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Interesting Richland County races in the June 9 South Carolina primary

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Richland County Sheriff

Three men are vying in the coming Democratic primary to be Richland County’s top law officer.

Sheriff Leon Lott

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott

Longtime incumbent Sheriff Leon Lott, who has been particularly tough to beat in elections the last two-and-half decades, is seeking a seventh term in office. He touts the strong ties he’s built in the community during his nearly quarter-century in office, and says he has strides he wants to make if he’s elected to another term. Reducing gun violence is perhaps chief among them. “Our biggest challenge right now is young people with guns, and the violence we’ve got,” Lott says. “And that’s not just Richland County, it’s nationwide issue. That’s our biggest challenge, that we have a generation that lives and dies by the gun. We’ve got to do something to make a bigger impact on that.” The sheriff’s department also continues to be a part of A&E’s hit TV show Live PD, a program that has proven wildly popular, but has also drawn criticism for the light it casts on the county. Lott indicates RCSD is not likely to leave the show anytime soon. “Probably as long as it’s on,” Lott says when asked how much longer RCSD will participate in Live PD. “I think it has shown people what police work is really about.”

Jason Roberts 2020

Jason Roberts

Among Lott’s challengers is longtime law enforcement officer Jason Roberts. A former Richland County deputy and Columbia Police officer who currently works with the campus police at South Carolina State University, Roberts has been on the campaign trail for quite a while. He announced his intent to challenge Lott back in the summer of 2018. Roberts filed a lawsuit against the city police department and sheriff’s department in 2019, claiming he was essentially forced out of a job with the Columbia Police after he blew the whistle on domestic violence complaints against a Columbia pastor who had served as a chaplain at the sheriff’s department. (The suit is still in the court system.) Roberts says he would work to reduce robbery, burglary and violent crime in Richland County. “I believe that it is time for new leadership that has a plan that will work,” Roberts tells Free Times. “I’ll put in a strategic plan to make Richland County safe again.” Roberts also says he wants to start a program for young people that would get them involved in sports, rather than crime.

A.V. Strong

A.V. Strong

Lott is also facing competition from A.V. Strong, a retired U.S. Army drill sergeant and military police officer who also worked stints with the Richland sheriff’s department and Columbia Police. He tells Free Times he would work to foster relationships with the community and provide intervention to dissuade young people from criminal activity. “We have become too reactive as police officers,” Strong says. “What we are doing is not working, the way we are policing our communities. … Yeah, we may catch suspects, but we aren’t doing enough on the front end. I need to change this thing where we become proactive in our approach to policing.” Among his initiatives would be new mentoring and afterschool programs for young people.

There is not a Republican in the sheriff’s race, so the winner of the Democratic primary will likely serve in the seat for the next four years. CHRIS TRAINOR

Richland County Coroner

This race has been offbeat from the beginning. Longtime coroner Frank Barron announced in January that he would run for his old position, now held by Gary Watts, the five-term coroner, with Naida Rutherford, a nurse, also vying for the post. But a dispute over Barron’s residency led state Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson to not certify him for the race.

Gary Watts

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts

That leaves Watts locked in a head-to-head matchup against Rutherford, but that hasn’t quite gotten this contest back on-kilter. In early May, The State reported that a mailer Watts sent to voters included the names of several local politicians who endorse him. The catch? Some of them didn’t endorse him anymore. Some are now siding with Rutherford, and others saying they don’t care to endorse anyone. Watts chalked it up to a simple miscommunication, but Rutherford tells Free Times she thinks it was a “case of lazy campaigning and disingenuous” messaging.

Naida Rutherford

Naida Rutherford

Watts told Free Times in January that he believes the county could potentially need a new morgue in the next 10 years, so getting prepared for that possibility is an emphasis for him. He’s worked in the coroner’s office since 1980, and has held the top job since winning it over Barron in 2000. He is president of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners.

Rutherford says she has been planning a run for the position for eight years. If elected, she says she’d focus on community engagement and educating residents on the importance of things like end-of-life planning. She posits that she gleans from conversations that some people don’t know what the coroner does, and she wants to make it a more transparent and engaged office. DAVID CLAREY

U.S. House of Representative South Carolina 2nd District

For 18 years Joe Wilson has held this seat with an iron grip. In his last election, he beat the Democratic challenger by almost 14 points. Before that? Almost 15 points. The last time Wilson won by less than 10 points was in 2010 (the margin was 9.7 points). In Republican primaries, he’s been unchallenged since 2014, when he received over 80 percent of the vote. So you get the idea.

