COLUMBIA - There are only a few weeks left in this year's legislative session and Bakari Sellers is running out of time.
Sellers, D-Denmark, is not seeking re-election for his seat as a representative of Bamberg County and he's working against the clock to get legislation passed, while many of his colleagues have dropped their efforts in favor of trying again next year.
But for Sellers, what next year will bring is up in the air.
At 29 years of age, the son of a civil rights activist is a seasoned legislator hoping to make history - again.
Sellers is vying for the lieutenant governor's seat, an unlikely bid that wold make him the first Democrat elected to a statewide office since 2006 and the youngest lieutenant governor in the state's history.
He would also be the first African-American elected statewide in more than 100 years.
Sellers is the only Democrat running for the position, while four Republicans are running for the seat. The Republican candidates will face off on June 10. The winner of the primary will then turn his attention to the race against Sellers.
Win or lose, his candidacy will further his national exposure. Sellers has already been featured in Time Magazine and Politico, and frequents national cable shows such as "Morning Joe."
Yet, being the lieutenant governor isn't exactly a plum prize. The position has been widely regarded as ceremonial. But Sellers wants to capitalize on how Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell became highly involved with the Office on Aging and hopes take it a step further.
"I know that the South Carolina state Senate is going to be very inclined to work with me because of the fact that I've served," Sellers said. "I'm a South Carolinian before I'm a Democrat."
He wants voters to know they don't have to be bound by the "same old preconceived notions of black, white, Democrat or Republican." To make history, however, Sellers says everything has to fall correctly into place.
A win would certainly be an uphill battle for him, said Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.
"He's fighting against a political culture in South Carolina that's very conservative," Stewart said. "For some reason, the Democratic Party hasn't had the same traction statewide."
But Sellers refused to entertain the idea that he wouldn't win.
"When I first ran for office, I ran against a great man," Sellers said. "There was absolutely nobody in the state of South Carolina who thought I was going to win."
But he did. At the time, Sellers became the youngest person elected to the state legislature, at the age of 22.
Working across the aisle
It's clear, Sellers hopes to carve a legacy that meets - and hopefully exceeds - the expectations that come with carrying his last name.
His father, Cleveland Sellers, was involved in the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968. Three people were killed and nearly 30 were injured when several officers fired into a crowd of protesters at South Carolina State University.
Cleveland Sellers was the only man who served time in jail on rioting charges. He was pardoned 25 years later.
From the stories he's been told, Bakari Sellers said he knows J.P. "Pete" Strom Sr. always said Cleveland Sellers shouldn't have been arrested. Strom was the chief of the State Law Enforcement Division at the time the officers were involved in the shooting.
Bakari Sellers reached out to Strom's son, Pete, who hired Sellers in 2007, a year before he graduated from law school. Pete Strom Jr., said he was drawn to Sellers' youthful energy.
Strom, founder of the Strom Law Firm in Columbia, believes Sellers is a consensus-builder whose strongest skill set is the ability to get along with everyone and turn strangers into friends.
"He gets the big picture," Strom said of Sellers. "He's not just some liberal Democrat who takes his marching orders."
Sellers has everything most people are looking for, said Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, the House minority leader. It's a shame that people would attach the party label to him, he added.
"The reality is, he is exactly what South Carolina needs," Rutherford said. "No one else comes close to having the legislative experience and governmental experience, and being able to work both sides of the aisle."
Democrats consider Sellers an attractive candidate. His only hiccup has been a DUI charge, which was dropped for lack of evidence.
But it hasn't slowed Sellers down much.
The bully pulpit
Sellers says he wants to be lieutenant governor because there are needs not being addressed by the executive branch. Like his fellow GOP counterparts, he praised McConnell's approach to the Office on Aging.
But there is more that can be done to better aid and serve seniors, he said. Through the Office on Aging, Sellers hopes to bring tax relief for those who provide in-home care for the elderly. He intends to roll out a more detailed plan for seniors in the coming weeks.
He wants to look into getting hospitals for rural areas of the state, by allowing them to operate under the Certificates of Need of larger hospitals. In his district, he's leading an effort to bring a hospital to Bamberg County.
In 2012, Bamberg County hospital closed and was replaced by an urgent care center. When Sellers' mother, Gwendolyn, who suffers from leukemia, becomes sick or needs treatment, her nearest hospital is the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg - 33 minutes away.
Sellers also wants to improve the state's primary and secondary education system.
"The corridor of shame has now metastasized," Sellers said. "And no one has done anything to properly address it. No one has had the ideas."
He's searching for funds to build a new campus for Denmark-Olar Elementary School, where there is no central air conditioning and where bookshelves in the media center sit empty. Many of the books the school does have are so old, teachers and parents have found their own signatures in them from when they were kids, a teacher noted.
Yet, with all those issues in his district, Sellers chose not to run for re-election to his seat as a representative while vying for the lieutenant governor position, because he believes it would have been unfair to the state's citizenry.
Sellers brushed off rumors that he wants to use the lieutenant governor's position as a springboard for a potential appointment to a national office and countered with his turning down an offer for a position with President Obama's administration in 2008 because "it's not where I wanted to be."
Sellers couldn't - or wouldn't - theorize on future endeavors, adding he's too caught up with this race. "I want to be a Democratic candidate that this state hasn't seen in generations," Sellers said. "It's time for a new age of Democrats. Just think about the history we can make in South Carolina."
Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.
Bakari Sellers notes the dilapidated building in the background used to be the only recreation center for Denmark’s youth. It was closed more than 10 years ago and has not been replaced since.×
Students line up for lunch inside Denmark-Olar Elementary School’s kitchen, built in 1957. Sellers is searching for ways to replace the aging, outdated school.×
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