After weeks of campaigning, political spats and name calling — mostly between members of the same party — the Berkeley County sheriff’s race will come to a close when voters head to the polls on Tuesday.
Last Wednesday, members of a grassroots write-in campaign for Brian Adams, the second-place finisher in the Republican primary, took a complaint regarding possible political corruption by Republican nominee Duane Lewis to the state Attorney General’s Office and spoke with a State Law Enforcement Division officer, according to Attorney General spokesman J. Mark Powell. The material, which alleges Lewis knowingly filed false information on his election paperwork, will be reviewed by SLED and the Attorney General’s Office, Powell said.
The ballot on Tuesday will include two names, Lewis and Democrat Anthony Smalls, but a contingent of voters plan to make use of the write-in option in the special election to fill the seat vacated by longtime Sheriff Wayne DeWitt. He stepped down in February in the wake of his Dec. 28 arrest for drunken driving. In addition to Adams, two former lawmen in the county, Derrick Burbage and M.C. Bellew, have also mounted write-in campaigns.
Berkeley County Republican Party Chairman Tim Callanan — who in an email that made its way about social media called Adams’ supporters “sore losers” — said he is disappointed by the negative tone of the election but pledged the party’s support to its candidate.
“The Republican Party will relentlessly support Duane Lewis, both on the ground and financially,” Callanan said. The party is funding a “Get out the Vote” effort on behalf of Lewis, whose background and education claims have been called into question in recent weeks.
Nine of the former Republican candidates have thrown their support behind the Santee Cooper lawman, along with state Sen. Larry Grooms, Rep. Samuel Rivers and several county-level politicians. On Thursday, Attorney General Alan Wilson came out in support of Lewis.
The monthly GOP breakfast, set for Saturday, was rescheduled to the end of June after several county councilmen who were supposed to speak canceled, Callanan said. Adams’ supporters, who planned to attend the breakfast en masse, instead scheduled their own event on Saturday that drew about 150 people.
Meanwhile, the Democrats in the county have sat by quietly, watching the Republican Party implode.
“While I am amused and entertained by the Republican race, I am also saddened by the lack of quality, professionalism and depth by any of the candidates on their ticket,” said Berkeley County Democratic Party Chairwoman Melissa Watson.
The election started in early March when 16 candidates — 14 of them Republicans — announced their intentions to seek the post. The field included several candidates who have been scrutinized for actions in the line of duty or events from their personal lives, prompting one candidate to propose a Clean Campaign pledge.
“Voters are tired of politics as usual,” former S.C. Highway Patrolman Marty Housand said. “If you can’t run a clean campaign, how in the world can you be expected to run a clean Sheriff’s Office?”
Democrat Smalls, a Berkeley County sheriff’s deputy, has stayed out of the fray by keeping largely behind the scenes. Most of his campaign signs are in the upper parts of the county, in the areas where voters have elected Democrats Caldwell Pinckney and Steve Davis to County Council in recent years.
Smalls also attended a forum last Wednesday sponsored by the National Action Network that Lewis, the chief deputy for Santee Cooper law enforcement, did not attend. Smalls could not be reached for comment for this story.
In a question-and-answer with The Berkeley Independent, Smalls said his No. 1 concern for the Sheriff’s Office was manpower.
“We do need vehicles and we do need manpower,” he said. “I’m more concerned about the response time. I know the needs of Berkeley County, I’ve patrolled Berkeley County for 21 years and I’ve done five years in detective division and 10 years as a supervisor.”
The deputy is college educated and is a Lowcountry native. He is running “so that the citizens of Berkeley County could have a sheriff they could be proud of once again,” Watson said. “Smalls has stepped up to the plate to offer the citizens of Berkeley a choice.”
Adams, a North Charleston police lieutenant, received 24 percent of the vote in the primary to Lewis’ 13 percent, but the runoff was required because Adams did not receive more than 50 percent. In the runoff, Lewis bested Adams by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent.
“Where we failed was at the polls,” said Adams’ supporter Mike Penn. “So many people saw him win by such vast numbers in the primary that they thought (the runoff) was just a done deal and they didn’t even bother to go to the polls. Voter turnout all the way around hurt Brian. No two ways about it.”
Just over 13 percent of 114,000 registered voters turned out for the primary, but that number fell to less than 10 percent for the runoff.
Penn and other Adams supporters started a Facebook page called “Concerned Voters of Berkeley County” on May 12 and launched a write-in campaign on his behalf. Adams himself cannot campaign because he promised not to do so when he ran as a Republican.
Write-in campaigns are unofficial, according to county election director Adam Hammons. Candidates do not have to file to run.
The other write-ins also are career lawmen. Bellew is a former Hanahan police chief and Burbage is a former state trooper and Charleston County deputy sheriff who now owns a private investigation business.
