Archie Parnell

Archie Parnell addresses the media Tuesday in Sumter for the first time since winning the Democratic primary for South Carolina's 5th congressional district. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

SUMTER — Archie Parnell is ready to go back on offense.

In his first news conference since the revelation that he physically abused his ex-wife decades ago, the Sumter Democrat turned attention to his rival and called for U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, to participate in 11 debates with him ahead of the November election, one for each of the counties in South Carolina's 5th congressional district.

"Congressman Norman has said before that he wants this campaign to be about the issues," Parnell said Tuesday. "Well, this is his chance."

Despite the sizable request, Parnell said he does not expect Norman to accept. Parnell, who spent decades working for financial firm Goldman Sachs, criticized the incumbent as a pawn of large corporations and accused him of personally benefiting off the "billionaire tax cut" that House Republicans approved last year.

"I think he's afraid to look the voters in the eye and answer tough questions about why he's done nothing to raise wages for working families in South Carolina and why he's done nothing to keep firearms out of the hands of convicted felons," Parnell said.

Norman chided Parnell for making his new campaign strategy "little more than misguided potshots at me" but said he has no problem defending his record and policy views, which he argued have led to a booming economy.

"While I am happy to highlight the stark differences between the two of us in a public forum, the only debate Mr. Parnell should be concerned with now is the debate raging within his own party regarding his own dishonesty and lack of transparency," Norman said.

Parnell has made few public appearances since divorce records from his first marriage emerged in May, detailing a violent confrontation he had with his then-wife in 1973. 

Many of Parnell's initial campaign staffers quit, outraged that he did not tell them about the incident from the outset and that he rejected their pleas to drop out when they learned about it. On the way out, they took down Parnell's campaign website and publicly voiced their anger. 

Riding a surprise close loss to Norman in a special election last year, Parnell still won the June 12 Democratic primary over three little-known opponents despite the controversy.

Parnell insisted Tuesday that he never hid the divorce, but he acknowledged he did not volunteer details.

"I hope that most of you folks can understand that I was ashamed of that night," Parnell said. "It was not a political decision, it was a personal decision because I was ashamed. It's as simple as that."

He has now assembled a new team, including several veterans of his 2017 special election campaign. Johnston Mayor Terrence Culbreath has taken over as campaign manager. Strategist Michael Wukela, a former advisor to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, is running Parnell's communications. Soon, Parnell expects to resurrect his website.

"I think that this episode has made us actually stronger, our campaign stronger, and certainly made our family stronger," Parnell said. "It shows how we face adversity, it shows how we face up to the truth, how we own the truth, how we don't back away, how we don't hide."

Standing by Parnell's side was veteran state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat who vigorously defended Parnell. Citing her work as a social worker, Cobb-Hunter said there is a difference between an "isolated incident" and a pattern of abuse.

"It happened one time," Cobb-Hunter said. "Archie Parnell is a better man as a result of that incident from 45 years ago because he sought help."

The South Carolina Democratic Party and national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have not changed their views that Parnell should drop out of the race.

But Democrats have not entirely distanced themselves from Parnell.

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Even though Democratic gubernatorial nominee James Smith joined others in calling on Parnell to drop out in May, his political director Kendall Corley is working simultaneously on Parnell's campaign.

Some Democrats feared that the news could have a negative impact on other candidates and hurt the party's credibility as defenders of women. Parnell argued that his decision to stay in could have the opposite effect.

"I think my candidacy will prove to people that my inclusion actually strengthens the party," Parnell said.

Cobb-Hunter suggested Parnell's campaign may be better off without backing from party officials.

"We have learned the lesson from 2016, when we listened to party leaders, when we listened to folks from inside the beltway telling us how to run races," Cobb-Hunter said. "You know what happened? We lost." 

Parnell said he reached out to his ex-wife, Kathleen Hudnall, to warn her when the details of their divorce were about to become public. But he did not share more details of their conversation because he said he wanted to respect her privacy.

"If she were living in the district, I'm sure she would vote for me," Parnell said.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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