Senate District 45 race pits incumbent versus newcomer in largest district in state

Leilani Bessinger (left) and the Rev. Clementa Pinckney are candidates for State Senate District 45.

Charleston County voters who live in the far southern part of the county have a choice between a three-term Democratic incumbent and a Beaufort County Republican businesswoman in the race to represent what many see as South Carolina’s largest and most geographically spread out Statehouse seat.

The Senate District 45 race pits veteran Sen. Clementa Pinckney of Ridgeland against a challenge from political newcomer Leilani Bessinger of Beaufort.

The seat covers all or parts of six counties in lower South Carolina, from Charleston to as far away as Allendale and Hampton counties along the Georgia state line.

Of the district’s 60,000 residents, about 16,500 live in Charleston County, mostly in rural areas around the St. Paul’s precincts and Johns and Wadmalaw islands.

Pinckney is pastor of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church on Calhoun Street in Charleston. He previously served two terms in the state House of Representatives before jumping to the Senate in 2000.

He points to his assignment on the Senate Finance Committee as an example of his seniority in the upper chamber, adding that he has visited all the Charleston schools in the district.

He called road issues one of the most in-need for the Charleston part of the district, saying while extending Interstate 526 has gotten the headlines, parts of Main Road on Johns Island need widening.

“The residents travel Main Road,” he said. Water-quality improvements and land conservation have been among his concerns for southern Charleston County.

Bessinger, a litigation paralegal, is related to the famous South Carolina barbecue family through marriage. She is making her first bid for political office.

As a military brat, Bessinger said she moved around a lot with her Marine Corps veteran father.

As a candidate for office, she advocates term limits of about three terms per office, and wants to change what she called the “good old boy” system in Columbia.

“We have to move forward in South Carolina,” she said.

Like Pinckney, she listed roads, schools and job recruiting as some of the biggest needs in the district.