Burbage had planned to run as a petition candidate but was unable to secure the more-than-5,000 signatures needed to get his name on the ballot.
“I still feel the voters of Berkeley County need and deserve a better option, especially in light of the most recent revelations that call into question the integrity of one of the candidates,” he said of his write-in effort. “We can’t continue the cycle of electing officials who don’t uphold the core values of this very important office.”
“It’s not uncommon (to have write-ins for sheriff),” said Jarrod M. Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association. “Having one win, I guess, is uncommon.”
Gibbs Knotts, political science professor at the College of Charleston, said write-in candidates have an uphill battle.
“It’s obviously extremely difficult for write-in candidates to be successful,” he said. “It’s so much easier to select one of the candidates on the ballot. It’s certainly a long shot.”
Officials project less than 10 percent of the county’s voters will turn out Tuesday.
“This group represents between 3,000 and 4,000 voters,” said Ralph Rohrssen, another Adams supporter. “If they believe our message and believe in our candidate, I have no doubt Brian Adams will win the election.”
Adams, who once backed Lewis after his runoff defeat, withdrew that support on May 21, saying issues surrounding Lewis have “cast doubt on the legitimacy of Duane Lewis as a candidate for Berkeley County sheriff.”
Even as Adams’ camp held meetings to organize poll watchers and teach voters how to cast a write-in ballot, Republican Party leaders worried that writing in Adams’ name — or anyone else’s — will only hurt the GOP and open the door for Smalls.
“We’ve seen that in presidential politics,” Knotts said. “When Ralph Nader ran (in 1992), folks felt like he pulled some votes (from George H.W. Bush). I think that can happen. I just don’t know if there are enough Democrats in Berkeley County to damage Lewis enough.”
In the days after the runoff, questions arose about Lewis’ background, with the issue playing out largely on social media and dividing the already bickering county Republican Party.
“I want a sheriff who runs for political office to be crystal clear with me when he wants my vote,” Rohrssen said. “The more we dig into (Lewis’ past), the more things we find wrong. That, to me as a voter, is a big issue.”
While detractors questioned his claim of 30 years in law enforcement because the South Carolina Academy of Justice lists 28 years, Lewis said Saturday he was a reserve officer for a couple of years. Lewis also denies accusations he claimed to be born in Berkeley County.
“I never said that,” he said. “I was raised in Berkeley County but I was born in Conway.”
Then there were questions about Lewis’ education. Throughout the campaign, Lewis referred to himself as the “only candidate with a college degree,” but his bachelor of science is from Western States University, which has since closed amid charges it was an unaccredited, for-profit school where students could buy degrees for a few thousand dollars without ever attending classes.
Lewis’ camp claims he just learned that the college was a sham in May. He also listed the bachelor’s degree from the university on his application for Santee Cooper in 1994, according to records obtained by The Post and Courier through a Freedom of Information Act request. He also attended Francis Marion University for “fire science related courses” and the University of Georgia for “criminal justice and fire science,” according to the resume in his personnel file. It does not list dates that he attended those schools.
In an interview with The Post and Courier on Saturday, Lewis said he took classes, mostly having to do with fire science, at several schools before turning to Western States, which gave him credit for those courses and had him take a few correspondence classes before awarding the degree in fire science.
“Once I met their requirements, I got the degree,” he said. “I was happy to have the opportunity to take what I learned (at other colleges and law enforcement training) and apply it toward a degree. In those days, you couldn’t sit down and Google information, and I never thought about anything being wrong with that college. It’s very troubling to me now.”
In addition, questions arose over whether he graduated from high school, a required qualification for Berkeley County sheriff. Lewis produced a Goose Creek High School diploma dated June 1, 1983. He is listed as completing requirements for graduation in the county’s adult education program, according to Berkeley County School District.
However, his Santee Cooper application lists him as a June 1982 graduate of Goose Creek. He said Saturday that was a typo.
In a post Friday on the Concerned Voters site, Jennifer Ort wrote, “Please let’s not spend any time between now and Tuesday harping on the details (of Lewis’ high school graduation). We asked the question. We got the confirmation by FOIA request ...”
Last week, Lewis, who has kept a low profile in the final days of the campaign as he goes door-to-door to gather support, called the questions about his background a “nonissue.” He also announced that, if elected, he will form a community advisory committee to act as liaisons between neighborhoods and the Sheriff’s Office.
“I have not misled anybody about my background,” he said. “I have tried to stay professional, upbeat and focused on the campaign. We have moved forward.”
He describes his detractors as “a small group of people who are not willing to accept the results of the primary runoff election,” he said in a statement to The Post and Courier on Thursday.
“From the inception of my campaign to be elected sheriff of Berkeley County, it has been my desire to remain positive and not speak negatively about my opponents. It is my hope they will reconsider their negative and untruthful attempts to undermine my campaign.”
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.