Race for treasurer heats up

Chellis

This year's most bruising statewide primary pits a Columbia businessman against GOP Treasurer Converse Chellis, who is the incumbent even though he has never won a statewide race.

Challenger Curtis Loftis has campaigned on what he calls Chellis' shortcomings, hammering him on issues from his handling of an education-related ad campaign to the number of hours he has spent on the job -- even on the state car he drives.

"I only want to talk about his performance in office," Loftis said, "but he won't engage me in any way. He won't debate."

Chellis, who lives in Summerville, said he's running on his resume and what he's done during the past three years.

He expressed exasperation with the distortions he feels Loftis has lobbed his way and said he might have left politics long ago had his first election experience been like this one.

"It's horrible what he's doing. It's got to be one of the most negative campaigns that's ever been run in the state of South Carolina," Chellis said.

"It makes me want to cry," he added. "The guy has no values, and he says it with a straight face. I've challenged him, and he said, 'You're calling me a liar.' I said, 'I'm not calling you a liar, I'm just telling you … you're misrepresenting the facts.' He just goes nuts over it."

Three years ago, Chellis was in his sixth term as a state representative from Summerville when his colleagues elected him to the office that Treasurer Thomas Ravenel resigned after being charged with dealing cocaine.

While Chellis has run for office several times, he's a novice campaigner. He never faced opposition when he was running for the House District 94 seat. The June 8 primary will be his first with an opponent.

Loftis, who built his family's small pest-control company into a large one and then founded the Saluda Charitable Foundation and worked under Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer's Office on Aging, hopes to capitalize on the "throw the bums out" sentiment commonly heard at Tea Party rallies.

"My weakness is the party GOP establishment. They want things to stay as they are," he said, "but there are just a few of those people, and there are about 350,000 people who are going to vote in the primary."

Loftis has made headway, winning a straw poll for the treasurer's seat in Berkeley County, not far from Chellis' home.

Loftis vowed to increase transparency in the office, to create a fraud detection team and to work for an inspector general's position within the Budget and Control Board.

"I want to get in. I want to bust the house up. I want people to know where the money goes," he said

He also vowed to decline the state car given to constitutional office holders, to refuse his retirement pay and to serve no more than two terms.

Chellis said he saved taxpayers $255 million by recently refinancing the state's tobacco bonds. He increased the amount of unclaimed property returned to state residents. And he consolidated his office's human resource functions with that of Agricultural Commissioner Hugh Weathers to save money.

Chellis also helped increase the number of local governments submitting their audits and court fees to the state by withholding state aid. And he said he's proudest of his role in stabilizing the state's retirement system by finding a formula to adjust the cost of living increases.

"That's probably one of the most significant bills that has gone through the Legislature in the last 20 or 30 years," he said. "It solved a problem that couldn't get solved before."

About the worst Chellis will throw back at his opponent is that Loftis has nowhere near his level of experience.

But Loftis has been busy criticizing Chellis' record. He said Chellis improperly altered a state contract with Bank of America to produce television commercials touting the state's 529 College Savings program.

"One, he shouldn't have done it. Two, he shouldn't have used public funds to put himself on TV," Loftis said. "Our CEO is walking around changing contracts with a handshake? It gives you a glimpse of the culture in Columbia."

Chellis said he didn't amend the contract. Rather, he said he produced a few low-budget ads -- the first cost just under $10,000 -- to let South Carolinians know about the state's college savings program. The program is so well regarded that 52 percent of those investing in it once lived outside South Carolina, even though only South Carolinians got a state tax credit for investing their money in it.

Chellis said he had only brief appearances in a few ads - some featured college football coaches or mascots - and the ads worked.

"The results have been so good," he said. "We've added 20,000 new accounts."

Loftis also has blasted Chellis for working only about 11 hours a week for his $92,007 annual salary. He based his numbers on copies of Chellis' official schedule.

"I don't want to pick on the man personally. I want to show you the culture of leadership in Columbia," Loftis said. "Five hundred people run this state, and the rest of us pay the bills. And this guy is the ultimate insider."

But Chellis said all his working hours aren't entered on that schedule and that he has worked as many as 60 hours during some weeks. "I think my record shows I work pretty hard," he said.

And Loftis has criticized Chellis' choice of state-owned car and its equipment, a Chevy Tahoe with a navigation pack and a tow package.

"This is a plantation owner's car," Loftis said. "He needs it because he doesn't work on Mondays and Fridays."

Chellis said he got the navigation package because he travels all over the state, and the navigation package came with the SUV, which he said costs the state less than six of the eight vehicles the state provides to constitutional officeholders.

He or his campaign reimburses the state for any personal or campaign use of it.

The race took a twist last week as the Spartanburg Herald Journal printed a column critical of Chellis bringing Deputy Treasurer Scott Malyerck to a campaign interview. State employees can't be involved in campaigns while on the clock. Columnist Lane Filler said that, when pressed, Malyerck offered three different explanations while Chellis remained silent.

Loftis said it was a telling incident.

"It's not a surprise to anybody who understands the culture in Columbia," he said. "State government office is used to re-elect the incumbent every four years."

Chellis said he often asks Malyerck, who has worked for three other treasurers, to tag along with him when he meets with the media. Chellis denied Malyerck was campaigning on the taxpayer's time.

Chellis said after this election, he probably will be a politician, with the battle scars to prove it.

"I've never seen such brutalism," he said. "I'm a good guy. I'm a knowledgeable guy. I'm not seeking this job by rhetoric. I'm seeking it mainly because I've walked the walk. I've done everything these conservative Republicans want a conservative to do."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or rbehre@postandcourier.com.