Democratic debate

Charleston businessman Phil Noble (left), state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia (middle) and Florence attorney Marguerite Willis (right) at the first debate of the Democratic primary for South Carolina governor in Columbia on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — The 2018 Democratic primary for South Carolina governor is off to a combative start.

From the get-go of the first debate Friday evening at the Palmetto State Progressive Summit in Columbia, the candidates often swung from highlighting their own credentials to take aim at their opponents.

At first, the three contenders sought to establish the narratives of their early candidacies.

State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, highlighted his military background as teaching him values of service and a commitment to others. Charleston businessman Phil Noble described his platform as one of radical change to shake up the "plantation politics" in Columbia. Florence antitrust attorney Marguerite Willis labeled herself as a "practical problem-solver."

Then the jabs began.

When Smith touted a 22-year service record of helping to boost women's heath and employment rights, Willis asked why he couldn't get an equal pay law passed in the Legislature in all that time.

Noble pointed out that Smith used to have an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association. Smith pushed back, noting he has supported several firearm restrictions and has focused particularly on keeping guns out of the hands of convicted felons. His NRA rating has decreased in recent years.

Later, Willis blasted Noble for saying that he would be open to firing many teachers in the state. Noble did not back down, saying that the source of education deficiencies in the state is in adults, not children.

"We have an adult problem in education, we don't have a kid problem, and we're failing our kids," Noble said.

If solving that problem means firing as many as a third of the state's teachers, he said, so be it.

"I make no apologies for doing everything we have to do to fix education in South Carolina and fix it now," Noble said, yelling and pounding his fists on the table by the climax of his answer.

Asked what they will do to mobilize black voters, Noble noted his endorsement from longtime friend Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who swept into office in the deep red state with significant help from a massive African-American turnout.

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On several topics, the candidates found consensus at the debate moderated Bakari Sellers, a former state lawmaker who is now a CNN political commentator.

All three candidates called for legalizing medical marijuana, describing it as part of the solution for the opioid crisis in the state that's being missed. All three said they would oppose school choice, the use of public dollars to send students to private or charter schools.

Noble and Smith said they support the right of workers to unionize, while Willis said she does not — a moment that created a ripple of murmurs among the progressive crowd.

And all three shared a common foe: Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who the Democrats chided as the consummate GOP insider. 

Republicans have seized on the early infighting, suggesting it will threaten Democrats' chances to stage an upset in the general election. No Democrat has won a governor's race since 1998.

But South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson said he is excited about the contested primary because it will mean that voters are paying attention to the candidates by the time a nominee emerges.

“It gives us an opportunity to clearly display an agenda to move South Carolina forward," Roberson said.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.