COLUMBIA - Former state House member and judge Tom Ervin said Tuesday the story of a 4-year-old boy who was beaten to death after being returned from foster care is part of what drove him to challenge Gov. Nikki Haley in a Republican primary.
The 61-year-old Greenville attorney said the final straw for wanting Haley replaced was testimony last month alleging that management's focus on numbers at the Department of Social Services is endangering children. Ervin said he waited to jump into the race Saturday - filing on the next-to-last-day possible - because no other Republican stepped forward.
Ervin said Haley should have replaced her Cabinet agency appointee.
"It was shocking to me to hear about the 4-year-old returned to an abusive home" despite 15 reports to DSS of abuse to the boy or his siblings, Ervin said. "It is wrong and we're going to start by fixing that problem."
Following a Senate hearing last month, a DSS official acknowledged mistakes in the boy's case but denied allegations that an emphasis on meeting "wildly important goals" resulted in decisions that put numbers ahead of what's best for children.
Ervin, a Honea Path native, was a Democrat representing Anderson County in the South Carolina House for two terms, starting in 1979, when Democrats ruled the state. He later became a circuit court judge for 14 years. Ervin said he changed parties but not his views. He calls himself a fiscal conservative and notes he was active in former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 2008 bid for president.
Ervin lost in a 2005 Republican primary for the Greenville County seat vacated by former House Speaker David Wilkins, who resigned to be the U.S. ambassador to Canada.
Ervin faulted Haley for promising to veto any gas tax increase to fund improvements to South Carolina's roads and bridges. He stopped short of advocating one but said the state needs a "massive plan" to fix them.
"I'm not necessarily endorsing a gas tax increase, but I can tell you this: We shouldn't overlook the fact that a user fee like the gas tax is paid for by out-of-state tourists and truckers," he said. "That takes the tax burden off of our own people."
The federal health care overhaul will be a focal point in the governor's race. The Republican Governor's Association already has run three TV ads against Haley's Democratic challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, tying him to the federal law.
Haley and the Legislature's Republican majority have repeatedly refused to expand Medicaid eligibility to more poor adults as the law intended. The U.S. Supreme Court gave states the option to expand Medicaid. While he opposes other parts of the law, Sheheen supports the expansion, saying Haley's political ideology shows a lack of leadership.
Ervin called the federal law a disaster that Congress needs to repeal. But he was noncommittal on whether South Carolina should expand Medicaid to the roughly 200,000 people who fall into a gap of qualifying for Medicaid and qualifying for federal subsides toward a health insurance policy.
"I would not veto it because we have a number of people who need coverage, but I'm not promoting it either because I have concerns about the cost to state government," he said. "I want to study that issue."
Haley campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey dismissed her new opponent, saying she's focused on the legislative session.
"We appreciate Mr. Ervin's desire for public service, but a trial lawyer and former Democratic lawmaker, who wants to raise taxes and embrace Obamacare, should probably be running in the Democrat primary," Godfrey said.
Ervin, a radio station owner, said he realizes he's the underdog, but "we're going to fight for every vote." He has not yet filed an initial disclosure with the state Ethics Commission, but Ervin said he put $108,000 into his campaign account from his retirement.
That compares to $3.7 million Haley had available in January. Candidates' first-quarter campaign reports are due next week. The primary is June 10.