In Prosperity, Dems stump for top job

Bill Waldrop (standing), chairman of the Newberry County Democratic Party, introduces the candidates for governor Wednesday in Prosperity. From left are Superintendent of Education Jim Rex; Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston; attorney Dwight Drake of Columbi

PROSPERITY -- It took just 30 seconds on Wednesday for the Democrats to go where no Republican would: Gov. Mark Sanford's affair.

Five of the Democrats running for governor gathered along with a 100-plus, standing-room-only crowd in a barbecue joint in this quiet community about 150 miles from Charleston.

The night was planned to be a chance for the candidates to spend 15 minutes introducing themselves to the community, but turned into an improvised debate at Hamm's Hawg Heaven Barbeque.

Hopeful Dwight Drake, a Columbia attorney, started things off.

"Last night, the Republicans were here, and what we learned was, there's no difference between those who are running for the Republican nomination and the current governor except two things: Far as we know, they all take fewer vacations and they all have fewer girlfriends," Drake said, as the supporters picked at what Southern fixings were left on their plates.

The scene Tuesday for the GOP's first debate was much different. At the historic Newberry Opera House about 10 miles down the road, a sold-out crowd of 400 watched the Republicans debate on stage.

Other than Sanford, the Democratic candidates -- Drake, state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston, attorney Mullins McLeod of Charleston, state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex; and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden -- touched on unemployment and job creation, private school vouchers, public school choice, health care and other matters.

Drake, a longtime lobbyist, has nearly $109,000 on hand, according to the most recent campaign disclosure forms. He has never run for office before, but said he first considered his gubernatorial run when Sanford did not immediately request a federal loan to fund unemployment benefits last December.

Drake said he was prepared to lead the state, citing his work for former Govs. John West and Dick Riley and his involvement in luring BWM to the state.

"The biggest problem we have is the highest unemployment in the South," Drake said. "We need to have a governor who understands how to spend his time. I intend to be that somebody. I will be a governor who will go anywhere, meeting with anybody, anytime of the day to bring jobs to this state."

Ford of Charleston, who has $31 in his gubernatorial account and $5,900 in his Senate campaign fund, is a community developer trained by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He has served in the Senate since 1993 and previously served on Charleston City Council, and is one of the most controversial candidates. He breaks party ranks and promotes tax credits, vouchers and scholarships for private schools.

Ford also trotted out his plan to legalized video poker that he says will generate $4 billion, 40,000 new jobs and 3,000 new business.

"South Carolina's got a lot of serious problems. I want to be about solving those problems. We need money to solve those problems," Ford said. "Right now, I am the only candidate that's talking about money. Now, I know a lot of people don't like the kind of money I'm talking about."

McLeod, a past county party chairman, has about $156,000 on-hand in his campaign war chest, according to disclosure forms.

He talked about the need for new jobs in South Carolina, and used as an example the possibility of Boeing's second production line of its new 787 jetliner coming to Charleston and bringing thousands of jobs and triggering spin-off industries.

"Where's our governor? He's on a forgiveness tour. He's playing politics," McLeod said. "My question to Governor Sanford is, why aren't you on a jobs tour. My question for Governor Sanford is, why aren't you camped out at Boeing with your hands out, saying 'What do you need? How can we help? How can we bring you to South Carolina? We need you. We want you.' "

Rex of Columbia, who is the latest Democrat to jump in the race, had a little more than $9,000 in his education superintendent campaign account. He took on a question about funding health care for residents. First, Rex said the state must attract more instructors at nursing programs. Second, he said, South Carolina needs to put more money into Medicaid as an investment to draw down more federal money. Comprehensive tax reform is one way to generate cash to do that, he said.

"We have a tax system in South Carolina that is so antiquated, so inefficient and so broken that all of us are paying higher taxes because special interest groups over 30 years ago have gotten themselves caps or exceptions from paying what they should be paying -- their fair share," Rex said. The Legislature created a panel to study this issue and make recommendations back to lawmakers.

Sheheen, who served in the House from 2001 to 2004 and in the Senate since 2004, has about $460,000 in the bank with $13,600 on-hand in his Senate account. He said the state is lacking leadership and a vision that, for example, will ensure the State Ports Authority is an economic development tool.

"We will win this election if we talk about the big issues facing South Carolina," Sheheen said. "If we talk about how we're going to change this state, reform our government, increase the cigarette tax and fund health care. If we talk about these things and we are not afraid, we will win. We must win."

The Rev. Amos A. Elliott of Charleston also is in the running for the Democratic nomination for governor but he did not attend the stump meeting and he has not filed campaign fund disclosure forms.