he wanted to concentrate on the House during his first year, it was June before Smith could focus on his new law practice. Earlier this month, he moved out of his parents’ house.
“I think that public service is something that’s not supposed to be easy, and it’s not supposed to be personally beneficial other than the reward of serving,” Smith said. “I think there are certain things about public service that should be about giving and sacrifices.”
If the term Boy Scout comes to mind, you’re not the first person to come away with that impression — sometimes admiringly, sometimes disdainfully. But that’s who he was then, and it’s who I’ve known since then.
I had planned for this to be the first in a series of columns about Mr. Smith and Mr. McMaster, but I ran out of time. One in that series would have been reviewing all the bills Mr. Smith has sponsored, and I’m sure I would have come across some I don’t like. But what sticks out in my mind, and what I’ve written about, is a lawmaker who has focused on improving public education, protecting the environment and promoting a wide variety of good-government initiatives — including many of my pet causes.
His main education focus, for many years, was establishing and then funding first half-day and then full-day kindergarten for poor kids. He fought vigorously against efforts to pay parents to send their kids to private school. I didn’t write much about him in this regard, but Rep. Smith was one of my sounding boards for the idea of bringing together the best ideas from the left and the right to improve school governance and public education. Unfortunately, that still hasn’t happened like it needs to.
Although then-Rep. Nikki Haley made a name for herself by protesting the voice votes on proposals to expand the obscene legislative pension system, she never proposed getting rid of the pensions; Mr. Smith was the first House member to actually put forward a plan to do that. (It failed … on a voice vote.)
He has worked since his first term to improve our ethics and campaign finance laws, often trying to plug loopholes that were undermining the laws’ reporting requirements. He was one of the handful of House members who worked with Attorney General Alan Wilson to fight off incessant efforts by Bobby Harrell’s friends to make it impossible to prosecute the powerful House speaker for misspending campaign funds.
When a judge struck down Richland County’s single-county law that merged the election and voter registration boards, and a follow-on lawsuit threatened to shut down most of the other county election agencies for the same reason, Mr. Smith helped lead the successful bipartisan effort to bring them back into compliance with the state constitution — and put the State Election Commission in charge of the autonomous county election directors.
He also was one of the few Democrats who worked to clean up problems at Richland County agencies controlled by Democrats, from the Election Commission to the Recreation Commission. He even represented the Republican-controlled state Revenue Department when it took the Richland County Council to court over its spending of transportation-penny sales tax revenue. Although he did that as a lawyer, not as a legislator, it was most certainly a political decision to take the case, and one that carried no small amount of political risk.
You might be noticing another theme here: bipartisanship. Granted, a Democrat who wants to accomplish anything in the S.C. House has to work cooperatively with Republicans, but a number of Democrats would rather fight than accomplish anything. Not Mr. Smith. He was so committed to bipartisanship that when I was looking for people to write for TheColumbiaRecord.com blog site back in 2005, he and Republican Rep. Ted Pitts asked if they could write a blog together, not as point-counterpoint crazies, but as friends and colleagues providing an “issues-based political dialogue.” Mr. Pitts later became Gov. Haley’s chief of staff and today runs the State Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Smith did serve as the House Democratic leader for two years early on, but he never mentioned that in his slim legislative biography. Indeed, the sorts of titles and honors that many legislators pile onto their legislative brag-aphies were stripped out of his in 2005 — right after he resigned his captain’s commission as a lawyer in the S.C. Army National Guard’s in order to join the infantry and, eventually, go off to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. But that’s a story for another day.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.