Democratic race for governor just got even more surprising

Phil Noble's 'response to the response' last week was... eccentric...

Phil Noble’s ‘response to the response’ last week was… eccentric…

I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with the race among Democrats for governor.

Once James Smith made up his mind to go for it, it had looked like that was that. After all, Democrats had been urging him to run ever since he came back from Afghanistan, several election cycles ago.

Everybody who was anybody in the party was lining up behind him, and has continue to do so — Joe Riley from the Lowcountry and Dick Riley from the Upstate (my two favorite SC Dems), along with Jim Hodges and Steve Benjamin. He’s very popular among Democratic women, as evidenced by this list and this Facebook page. He seems pretty well-liked all around.

Yet Phil Noble came forth with his lonely quest. He has been endorsed by… Doug Jones of Alabama. (It seems I’ve heard of a list of actual South Carolinians supporting him, but haven’t found it. If you know where it is, I’ll link to it.) Jones is a pretty big name nationally right now; no doubt about it — but Smith more than cancels that out with Joe Biden.

Marguerite Willis

Marguerite Willis

Digression: Reading some of his Tweets the night of the State of the State, I reached a conclusion — Phil is aiming to be the Bernie Sanders of South Carolina, the spoiler who hobbles the obvious choice for the nomination. You know, the ideologue whose chief beef about the heir apparent is that he’s too moderate and sensible. It seems to really bug Phil that the Democrats might nominate a candidate that someone other than Democrats might vote for. His… eccentric (the videography reminded me of “Wayne’s World,” before Rob Lowe’s slick villain character took it over)… “response to the response” that streamed online that night confirmed it. You should watch it, especially if you already viewed the official Democratic response given by James. Phil kept talking about wanting to “break the back of the good ol’ boy system” in the State House. Which might be understandable if he meant the Republicans who run the place — but he was saying it about the Democrats.

And now, on the eve of the first Democratic debate, another candidate is jumping into it. And her reasons so far seem… unclear. Marguerite Willis says “I just thought, ‘If I don’t, who will?'” To which the obvious answer would be, James Smith and Phil Noble. So she must have a problem with those guys; she must see them as inadequate somehow. But her only complaint so far (that I’ve seen) is, “When I listen to both candidates, I don’t feel a dedication to immediacy.”

Which I must confess goes right over my head. But let’s give her a chance. Perhaps she’ll clarify when she actually announces, on Friday.

This is getting as crowded and active as the Republican race. And, you know, this is South Carolina. So what gives?


37 thoughts on “Democratic race for governor just got even more surprising

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    I guess y’all aren’t focusing on this yet.

    I feel guilty sometimes that I’m neglecting SC politics, opting for the easy national stuff and pop culture. But then I dutifully post something like this, and… crickets…

    1. Doug Ross

      I think it’s because you think the general public is more aware of James Smith than they really are. He is just another generic candidate nobody has heard of.

        1. Claus2

          If those two were the only Democrats running, I’d write in the ol’ SC standby… Strom Thurmond.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          First, you need to understand that that’s impossible. With James running, you wouldn’t see Vincent running — or Joel Lourie or Beth Bernstein. They’re all too closely allied. James probably would have run last time or the time before if Vincent had stayed out. (In fact, I remember hearing — but not from him — that he made some preparations to go in 2010 until Vincent got into it.)

          But if the impossible happened, in this race, I’d go with James. Vincent had his shot in 2010 and almost made it. Give another guy a try…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Wait a minute — is that what you were asking? James vs. Sheheen? Or were you asking, what if Vincent were running instead of James, against Phil and Ms. Willis?

