GEORGETOWN — Georgetown's five primary Democratic city council candidates Sheldon Butts, Tupelo Humes, Ronald McInnis, Lee Padgett and Dennzon Winley debated on May 24 topics such as bringing jobs that pay living wages to the city.
Because there are five Democrats vying for only three at-large city council seats, there will be a Democrat primary election June 8. The three top vote getters will go up against the two Republican candidates — brief incumbent Jonathan Angner and Jimmy Morris — in November.
Because there are only two Republicans running, there is no need for the party to have a primary vote.
Deb Smith, moderator of the debate and Georgetown Democratic Party's former chairperson, started the debate by asking the candidates which party platform values — inclusion, justice, compassion, dignity, ensuring safety and livelihood of the youth, accessible voting, economy and balancing growth with protecting the environment — would influence their policy most.
McInnis and Padgett both emphasized the importance of making Georgetown a safe and empowered place for children to grow up.
"We can promote nonprofits that pour into our youth through after school programs, empowering them in their soft skills," McInnis said, emphasizing his experience in the city and county working with children through his work at Helping Hands.
Winley, a political newcomer and the youngest on the panel, said while he agreed with what the candidates before him said about youth empowerment, what mattered more to him was ensuring equity across the city.
If elected, Winley said he would focus on ensuring any project receives equitable investment in the community, particularly communities that have previously been underserved.
"We still live in the South of the United States, inequality is rampant," Winley said.
The second question discussed how many say there is not only a racial divide in Georgetown, but an economic and infrastructure divide, too. The candidates were asked whether or not they agreed with this, and if so, how they'd work to address it.
Butts said there is, in fact, a socioeconomic divide in Georgetown, agreeing to the statement. Anyone who doesn't see the divide, he said, has not really seen Georgetown.
"We have to be able to call an ace an ace, and a spade a spade ... We can deal with (the socioeconomic divide) as long as we can say it is true," Butts said, referencing Padgett, who spoke before him, saying he didn't think the city is as divided as others may.
Humes, an incumbent to council, said the key to overcoming the divides in the city is working together. While the divide does exist, he said, it is the job of elected officials to work to bridge it in the best way possible for all.
"If we're fighting about partisan and nonpartisan and strong and weak forms of governments, what do we expect from our citizens? It starts with us," Humes said.
The third question dealt with how to bring jobs that pay living wages to the city. Padgett said Georgetown has huge potential to have high paying jobs in it, but it has to work to make sure businesses want to come and build in it.
"We've got a huge corporate influence and we've got to fight back and get back to the basics," Padgett said, adding that shopping and eating local is essential to the city's economy.
In Winley's response, he addressed what he called "the elephant in the room": Liberty Steel. Winley said having a plan for what to do if the land goes for sale is vital to bringing jobs into the city, and he believes the plan should involve bringing young professionals in and guiding them on how to be successful.
Whether or not the steel mill makes it, Humes said dredging the Georgetown Port is a viable option for the city's success. Winley questioned if the economic vitality of the city truly depended on the port dredging, to which Humes did not reply.
The fourth and final question addressed local businesses specifically, and how the candidates would work to help revitalize the small businesses in the city after the tumultuous year and a half they had because of the pandemic.
Butts said adding parking meters into downtown could bring income to the city to help alleviate economic stress on small businesses. Humes said before the pandemic, he really saw no small businesses struggle, so the end of the pandemic should see a natural revitalization of small businesses.
Building relationships and encouraging residents to support their neighbors who are local business owners is key, McInnis said, though he also said he doesn't know the best way to support small businesses, specifically downtown.
Padgett said cutting fees and taxes would be the best way to help small businesses, but given the proposed 2021-22 city budget, which includes many fee increases, he doesn't see that as a feasible option.
"Prayer, right now, for everybody that owns a business to be able to overcome this is a huge thing," Padgett said.
Voters can check their registration and polling place ahead of the June 8 election with the Georgetown County elections and voter registration office or on scvotes.gov.