Joe McEachern, H77, Democratic

Thursday, 10:00 a.m.: No. 3 of 55 interviews I’ll be doing before the June primary.

Joe McEachern is a member of Richland County Council, and the former chairman of that body. He is challenging Rep. John Scott for the Democratic nomination in District 77 of the S.C. House.

We have endorsed Mr. McEachern for council twice in the past, in 2000 and 2004. He has been a great improvement over councilwoman Gwen Kennedy, of Hawaii-junket fame, whom he replaced in 1997.

Although we disagree with him on many issues, we have endorsed Mr. Scott in all but his last election, because he has had such weak opponents.

Mr. McEachern is a straightforward sort of man who goes his own way, as his fellow council members can attest, either to their delight or chagrin.

For instance, when we asked how he would get things done in the House, as a black member of the minority party, he said, "I’m not one of those folks that carry the banner" of either party or race. "When it comes down to issues, I look at each one on the merit."

He has no qualms about explaining his actions to voters afterward: "When the public understands the issue, then all of a sudden, party politics goes out the window." Noting that black voters — who predominate in the district — are becoming more independent of the Democratic Party. "If you clearly articulate your position, people may disagree with you, but they will surely respect you."

He said that the best course for South Carolina is likely to be something that transcends party and race. As a result, at times he will disagree with the Legislative Black Caucus.

One area where he disagrees with many on the caucus, and certainly with the incumbent, is on government restructuring. "We need to be more efficient in state government," he said. He wants to complete the transition, begun under the late Gov. Carroll Campbell, from the anachronistic "Legislative State" to a modern form of government.

He sees no need for voters to elect the "long ballot" of statewide officials — or for that matter, the purely magisterial offices on the county level.

When he says that, "People say, ‘Oh, no… We’ll never get an African-American elected" to statewide office if they become appointive. "Have we ever gotten an African-American elected?" he answers.

"Elect a governor and hold him accountable" for having a diverse Cabinet, he said. "That is the best way."

More importantly, thanks to his experience in local government, he understands the crying need to get the state government — including county legislative delegations — out of local affairs. "We need to make a clean break," he said. "Either you’re going to have Home Rule or you’re not."

On the state’s tax system, "I need to educate myself some more," he said. But he showed he understands it better than many (if not most) current legislators when he said we’re "going to have to look at it from holistic perspective … have to include school spending."

And he recognizes that the proposal put forth by Sen. Larry Grooms is just such a "holistic" approach: "He addressed the issue. He put everything on the table. I’ve got to admire him. I admire what he tried to accomplish."

Of Rep. Scott, Mr. McEachern said, "He thinks it’s his seat," and "takes it very personal that I’m running against him. But it’s not personal." I think I know what he means. Mr. Scott also seemed to have his feelings hurt in 2004, when we endorsed his opponent, Swain Whitfield.

"I think it’s a tragedy when no one challenges for a seat."

He said folks in the district complain that Mr. Scott neglects them. Mr. McEachern said he defends him to a point: "He is a state representative," not a local official, "and I tell people that." But he still thinks they have a point about the incumbent, who concerns himself too much with such purely political things as the S.C. Democratic Leadership Council, which he chairs.

By contrast, he says, Bill Cotty — the Republican who represents a neighboring House district — is "more hands on." Mr. McEachern is indeed no typical banner-carrier.