So it will take a Herculean effort for Republican primary challenger Michael Bishop to make this race competitive, let alone win it. Bishop is the mayor of Springdale and fits a classic Republican mold these days. In an April press release announcing his run, he describes himself in his opening line as a “pro-life, pro-2nd amendment, pro-military, conservative Republican.” When describing why he is running, he writes that he feels that many of his area’s issues stem from a “lack of support from above” and pledges to meet with community leaders on a regular basis if he’s elected. He also says he will prioritize road improvements, litter issues and money for infrastructure improvements.

As for Wilson, he’s a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Armed Services Committee. Per his website, he’s also your classic Republican. He supports “peace through a strong national defense, decreasing taxes for all Americans, and limiting the size and spending of the federal government.”

Whoever wins the primary will face a sturdy challenge from the Democrat Adair Ford Boroughs, who has been fundraising extremely well. Per The State, she’s raised more than $1 million, and she’s been endorsed by powerful South Carolina Democrat Rep. Jim Clyburn. DAVID CLAREY

S.C. Senate District 20

In 2018, Benjamin Dunn came up short in his bid for a State senate seat in a special election against Sen. Dick Harpootlian. Harpootlian bested Dunn by almost five points and has become a firebrand in the Statehouse. Two years later, Dunn’s ready to give it another shot, but he’s got a primary challenge first — from business owner Randy Dickey.

Dickey owns the ACX, a cheerleading and tumbling training operation that has locations in Charleston, Irmo and Columbia. Per his website, he’s troubled by the direction the state is taking: “As both a father and someone who helps shape young lives, he’s concerned when he sees radical socialists working to impose their values on the next generation.” Per posts on his campaign Facebook, he’s been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, earning its highest grade, and supports term limits.

Dunn and Dickey overlap some in their platforms. Dunn, an attorney, touts his support for the 2nd Amendment and term limits. His website also notes his opposition to the 2017 gas tax, and he pushes for greater school choice.

Whoever wins the primary will be running against Harpootlian and his extensive campaign coffers in the general election. It remains to be seen how his two-year term will affect his chances against the Republican candidate — he’s become the public face of a battle against Five Points bars and culture, and has had a few dustups over his behavior.

The seat was held by Republican John Courson for over three decades prior to Harpootlian’s tenure. Courson resigned over mishandling campaign funds, leading to a special election in 2018. DAVID CLAREY

S.C. House District 75

Democrats have long had their eyes on the South Carolina House of Representatives seat in District 75, a Columbia district that includes areas near Kilbourne Road, Fort Jackson Boulevard and the tony Heathwood and Kings Grant neighborhoods, among other enclaves.

But time after time, Republican state Rep. Kirkman Finlay has turned back Democratic challengers and held onto the seat.

Now a pair of Democrats — attorney Rhodes Bailey and business owner Heather Bauer — are squaring off in a June 9 primary, vying for the chance to knock off Finlay. Read more about their primary showdown hereCHRIS TRAINOR

S.C. House District 80

This is one of the more compelling Democratic primary races for the state House in the Midlands, in that it pits a longtime stalwart of Columbia politics —veteran state Rep. Jimmy Bales — against an aggressive, well-funded newcomer — Jermaine Johnson — who is looking to shake things up in Lower Richland’s District 80.

Bales, a retired educator, has been on the Midlands political scene for decades. He served 11 years on Richland County Council, and has been in the House of Representatives for 21 years. In the last couple years, Bales, 84, has had a small handful of medical scares on the floor of the House, but has recovered and returned to work each time. He tells Free Times his health is good and he feels ready to serve another two-year term. He says there are some projects he wants to see through, including a multi-million dollar widening of Leesburg Road. While he knows the coming budget year will likely be a challenge because of the effects of COVID-19, he says he’d like to see significant pay increases for teachers in years to come.

Meanwhile, Johnson has made an energetic push to grab the District 80 seat. The owner of a consulting firm, Johnson was a star basketball player with the College of Charleston from 2005 to 2009, and later played professionally in international leagues. He was the state chairman for Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign earlier this year. Yang has endorsed Johnson in the District 80 race, as has CNN politico and former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, among others. Johnson says he will push for more broadband Internet access in District 80 and across rural South Carolina, and that he would work to improve roads and bridges in the district. Johnson says he also would endeavor to bring more business and jobs to the district, but would do so in a way that is respectful to longtime residents in the area. “Controlled development is knowing where we are going to put something, putting it somewhere with intention and doing enough to keep our young talent ... in Lower Richland,” Johnson told Free Times earlier this spring.

