Wednesday, June 25, 2008

No Change

 Sample Image      A few new faces but no change ahead in the S.C. General Assembly

 In spite of all of the media hoopla about a few new faces in the General Assembly following  results of the recent primary elections, here’s what it really means to the entire legislative process:  Doodly-squat.  Here’s why:

Legislative leadership.  The state’s powerful legislative leaders, such as House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston), Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston), House Ways and Means Chair Dan Cooper (R-Anderson) and Senate Finance Committee Chair Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), will still be in place.  These are the folks who control the agenda.

Governor didn’t get enough wins.  Gov. Mark Sanford, who inserted himself into the primary election process by endorsing several GOP challengers who were running against incumbents, didn’t get enough wins to create anywhere near of a big enough bloc of loyalists to push his agenda.  The governor got a couple of more friends in the 170-member legislature, but they’ll be freshmen and have little real power.

Governor really a lame duck.  Because Sanford interjected himself into the process, many GOP legislators – particularly those targeted by Sanfordites – will have a bigger chip on their shoulder when it comes to the governor.  Instead of creating positive energy in the Statehouse, Sanford really cemented his status as a lame duck for the next two legislative sessions.
One senior lawmaker described the primary as the “Forrest Gump election” because the results were like a box of chocolates – “You never know what you’re going to get.”
Even though there won’t be a lot of wholesale change in the dynamics of the General Assembly due to the Tuesday primary, some interesting results emerged:

First black GOP rep.  Charleston County Council Chair Tim Scott of North Charleston won a three-way GOP race for a House seat.  Because Democrats didn’t put up a candidate, he’ll be the first black Republican House member since Reconstruction.

Senate changes.  Former Sanford Chief of Staff Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, beat incumbent Sen. Catherine Ceips, R-Beaufort, in a mean primary where all the gloves were off.  In Spartanburg, a newcomer with business ties to NASCAR, Shane Martin, polled first in a three-way GOP race against incumbent Jim Ritchie, who finished a distant second.  And in Lexington County, a GOP runoff is set between populist Sen. Jake Knotts and Sanford-backed Katrina Shealy.  If Ritchie and Knotts don’t prevail, the Senate might be slightly more Sanford-friendly, but as highlighted above, it won’t make much difference.

House changes.  Republicans are expected to continue to have a 20-seat advantage over Democrats next year, but on Tuesday, some of the Republican players changed, particularly in the Upstate where local politics seemed to dictate one conservative replacing another.  Many were surprised by primary losses of Reps. Bob Walker, who chairs the House Education and Public Works Committee, and Ralph Davenport, both of Spartanburg.  In Greenville, activist Wendy Nanney bested Rep. Gloria Haskins and Simpsonville businessman Bill Wylie outpolled Rep. Bob Leach.  And Greenville City Council member Chandra Dillard beat six-term incumbent Rep. Fletcher Smith in a Democratic primary.  Two Upstate lawmakers targeted by Sanfordites – Reps. Bill Sandifer of Oconee County and B.R. Skelton of Pickens County – survived primary challenges. 
Since gerrymandering of House and Senate district lines more than 10 years ago, what’s happened in state legislative electioneering is that the real battles for change come during primaries, not at the general election.
Because many districts were redrawn in the mid-1990s to be solidly Republican or Democratic, a newcomer who wants to play has to take out the incumbent and the best place to do that is the primary when fewer voters participate.  By the time the general election comes in November, the natural GOP or Democratic demographics in each district will tend to take the preferred party’s candidate to victory.
Some say more vigorous primary elections are good for democracy.  But when the other party’s voters don’t participate in the primary, their impact is effectively marginalized, which seems to make elected officials more partisan. 
Perhaps the best way to deal with the whole mess is to have a non-partisan commission redraw district lines.  But the chance of state lawmakers giving up that power is the same as the primary’s ultimate impact on the S.C. legislative process:  Doodly-squat.

Andy Brack, publisher of S.C. Statehouse Report, can be reached at:


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