Rex: I can win statewide

Democratic candidate for governor Jim Rex.

Mary Ann Chastain

COLUMBIA -- Jim Rex walks up to one table after another at Pizza Hut and Subway and M Cafe in the blocks surrounding the Statehouse and tells those he meets that he is the state superintendent of education, he's the only Democrat elected to statewide office and he's running for governor.

He'd like their vote. He hands them a flier that is not much bigger than a bookmark, answers questions and moves on to the next table.

Chances are they won't see much of Rex in television commercials before the June 8 primary. He doesn't have much of a budget for that, and he doesn't think that's the way to win elections these days anyway.

Rex has an advantage that the other Democratic candidates don't: People all the across the state already know who he is because of his position overseeing the state's public schools. But he wants to let them know that his campaign isn't just about education.

He plans to visit all 46 counties in South Carolina between now and Election Day. He travels in a pick-up truck that runs on bio-diesel and has a camper in its bed.

On the first day of his tour, Rex extends his right hand to Charles Johnson of West Columbia while Johnson waits to order a fish sandwich at Greek Boys at Hampton and Sumter streets in the heart of the capital city.

"Nice to meet you," Johnson says. "I've heard about you."

Johnson says he is unsure which candidate he'll back for governor, but he knows it won't be a Republican. He likes that Rex is taking the time to meet voters, but he says personality won't win him over. Johnson says he needs to study Rex's platform before he's sold.

One of the first things Rex wants voters to know is that he is not a career politician. He is an "after-career politician" and that state education superintendent is the only public office he's ever sought or held.

He says he is not a Columbia insider and that he's not a partisan. And although it hurts his fundraising ability, Rex sees his status outside the party establishment as a big selling point. He had about $113,000 on hand in his campaign account, according to the latest filing period. One of his competitors, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, finished the quarter with $800,000 in available cash while the other, state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston, had $53,000.

"I am the only candidate who has demonstrated he can win as a Democrat in a statewide race," Rex says over his own lunch, a plate of fried chicken and fish with succotash at Mac's on Main with Barry "Chef Fatback" Walker's peach cobbler.

"The others are saying they think they can. They hope they can. I have demonstrated that people will cross over and vote for me. A Democrat can't win a statewide race in South Carolina unless they get crossover votes."

As governor, Rex says he would establish an Office of Job Creation to develop regional portfolios that can be used to identify prospects and bring new companies to all parts of the state.

He has a lot of other ideas aimed at enriching people's lives through education and employment, including extending unemployment benefits to individuals in certain training programs.

He wants a "nuclear renaissance" that leans on the expertise of South Carolinians who have worked in nuclear energy at the Savannah River Site near Aiken and elsewhere.

Rex says he also wants to shepherd comprehensive tax reform through the state that will reform the way public education is funded. He wants the Legislature to raise the cigarette tax to the national average and use the money for health care and education. And he thinks South Carolina needs to work on its image problem by marketing its strengths.

Rex says he stands out in the field because of his executive experience as president of Columbia College, a vice president at the University of South Carolina and now as superintendent of the Department of Education, a $3 billion state agency.

He lists what he says have been his successes in his current job: working effectively with Republicans and Democrats, leading efforts to change standardized testing for students in South Carolina, championing a set of legislative reforms that granted school districts unprecedented flexibility to manage individual budgets in the economic downturn and gaining legislative buy-in for a program designed to turn schools around by replacing teachers and principals who weren't getting the job done.

Rex says his polling shows that he would win another term as education superintendent; but after more than three years in the job, he says he has learned that he can't make the changes the state needs from that post.

"I can't get at it in this office," he says.