The winner of the District 80 Democratic primary will face Republican Vincent Wilson in November’s general election. CHRIS TRAINOR

Richland County Council District 2

Joyce Dickerson

Richland County Council Chairwoman Joyce Dickerson speaks to council vice chair Bill Malinowski at a meeting last year.

District 2 Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson has long been a mainstay on Richland County Council. But now, for the first time, she is facing Democratic primary competition for her post. She’s being challenged by Derrek Pugh, who helps lead an organization that assists at-risk youth.

Council’s District 2 is mostly in the northern part of Richland County, stretching from just northwest of the City of Columbia out to parts of the Northeast. It most notably includes Blythewood, the rapidly growing small town that has seen its population swell from just more than 800 to more than 3,400 in the last two decades.

Dickerson is seeking a fifth term on County Council. She tells Free Times she seriously considered not running this year, but decided to come back and give it another go. “My focus is really on looking at how we can use the new land development code that we’re working on to see how we can address some of the growth, especially in the northeast area [of the county],” she says. “I’m also working on revitalizing the Broad River Road corridor, and addressing blight. We are dealing with so much blight in these areas.”

Derrek Pugh

Derrek Pugh

A Blythewood resident, Pugh is the deputy director of the South Carolina Youth Challenge Academy, a program that works in association with the state National Guard to help provide positive pathways for at-risk youths. He also is a member of the Blythewood Planning Commission. “One of the things that is really important to our campaign is smart growth when it comes to infrastructure and being able to attract businesses that are going to come in and want to establish a strong, long-term relationship with us, in order for our constituents to have opportunities to be employed,” he told Free Times earlier this spring. He’s also said he’d push for greater access to recreational services across the county and would insist on transparency for the county’s long-embattled Transportation Penny program.

The winner of the District 2 Democratic primary will face Green Party candidate Javar Juarez in November. CHRIS TRAINOR

Richland County Council District 7

There will be a three-way showdown for the seat in Richland County Council’s District 7, which is in the north and north central portion of the county. It includes Dentsville and stretches up to the Blythewood area.

Gwen Kennedy

Gwen Kennedy

Incumbent Democratic Councilwoman Gwen Kennedy is back seeking re-election. She’s held the seat through three different tenures, first from 1990 to 1997, then from 2009 to 2012. She ran, and was elected, again in 2016. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride. She faced criticism in her first term for a trip she took to a conference in Hawaii on the county’s dime, and, as reported by The Post and Courier, in 2018 she reimbursed the county nearly $1,000 after using a county credit card at clothing and apparel stores. She said at the time she “pulled the wrong card out” at those stores. She recently told Free Times that, if re-elected, she would like to expand programs for senior citizens in Richland County. “I think that is necessary and needed,” Kennedy says, of supporting seniors. “I want to make sure they are well protected and well taken care of.”

Gretchen Barron

Gretchen Barron / photo provided

Among the challengers for the seat is Gretchen Barron, who is the co-owner of Barron Academy, which provides after-school programs and tutoring for several school districts in the state. She is the former assistant director of program development and grants at the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Barron has made economic development in District 7 a key plank in her platform, and has said she’d fight wasteful spending by the county. She also says she’d be a vocal leader for the district. “There has to be actual leadership that takes place,” she told Free Times recently. “When leadership doesn’t exist, things have a tendency to fall apart.”

Richard Brown

Richard Brown

Also seeking the seat is Richard Brown, an auditor with the state government and a longtime member of the Richland County Coalition of Neighborhoods. Among other things, he says, if elected, he would work for greater enforcement in guarding against blight in the county, including pushing to address overgrown grass and vegetation, junk cars in yards, litter, debris and graffiti. “We’re going to put [county] code enforcement to work,” Brown says. “We’re going to make sure they are diligent in maintaining the quality and the character of neighborhoods.”

Brown also says he’d focus on commercial and industrial recruitment in the county, work against excessive water and sewer fees, and bolster support for the sheriff’s department.

There is not a Republican seeking the District 7 seat, so the primary winner will likely hold the seat for the next four years. CHRIS TRAINOR

Richland County Council District 8

While there are a number of seats on Richland County Council up for election in 2020, there is a key difference in the District 8 race: The incumbent isn’t seeking re-election. Longtime Democratic Councilman Jim Manning announced last year that he would step down at the end of 2020 to focus on his consulting business. That opened up an opportunity for a trio of Democrats to vie for the post in District 8, which is a racially diverse district in the northeast part of the county that includes the Decker Boulevard International Corridor commercial district.

