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Naida Rutherford recaps historic coroner's race victory

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Naida Rutherford headshot

Naida Rutherford

It might have taken a while for the tally to come in, but when it did, history was made in Richland County.

The June 9 election primaries in the state’s capital county were marked by trouble at the polls, with a huge shortage of poll workers because of coronavirus fears, combined polling places, and hourslong waits at some precincts.

But when full results were finally posted in the early morning hours of June 10, there was one primary contest — the Democratic race for Richland County Coroner — that jumped off the page.

That’s where Naida Rutherford — a nurse practitioner and first-time political candidate — defeated five-term incumbent coroner Gary Watts, who was first elected to the position in 2000. And it was not just a win for Rutherford, but a particularly resounding victory. A clear landslide. She picked up 59 percent of the vote (30,459 total votes), to Watts’ 41 percent (20,896 votes).

There is no Republican or third-party candidate in the coroner’s race, meaning Rutherford will secure the position in November. She will be the first African American and the first woman to be the coroner of Richland County.

Speaking with Free Times a couple days after her victory, Rutherford says she is particularly appreciative of voters who stayed in line on June 9 despite challenges at the polls.

“I love to see so many people show up to exercise their right to vote, despite the frustrations,” she says. “They stayed. I stayed in line with voters until almost midnight to support them, just in solidarity to be out there with them. It was very frustrating. But it’s a humbling experience, to know that that many people cast their vote for you.

“They really wanted change. The fact that people stayed so late and dealt with all the frustrations is just a testament to the climate we’re in, and that people really wanted to make their voices heard.”

Rutherford, who has a biology degree from Benedict College and a Master of Science in Nursing degree from the University of South Carolina, says she has actually been considering running for coroner for a number of years. She also says she took note of the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, an African American man who was killed when a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Initial autopsy reports in that case connected Floyd’s death to pre-existing health conditions, but an independent review later said he died of asphyxiation.

“We wanted to make sure that the citizens of Richland County know that there is someone who can independently and clinically assess a death without allegiance to other offices, that we can truly provide an independent review,” she says. “I bring that to the table. So, specifically with the coroner’s office, I wanted to make sure the deceased have a voice, their families have a voice, but more importantly that the citizens of Richland County understand what the coroner’s office is supposed to do, and what resources are available to them.”

Rutherford recognizes the historic nature of her election, though she notes that it shouldn’t have taken this long for Richland to have elected its first African American and first woman coroner.

“It saddens me that, in 2020, we’re still having firsts of this kind,” she says. “I’m humbled by this first. But I’m also very proud that black and brown people who may not have known what the coroner’s office does or had any idea about who the current coroner is or was, that they can see someone that is reflective of them in their life, and find inspiration in that.”

Rutherford notes that she will focus on, among other things, partnerships with citizens when she is coroner.

“One of the first things I will do is meet with the community partners and the community organizations and have a consortium, if you will, so that we can talk about how the coroner’s office may best benefit the community,” she says. “Then we have some things we will do on public health, and make sure we are looking at health disparities and how the coroner’s office may be able to assist with that and actually have active programs that are for the people, truly for the community.”

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