By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
TUESDAY’S primary runoffs produced encouraging results on the state level, but what happened in Richland County was downright disturbing.
Voters in the Midlands soundly rejected the governor’s efforts, financed by out-of-state extremists, to use South Carolina as a lab rabbit to test their pet ideologies.
That’s what was at stake in the runoffs between Sheri Few and David Herndon in the state House 79 Republican primary, and between Katrina Shealy and Jake Knotts in Senate District 23. It would be hard to imagine this newspaper endorsing Sen. Knotts under any other circumstances. But things being as they were, we did. We believed that if the governor and his allies managed to take him out as they were trying to do, it would have intimidated other lawmakers into doing their will — even though the lawmakers and their constituents know better. So the governor needed to lose this one. Fortunately, the voters agreed.
That would lead me to say that Tuesday’s voting demonstrates the unmitigated wisdom inherent in our system of democracy — if not for what happened, on the same day, with the Richland County clerk of court and the same county’s council District 7.
Of course, we have insisted for years that it makes little sense to elect the clerk of court — or auditor, or coroner, or any office that is highly technical and has nothing to do with setting policies. It would be far better to let county administrators — who report to the elected councils — hire people to do highly technical, ministerial jobs, based on experience and demonstrated competence.
The result in the clerk’s race reinforces our point.
In the primary on June 10, we endorsed incumbent Barbara Scott, since — and we saw no clear evidence to the contrary — she was doing an adequate job running the courthouse, collecting child support payments and overseeing the other routine duties of the office. She was judged clerk of the year by the S.C. chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, which surely knows more about the quality of her day-to-day work than we do.
Before making that decision, we considered endorsing Gloria Montgomery — who had worked in the clerk’s office for years and seems to understand it thoroughly (certainly better than we or most voters do) — or Kendall Corley, who offered some interesting ideas for improving service.
But we never for a moment considered endorsing Jeanette McBride. That’s not because Mrs. McBride is married to former state Rep. Frank McBride, whose political career ended in 1991 when he pleaded guilty to vote-selling in the Lost Trust scandal. We didn’t consider her because she offered us no reason whatsoever to believe that she would do a better job than Ms. Scott. She didn’t even try. She did not display any particular interest in what the clerk of court does at all.
She said, quite simply, that she was running because she thought she could win. She did not explain what went into that calculation, but so what? She was right.
Her victory will inevitably be compared to the defeat of Harry Huntley — regarded by many as the best auditor in the state — in Richland County in 2006. And it will be suggested that both of these incumbents were the victims of raw racial politics. Mr. Huntley and Ms. Scott are white; Ms. McBride and Paul Brawley are black. A candidate who can pick up most of the black votes in a Democratic primary is increasingly seen as having an advantage in the county.
I hope voters had a better reason than that for turning out qualified candidates in favor of challengers who seemed to offer no actual qualifications. In fact, I’m wracking my brain trying to think of other explanations. Ms. McBride, in her interview, didn’t help with that. And Mr. Brawley didn’t even bother to talk to The State’s editorial board, so I have no idea what sort of case he made to voters. I hope he made some really compelling, defensible argument. I just haven’t heard it yet.
In council District 7, race was not the factor. Both runoff candidates were black. That one seems to have been a pure demonstration of another poor reason to win an election: name recognition. Voters went with Gwendolyn Davis Kennedy, a name they’d heard before, over the young and unknown Kiba Anderson. Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that the reason they’d heard the name was that she was one of the council members they booted out of office after she wasted their tax money on a junket to Hawaii.
In our interview, Ms. Kennedy was like Ms. McBride in one respect: For a former council member, she showed a startling lack of knowledge of, or interest in, issues before the council.
Mr. Anderson was an unknown quantity, to be sure. But at least we didn’t know he would be a bad council member, which Ms. Kennedy was.
The optimist in me says that the voters no doubt had some really great reason for sending her back to the council. It’s just escaping me so far.
That’s the bad news out of the runoffs. I’ll end on a cheery note.
But several election cycles back, I got tired of our detractors spreading the lie that “our” candidates generally lose, that we are out of touch with the voters, that our endorsement is the “kiss of death,” yadda-yadda. So I started reporting our endorsees’ “won-lost” record after each election.
The results of the primaries, now that all the recounts and runoffs are done, were as follows: We endorsed 24 candidates. Of those, 19 won. That’s a batting average of .792. So there.