Wayne Gilbert 2020

Wayne Gilbert

Businessman Wayne Gilbert is among the hopefuls competing in the June 9 primary. A real estate broker who is a retired employee of the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs office, he also ran for the District 8 seat in 2016, falling to Manning in a primary. “My platform and issues are still as relevant as they were four years ago,” Gilbert tells Free Times. “Ultimately I want to improve the quality of life for all citizens in Richland County. We need to increase transparency and accountability, and I want to improve public safety in our community and schools, address elder care and homelessness issues, and support small business.”

Hamilton Grant headshot Nov. 2019

{p}Hamilton Grant{/p}

South Carolina State University trustee and businessman Hamilton Grant also is going for the District 8 seat. The president of Grant Business Advisors, a Columbia finance and strategy firm, Grant is seeking elected office for the first time. He was the first candidate to announce his intent to seek the seat, back in November 2019. He also has collected a number of notable endorsements, both on the home front (Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, for instance) and from afar (New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker). Grant has said he’d work to bolster public safety in District 8, push to address food deserts in the county, and make transparency a priority in the county’s oft-controversial Transportation Penny program.

Overture Walker Feb 2020

Overture Walker

Columbia attorney Overture Walker is also seeking the District 8 post. A managing partner at the Stoney & Walker law firm and a former City of Columbia municipal judge, Walker has been a prodigious fundraiser in his run, leading the campaign cash pack in the District 8 race. According to state Ethics Commission records, Walker has raised more than $72,000 during the campaign cycle. A resident of the Parliament Lake neighborhood, Walker has said he’d be an advocate for more responsible development in the rapidly growing northeast part of the county, and that he would work to address traffic congestion concerns and fervently support the county’s library system, among other initiatives.

The winner of the District 8 Democratic primary will face Republican Gary Dennis in November. CHRIS TRAINOR

Richland County Council District 9

Three and a half years after being elected, Calvin “Chip” Jackson is facing three challengers for his seat. The challengers — Jonnieka FarrJerry Rega and Angela Gary Addison — point to many of the same things when describing their priorities to Free Times. All three mention road and infrastructure improvements, overhauling the penny tax program, supporting small businesses and better community engagement as things they’d want to prioritize.

Farr, a business analyst for the state, says she’d also want to focus on youth engagement, while Rega, a local business owner, points to finding a way to address utility price increases and improve internet access. Addison, who founded the nonprofit Believe N Me2, says she wants to focus on improving the district’s safety.

Each of Jackson’s competitors criticize the incumbent for being difficult to communicate with for community members. Jackson admits it’s certainly possible he’s taken too long to reach some constituents, but points to the district’s size as a reason.

Jackson says he’s relying on his record to win him a second term. He points to his chairing of Richland County’s ad-hoc committee overseeing the much derided penny tax program and the changes made to it since then. He also points to his work on economic development by opening up tax breaks for developers and a county purchase of land in Blythewood.

The primary winner will effectively win the seat, as no Republicans or other candidates have filed to run for the seat. DAVID CLAREY

Richland County Council District 10

Dahli Myers Beats Bernice Scott in District 10 Council Primary


In the county’s 10th district, incumbent Dalhi Myers is facing two challengers for her seat — Jackie Bush and Cheryl English. Much like her incumbent counterpart Chip Jackson, Myers emphasizes her accomplishments in an interview with Free Times.

She says she’s spearheaded a yet-to-be announced Internet improvement project, a sewer project that improved the areas near some schools in her district, the moving administration of the county’s penny tax program’s in-house, and property improvements like cleaning up an abandoned trailer park.

Jackie Bush

Jackie Bush

Bush says she’s talked with residents in the district to formulate her priorities, and struggles to pin them down to two or three. Though she mentions water issues and community engagement, she says she gets differing thoughts from different people.

“I can’t really say what’s the real thing that they want, it’s so big,” Bush explains to Free Times.

Cheryl English

Cheryl English

English, who sits on the county’s library board, points to better managing the penny sales tax program and its projects, addressing homeowner’s association issues, improving drinking water and improving streets as points of emphasis.

Myers was dogged by an ethics probe into how she managed campaign funds and expenses earlier this year, but she says she isn’t worried about its effects on her campaign and says it shouldn’t even be considered an ethics probe. Rather, she says it was a case of not tracking receipts for expenses involving volunteers on her campaign and dealing with multiple elections over a short period of time. She acknowledges that “it looks bad” and that she would handle things differently if she could do it over — but she stresses that nothing in the expenditures is improper.

“I’m not worried about it, because I know what happened,” Myers says. “I didn’t steal anything from anybody.”

The primary winner will effectively win the seat, as no Republicans or other candidates have filed to run for the seat. DAVID CLAREY

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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