COLUMBIA — A Republican attorney and S.C. Senate hopeful spent Friday crossing the Upstate handing out 5,000 campaign-branded masks to first responders and their families.
But he ended up with about 1,200 of them stacked in his downtown Greenwood law office because Greenwood County officials said distributing them to county employees violated state election law and gave them back.
Billy Garrett Jr., 62, wanted to make sure front-line workers were protected from the novel coronavirus, so he spent $5,000 in campaign funds to create the masks, which went to recipients in Abbeville, Greenwood, McCormick and Saluda counties — all areas included in the large Senate District 10 region, currently represented by Greenwood Democrat Floyd Nicholson.
The red-and-white cloth masks read "Stronger Together,” over an outline of the state, and carry a disclaimer that they were paid for “By Garrett for SC Senate.”
“We believe these face masks are an important part of helping folks get back to work safely, and more important than another political TV commercial,” Garrett said in a press release announcing the distribution run.
One of his stops was in front of the Greenwood County Courthouse, and that’s where the problem started.
“The logo is the same one on Mr. Garrett’s campaign signs, and the colors are also the same. I believe that this logo and statement constitute campaigning,” Greenwood County Manager Toby Chappell said. “While Greenwood County is appreciative of any organization that would like to provide our first responders with personal protective equipment, we must do so in a manner that is in keeping with state, local and federal laws.”
State law prohibits the use of government personnel, facilities or materials for electioneering.
Chappell said the roughly 1,200 masks were returned to Garrett, accompanied by a brief explanation about why the county couldn’t accept them. The story was first reported Monday by the Index-Journal newspaper in Greenwood.
Garrett told The Post and Courier on Tuesday that the protective gear wasn’t meant to rustle up votes. And because the masks are considered campaign materials under state law, they won’t be allowed at the polls either, although state election officials are encouraging people to take precautions when they go vote.
Garrett, who ordered the masks from a Greenwood County-based business that repurposed its production line to manufacture them, said he wasn’t trying to rustle up votes.
Garrett said he handed out the masks at locations requested by the recipients, which is what brought him to the courthouse.
“The first responsibility of government is common defense. That is their responsibility. I shouldn’t have to be out there giving them masks but if the government’s not going to provide the means, we as private citizens can step up and help, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “The last thing I want to see is anybody die because somebody didn’t have a mask.”
Still the masks are considered campaign material and are banned from polling locations on primary day, state elections officials said.
Nicholson, a former Greenwood mayor, was first elected to the Senate in 2009. Garrett will primary Ninety Six resident Bryan Hope in a June 9 primary.