COLUMBIA - The likely Democratic nominee for governor, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, plans to introduce a bill in the state Senate this week that for the first time defines "teen dating violence" and establishes a statewide education curriculum around the issue.
The bill and other initiatives come as part of a push to focus on women's issues this month, Sheheen said in an exclusive interview with The Post and Courier. Along with roundtable conversations with women around the state, Sheheen also plans to promote women-owned small businesses and talk about a divisive political culture in South Carolina that has too often ignored women, he said.
His opponent, Gov. Nikki Haley, is the state's first female chief executive. "I think it was a strong symbolic change in South Carolina to have the first woman elected," Sheheen said. "But you can have bad women governors and bad men governors. And we happen to have a governor who is disappointing ... regardless of whether that person is a man or a woman. If they're not leading, they don't need to be there."
Talking about women's issues is part of a broader strategy to keep the conversation focused on state and local issues, he said.
"Haley will try to talk about national issues because they divided up the populace of the state. I will continually draw us back down to South Carolina," Sheheen said. "If you do that ... then you win those voters who may lean one way or the other but really want to have things done."
Haley's campaign spokesman, Rob Godfrey, said Haley has been a strong voice for women. "Governor Haley resists gender stereotypes," Godfrey said. "As a woman, a wife, a mother and a daughter, she knows that not all women think alike on all issues. In her view, the best way to raise up the women of South Carolina is to raise up all of South Carolina. That's why she's tremendously proud of the fact that we're below the national unemployment average for first time since 2001, that more South Carolinians are working today than at any point in our history, and why she won't stop until every person in South Carolina - man, woman and child - has the opportunity they deserve."
Political experts say Sheheen has an uphill battle ahead, even though he lost by less than 5 percentage points in 2010. He faces an incumbent Republican governor in an increasingly red state and will likely have a fundraising disadvantage. Further, many feel that the economy is improving, which favors the incumbent, said Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.
"I think during the last election, Haley alienated voters who care about what would be traditionally considered women's issues," Stewart said. "I think Sheheen was able to capitalize on that and get good support. This time, however, he's going to have to work hard to do that."
She said Sheheen is often perceived as being pro-gun and pro-life, two issues that don't sit well with many women.
Sheheen said that Haley alienated many when she vetoed funding for rape crisis centers in 2012 and later explained the veto on Facebook by describing the centers as "special interests."
"This is not about the merit of their fights but the back door way of getting the money," she said in the post, according to a New York Times article at the time. "It's wrong and another loophole for legislators and special interests to use."
Godfrey said that "facts matter" because funding for such centers and domestic violence prosecution went up in the budget process. The governor was opposed to legislators earmarking the one-time funds, he said.
If Sheheen has a chance to win, it will be with women supporting him more than Haley, Stewart said. "That's what it takes for a Democrat to win in South Carolina," she said.
The state has one of the highest rates of violence in the country where men beat and kill women they know, but the law does not specifically cover teens who beat up or kill other teens. Those convicted under a "teen dating violence" charge would be guilty of a misdemeanor for the first two charges and a felony, with a maximum of five years, after a third or subsequent charge, according to a draft of the bill. Sheheen said he is pursuing the measure after hearing about several cases of young domestic violence victims near his Kershaw County home.
"We need to let these men know we're coming after them," Sheheen said.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837 or on Twitter @Jeremy_Borden.