McMaster playing up his experience

Republican candidate for governor Henry McMaster.

Wade Spees

A hush falls over the room after a waiter knocks two plates of roast pork onto the floor, but state Attorney General Henry McMaster ignores the accident and remains in high gear.

He had stopped with the jokes a few minutes before, and his speech is now delivered in a more earnest, rapid tone as he tells the group of 100 Charleston County GOP women about his record in office and his vision for the state.

"I'm running for governor to help put South Carolina back on the path to prosperity," he said. "I'm the one who has the executive experience, not once but twice, first as Ronald Reagan's first U.S. Attorney and then for the last eight years as your attorney general."

McMaster then cites some of his accomplishments in both jobs, such as prosecuting corruption in Dillon County, fighting drugs or finding better ways to pursue those who commit domestic violence or try to approach youths for sex over the Internet.

He notes his support for amending the state constitution to clarify that marriage here is between a man and a woman, and he tells them of his ongoing legal fight against prostitution ads on the Internet site Craigslist.

McMaster then said he was one of 14 attorneys general who filed a lawsuit over the recent health care reform bill only six minutes after President Barack Obama signed it. McMaster calls the new law "the most unconstitutional mandate that the U.S. government has ever taken."

"The Constitution does not give them that authority," he said. "We've got to protect the sovereignty of the states and the liberty of the people, and if that law is upheld, that means there is no limit what the national government can tell the people to do and not to do.

"That's what I'm doing. I've been in the arena, taking action," he added. "When I say, 'I'm going to do this and I'm going to do that,' I want you to judge me by what I've done in the past because I've made promises in the past, and I've delivered on those promises."

Lynn Childers of Charleston was unsure who she would support for governor before hearing McMaster, but he won her over.

"I was very impressed," she said. "He's done what he's said he would do. As far as I'm concerned, he's our new governor."

McMaster said he has a vision for marketing the state's ports, agriculture, tourism and higher education, and it begins with comprehensive tax reform.

"Boeing came here," he said, "but it was not because of an integrated approach made to them. It was despite the lack of it."

While fielding questions from the audience, McMaster said Arizona's new law that requires police to check if someone is in the country legally is "a good law, in my estimation."

He also said he favors offshore drilling. "I realize we have to be careful." He said drilling for natural gas instead of oil would pose less danger to the state's beaches.

Another question is posed by Susan McLester, who was wearing a T-shirt that read, "Republican. Because everyone can't be on welfare." She asked him if he supports eliminating the state's tax on food, as some other states have done.

McMaster said he wants a comprehensive reform package that lawmakers would vote up or down, similar to how Congress handled military-base closures in the 1990s. "All taxes aren't equal," he said. "Some really put a hurting on development."

McLester later said she didn't think he answered her question. "That makes me less likely (to vote for him)," she said, "even though he's friends with my best friend's father."

But McMaster is more apt to focus on the big picture than on specific points, such as how a certain tax should be changed.

Of all the gubernatorial candidates, no one seems to tout the state's assets on the stump more than McMaster, and a central point is that the state's economic future relies on educating residents to compete in the 21st century.

"The path to prosperity goes right through higher education," he said as he was leaving the meeting, en route to his next stop. "That's the only way you get there. We have to have a knowledge-based economy. Some call it an 'innovative economy.' I believe that."

McMaster says he favors incentives and would like the state to develop clusters of nuclear-, health care- and tourism-related businesses similar to the automotive cluster that sprang up around BMW in the Upstate.

"We're not thinking big enough," he said. "That's the difference between my vision and plans and strategy and the others."