Dems discuss jobs plans at debate


COLUMBIA -- The state's Democratic candidates for governor revealed their plans for addressing South Carolina's high unemployment rate while working on turning around the state's damaged image.

The candidates -- Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston, Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden -- spotlighted their personalities and drew distinctions from one another in the hour-long debate that capped a weekend of events for the party.

The primary is June 8.

Ford, a 61-year-old community-builder who was first elected to the Senate in 1993, said his plan to bring back video poker and open a casino in Myrtle Beach would spur enough revenue to expand the movie industry, which he said actor Morgan Freeman told him could create between 80,000 and 100,000 new jobs in South Carolina. He would also hire 10,000 new teachers with gaming money.

Rex, a 68-year-old who calls himself "an after-career politician," said he would create an Office of Job Creation in the Governor's Office to regionalize the state's recruitment efforts. The office would work with community and business leaders to put together portfolios for areas in the state, he said.

As governor, Rex said he also would use training and education to prepare a modern workforce.

Sheheen, a 38-year-old lawyer who has served in the Statehouse since 2001, said he would open a new office to focus on small business growth and that he would recruit industry throughout the state and push for residents to have opportunities to be trained in the high-demand, high-earning fields of nursing and medical support.

"We can do better and I am committed to doing better as our next governor," Sheheen said.

Each also offered up plans for tapping into economic growth though the expansion of green energy. Sheheen said South Carolina must embrace wind energy and the power of solar panels and continue its hydrogen research efforts. Ford wants the state to bolster activity at the planned wind turbine testing facility on the old Navy Base in North Charleston. Rex said elected officials should encourage entrepreneurs who develop new technology such as the use of biofuels.

The state's unemployment rate -- 12.2 percent -- was among the highest in the nation in March, the latest month for which data is available. Economists estimate it will take years for the double-digit rate to drop to pre-recession levels, which was half what the rate is now.

The candidates also were asked to weigh in on their ideas for improving the state's image, having suffered a few blows in recent years with various Republican missteps, including Gov. Mark Sanford's affair.

Ford said elected officials bring on the problems themselves and that members of the public can be guilty of the same missteps.

"When we ask people to vote for us, we're asking people to vote for a public servant, not a god, not a prince, just a servant," Ford said. "I want to be your servant."

Rex said the state could benefit from a professionally designed marketing program, perhaps paid for with private dollars, to let the rest of the country know about the higher- education opportunities, the "advancing public school system" and the state's natural resources, among other attributes.

Sheheen said the key is for the next governor to work with the federal government, South Carolina's counties and the Legislature and not spend the term fighting but working cooperatively together.

"And then other states in this union and people around the world will take notes and they'll understand that we are a serious people and that we are a friendly people and that we are a very proud people," he said.

The debate followed the Democratic Convention, which drew an estimated 1,400 delegates and party loyalists, many of whom stayed for the debate. No officers were elected at the convention this year, but the party used the gathering to rally its loyalists around the candidates up and down the ballot.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or