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Oh, and by the way, I call her “Ms. Willis” and the others sometimes by first names because I know them, and I’d never heard of her before yesterday…

              I embarrassed myself a bit moderating a debate in 2010, when there were several Democrats running in the primary. After a few rounds of questions, Vincent complained that I was calling him “Vincent” and the others “Mr. So-and-So.” I made a joke of it, saying that’s because I had known his daddy and his uncle long before I knew him, but I took the point and tried to remember to call him “senator” after that…

          2. Richard

            I get it, it’s the same strategy the girls in my class used for Class President. They would only nominate one girl and then would nominate several guys to split up the male vote. If I recall correctly, it never worked the way they wanted it to.

            Does Beth Bernstein really think she’s Governor material?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Well, if you’re going to talk about those people — the people who don’t pay attention — you can say the same about all the candidates. Probably the only one the great unwashed could name would be Henry, and then they couldn’t really tell you anything about him.

        But among the people who DO know what’s what, there’s just no contest. Which is why it’s so puzzling that Phil and this Willis lady — who not only know who James is but know that everybody else who knows who he is is backing him — decided to run. Pretty quixotic.

        It almost sounds like even Ms. Wilson’s husband is for James:

        Willis never has run for elected office before, but her husband, Frank Willis, is a former mayor of Florence. Willis joked her “only political experience is riding in the back of pickup trucks in Christmas parades.”

        How do you think your wife would react if you had said that about her? Mine was kind of stunned when she read that…

    2. Barry

      I follow Rep. Smith on Facebook and regularly check on Phil Noble’s public events from his Facebook page. The differences are obvious.

      Noble is often talking to 4-8 people in a room. Smith is often meeting with dozens or more at a time, including many mayors, military groups, and local clubs/groups.

      Rep Smith is also good at talking issues where Templeton is talk8mg about the confederacy (yesterday at Bob Jones Univ.) and McMaster is begging people to stand at attention in their living rooms during the national anthem.

        1. Barry

          Maybe so. But as of now, Rep. Smith will have my vote which will be different.

          hopefully, South Carolina will try a different tactic this time.

            1. Richard

              Henry’s going to cast his vote for James instead of himself? Donald Trump is going to work the phones for James Smith?

              1. Barry

                If Henry “ stand up in your living room” McMaster can’t get his best buddy Trump to exempt the coast of South Carolina from oil and gas exploration and drilling, henry will be persona non grata along the coast.

                1. Richard

                  I doubt they’re on a first name basis, Henry did Trump a favor, when Trump became President he returned the favor. I doubt it goes much further than that.

                2. Barry

                  Then Henry probably shouldn’t play it up so much because if he can’t get trump to back off the drilling, ipmcmaster is in deep doo doo ice along the coast.

  2. Bart

    I know Frank Willis, husband of Ms. Willis. He is the former mayor of Florence and a really good and decent person. Always trusted him and we are still friends. He is the head of industrial development for Darlington County now. As for Ms. Willis, I never had an opportunity to get to know her. She is one of the extremely well paid attorneys in SC. Bryan may know her since she does practice in Columbia. She was prominent for SC Democrats at the Democrat convention. Frank ran for governor years ago but didn’t get much recognition outside the Florence region and unless Ms. Willis can get very good press coverage state wide, she may meet the same fate as her husband did. Hugh Leatherman tried his hand years ago and flopped big time. Unknown and few votes.

    But, who knows. She was on the cover of some magazine with national distribution holding a “Girl Power” sign at the DNC convention.

  3. Richard

    What I fail to understand is how people such as James Smith can afford to be full-time politicians. Sure he’s a lawyer, but how do you bill enough or dedicate yourself to clients when you’re at the State House 4-5-6 months out of the year? Most successful lawyers I’m familiar with work 60-70 hours per week, those who don’t are barely scraping by. Now he’s spending his time campaigning on top of that. I can see how you can dedicate your time when you’re a business owner who has employees who can handle you being gone, or if you’re retired. I just can’t imagine how I could do my job and also be a full-time politician with overlapping work hours. Not to mention spending time with family.

