Sheheen offering a new vision

Democratic candidate for governor Vincent Sheheen

Mary Ann Chastain

COLUMBIA -- Vincent Sheheen jogs on stage with the vitality and freshness of youth and stands before about 1,400 Democratic Party loyalists. He has about five minutes to try to win them over.

Robert Ford, state senator from Charleston, and Jim Rex, the state's superintendent of education, already have had their chance to speak at the party's annual convention. Sheheen's last name puts him third out of three in the alphabetical lineup of Democrats running for governor.

The members of the audience find their seats and at least two dozen Sheheen supporters stretch across the front of the stage at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. The candidate's three young sons stand with the others, each holding their dad's blue-and-white campaign signs.

Sheheen, a lawyer and a state senator from Camden, draws a line, but it's not between him and Ford and Rex. It's between the Republicans and the

Democrats, us and them.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this year we're on a mission," he says into the microphone. "We're on a mission to explain to the state of South Carolina how we got in the mess that we are in."

He says under the Republican majority, the state has gone to record-high unemployment. Then he reminds the crowd of recent GOP scandals and controversial statements: the indictment of then- Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Sharpe on charges of extortion connected to cockfighting; former state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel's cocaine use; GOP candidate for governor and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer's comparison of the poor to stray animals; U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" shouted at President Barack Obama; and Gov. Mark Sanford's 37 ethics charges.

"I am proud to be a Democrat," Sheheen says. "We will win: 2010 is the year of the Democrat."

By some measures, Sheheen is considered the party's frontrunner. He was endorsed by one-time challenger Mullins McLeod, a Charleston lawyer, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and former Gov. Jim Hodges, among others. Sheheen also has the most money in the bank, with $800,000 on hand, compared to Rex's $113,000 and Ford's $53,000, according to the most recent finance reports.

Sheheen says he had to work for the support by traveling the state and selling his vision and style to the party's established leadership and the emerging generation of Democrats.

Harold Young of Orangeburg watched the three Democratic gubernatorial candidates at the party's convention, but he says he doesn't know which one he'll vote for. He wants to find the candidate who will do the most for public schools and to end the poverty and struggle along Interstate 95.

"It's a tough choice," Young says.

To the voters of the June 8 primary, Sheheen says he wants them to know that he is committed to making state government work again, that it should be part of the solution to the problems facing South Carolina. He says he is committed to job creation for all regions of the state. And he wants them to also know that he is vested in public schools.

"I come from a very small town and I represent a very rural district that faces a lot of difficulties," Sheheen says. "I have worked both in the House and the Senate and to be successful in this state, you have to work with the Legislature.

"I am part of this new generation of leadership."

Sheheen is more than 20 years younger than his Democratic opponents, who are each in their 60s. He also notes that a lot of his viewpoints come from being a parent with three children in South Carolina public schools.

The cornerstone of Sheheen's platform is a plan to create jobs. He says wants to lean on ideas that have worked in the past, including tapping into the technical schools and utilizing state resources such as Santee Cooper to spur job growth. He has new ideas, too. Sheheen would add a division of small business and entrepreneurship to the state Department of Commerce.

He also would set out a plan to help high-unemployment areas of the state transition from manufacturing to new solid, middle-class jobs in nursing and medical support. Likewise, Sheheen says that embracing the development of alternative fuels will provide new opportunities, specifically for rural areas.

He's got detailed plans for public education to focus away from standardized tests and toward empowering teachers. He wants people to also know that he was named one of the Senate's conservation champions last year by the League of Conservation Voters and he sees a link between economic development and conservation.

Combined, he says, his plans create a new vision for the state.

"Key things need to change in South Carolina."