Sept. 10, 2 p.m. — Chip Huggins has represented this Irmo-Chapin district since 1999. And folks there must like him pretty well, because in all that time he hasn’t had opposition for re-election. And in that area (think District 5 school board, the battles over development in northwest Richland County), not many officeholders can say that.
Since he’s the Republican in this race, given the district, I suspect he’s about to get elected again.
But perhaps because he hasn’t had occasion to explain or defend his positions on issues in past election years, he doesn’t communicate very well where he stands, or where he is likely to stand in the future. It’s difficult to tell at times for certain whether he’s just not all that good at communication, was having a bad day (nervousness, which is common enough in a first interview, could account for some of the mangled syntax that kept posing a barrier for me) or he just did not want to be pinned down on anything. Unfortunately, by the end of the interview, I felt quite sure that that last explanation was most valid — he seemed to have a tremendous aversion to taking definite stands.
The most definite thing he said to us — the most specific, helpful fact that he provided with regard to his record — had to do with how he voted on Mark Sanford’s video of the cigarette tax increase. He indicated that he favored the tax increase (which contrasted with his general belief, also clearly stated, that he believes South Carolinians are overtaxed), and indeed voted for it. In light of that, I asked him, what were we to make of the charge by his challenger, Jim Nelson, who told us Mr. Huggins had supported the governor’s veto of that legislation? He said quite clearly that what Mr. Nelson said was incorrect — that in fact he had voted to override. He offered to get the clerk’s office to back him up on that, but I said no need. Of course, Cindi will check that out to confirm, but it seems highly unlikely that he would assert that so definitely were it not the case — especially since he was so loathe to be pinned down on much else. (Cindi speculated that this could have been an honest mistake all around, because she had noted that the VoteSmart organization, which she normally swears by, had reported that vote in a confusing way. She noted that she has informed VoteSmart, and they’re supposed to be doing something about it.)
As for the rest of the interview — well, I deeply regret that I was having multiple technical difficulties today. I had lent the camera with which I usually shoot video to one of my daughters; I didn’t realize the memory in my digital sound recorder was full until after the interview started, and after shooting three still photos and three short, low-quality clips with my Treo, it refused to record any more, claiming that it, too, was full. (And my dog ate my homework.) But let me try to give you a sense of what it was like.
Early in the interview, he indicated that he favored Gov. Sanford’s campaign to restructure state government, which was fine by us, of course: The governor’s positions on that subject are almost word-for-word straight out of our "Power Failure" agenda. But later I asked him to be a little more specific, and ran into a wall of reluctance: He had no specific ideas about how the government’s structure could be improved, beyond a vague desire to avoid "duplication." So I asked him to tell me, specifically, which of the constitutional officers did he think should be appointed rather than elected? When none seemed to be forthcoming, I started listing them: The commissioner of agriculture — should that be appointed (that seemed like the easiest on to start with)? How about the adjutant general? The attorney general?
He wasn’t saying. "There’s just a lot of duplication," he said. "Going to continue to look at that. I’m not going to be specific about that." When I looked for this quote in my notes, at first I started to copy from the wrong page, because on the page before that, talking about education, he had said, "I don’t have any direct answer on that… continue to look at that."
Mr. Huggins is hardly alone in his fondness for the phrase "look at that" — it’s a favorite among candidates (especially incumbents) who don’t want to take a position, as in "We’ll continue to look at that." It may be a defensible way to talk about a complex issue that’s just come up and you haven’t had time to study in adequately. But there’s no excuse to answer that way about issues that you yourself cite as important, and which have lain more or less unchanged on the table before you for years on end. And Mr. Huggins did that repeatedly. When candidates do that, I tend to think What do they think this is, a weather report? I don’t want their predictions of what the Legislature will continue to look at, I want to know what they think the Legislature should do.
The more frustrating exchanges, for me, were later in the interview, after my Treo was full. But I think you can get the idea if you watch the phone video clip below (again, I apologize for the quality). About halfway in, we get to the subject of the state’s automobile sales tax cap. Mr. Huggins seems to want the cap changed in some way, a way that would be "fair," but when we try to find out what he believes would be fair (simply tax the full value of cars at the rate at which we currently tax the first $6,000? exempt the first $6,000, but charge the full rate on the value over that? some other approach?), but he avoids answering.
And, as I say, that was the pattern of most of the interview. I came away knowing that he disagrees with his opponent’s politically suicidal assertion that we don’t pay enough taxes, but not much else.
Usually I find these interviews quite helpful in forming an impression of a candidate. This time, not so much. If anyone has any further information to offer regarding Mr. Huggins or his opponent, now would be a good time to bring it to my attention. Because we’re continuing, as one might say, to "look at that…"