    1. Barry

      Same way other lawyers do

      You have other attorneys work with you, and a few cases can make serious money. I believe he’s in the national guard too- not that it’s making him much money

        1. Richard

          Looks like it’s a two lawyer office, him and an “Of Counsel” who has been a lawyer for 28 years and hasn’t made partner anywhere… so she’s a glorified paralegal. Not exactly an office that’s raking in the big bucks, I’m thinking more like Better Call Saul money.

          1. Barry

            You can’t tell from look8ng at a website. It depends on who all has him on retainer. Lots of successful attorneys have small offices.

            1. Richard

              Why would anyone in their right mind have an attorney on retainer who’s going to be out of the office 50%+ of the time? What happens if you need him when he’s in the middle of a legislative session, it’s not like he’s going to walk out of the State House to deal with your problem. Maybe it’s just me, but the very few times I’ve ever needed a lawyer I wanted to be able to pick up the phone and talk to him or have him return my call before the end of the day and I don’t want him calling me back when he’s got a dozen other things on his mind and just rushing to return my call. Maybe it’s just me.

              1. Barry

                I can’t answer that. But obviously it works for some attorneys. James smith isn’t unique in that respect.

                Plus, I worked for a state Senator way back in the day. They have time to do plenty. The senator I worked for also had a small law office, and two offices. He did fine. His wife also did very well.

    2. clark surratt

      He’s not a full time politician. Being a member of the State Legislature does not take as much time as you might think.

  4. Phillip

    What, Democrats are not allowed to have competitive primary races for statewide elections? The GOP usually does—yes, I know that’s because GOP primaries are really THE election for the office in question, at least in recent decades. But it’s A) condescending and B) reinforcing of the idea of the “good-ol-boy” image of SC politics to imply that once a strong and plausible Democratic candidate (let’s even say with possible appeal across party lines) announces, that everybody should just step aside and anoint that person as the nominee, to give him something more than a long shot to beat the GOP nominee.

    I think there’s little chance Smith loses the primary, and I think there are mighty few Democrats that wouldn’t choose Smith over any Republican in the general election, no matter how far left they might be. It’s not a bad thing for Smith to be made to articulate how he is best suited to bring profound change to the state, to help build the case that at the very least, Democratic voters who lean left as well as those in the so-called “center” should be motivated to turn out in big numbers for him in November. I don’t think he has anything much to worry about for the primary.

    1. Doug Ross

      Smith has the same negatives as Sheheen without the name recognition:

      1) no real ability to get out the black vote at high levels
      2) long tenure in the legislature with very little to show for it in terms of actual results. What’s his signature legislation in two decades of service? Why are we supposed to believe that if elected he will then be able to influence a Republican state house?
      3) he’s been swimming in the cesspool of the state house but hasnt apparently been aware of all the corrupt legislators floating around him. He’s either oblivious or afraid to challenge them in public. That doesn’t show much in the way of leadership.

      He’ll “fight” the good fight and then lose by 4-8 points.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Let’s just take one of those assertions:

        “Smith has the same negatives as Sheheen without the name recognition”

        Yep, Vincent has higher name recognition. You know why? Because he’s been the Democratic nominee for governor twice.

        For months during his first run in 2010, Google searches for “Vincent Sheheen” turned up this old blog post before anything else. It took quite a while for any kind of coverage of him to get any SEO traction…

      2. Barry

        “He’ll “fight” the good fight and then lose by 4-8 points”

        Yep- Especially if the same ole voters do the same ole thing they always do (while inexplicably expecting something very different this time)

        And Templeton and McMaster will run hard for the Lost Cause vote as well as the “Stand up in your living room” garbage.

        1. Richard

          “Yep- Especially if the same ole voters do the same ole thing they always do (while inexplicably expecting something very different this time)”

          So you’re familiar with SC voter practices… this is how we had Strom Thurmond, have Lindsey Graham and Jim Clyburn. The state where if you’re an incumbent you have a job for life.

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