By Cassie Foss
Area Democrats expressed optimism Sunday afternoon that gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen will reclaim the governor's mansion for their party for the first time in more than a decade.
Sheheen, a second-term state senator from Camden, spoke Sunday afternoon on Hilton Head Island at the annual Picnic in the Park at Jarvis Creek Park hosted by the Democratic Club of Beaufort County South of the Broad. The Camden native won the Democratic gubernatorial primary last month over two challengers, capturing nearly two-thirds of the vote.
Running against Sheheen in Nov. will be GOP candidate Nikki Haley, who last month became the state's first Republican woman nominated for governor. In her three S.C. House terms, she has been known as a politician who has sparred with leadership in the legislature as well as a close ally of Gov. Mark Sanford.
"My opponent's reputation is much different," Sheheen said after the event. "She's really been divisive."
In comparison, Sheheen cited his recent endorsements by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. He also told the crowd of about 150 Sunday that he will focus on job creation and restoring trust to the governor's office, noting recent troubles of the state's high-ranking Republicans.
"We have had a governor, who, for the past eight years, thought it was fun to bash political leaders and business leaders," he said. "I am tired, most of all, of turning on late-night TV and seeing this state as the butt of jokes. It hasn't always been this way in South Carolina, and we're going to make a change this year."
Attendee Loretta Warden, 74, of Hilton Head Island, said the endorsements show the state senator has the ability to work well with different groups.
"He's a fresh voice and I think a candidate who can get both those endorsements is impressive," said Warden, a retired assistant superintendent of schools from New York.
"It will take work. In the past, more have favored Republicans in Beaufort County. But I think there is an openness to new and qualitative ideas that will push us in a new direction. I'm optimistic."
Attendees applauded Sheheen's stance on economic development and public education. As a representative of a district whose largest city has less than 7,000 people, Sheheen said he understands the issues facing rural counties. He said the "crisis" of public education in rural counties results from a system where the quality of education is dictated by where students live.
The solution, he said, is to move to a more equitable state funding formula that would distribute state resources based on need rather than an area's property values. Beaufort County is one of the few in the state not to receive money under the current state formula.
"There should be equity funding for all our schools," Sheheen said. "Beaufort County is treated unfairly. We need to reform the way we fund our schools, focus on creating smaller classrooms and guarantee competitive pay for all our teachers."
Although he said the Beaufort County's tourism industry has the potential to be a "shining star" on the East Coast, he says it still could use a boost from state's chamber of commerce. He said any strategy for reviving tourism on the coast would be tied to reviving economic activity statewide.
He also said the county would be a critical area during the campaign because of its growth and "transformation" over the past decade.
"Don't wait for us to establish an office in Beaufort County in a month," he said. "I need you to start work today."
Other special guests included Shane Miller, wife of Democrat Congressional candidate Rob Miller, and Robert Fludd, Lowcountry Regional Field Director for Organizing for America, a community organizing project of the Democratic National Committee.
Fludd, who worked for President Barack Obama's campaign in Charleston during the primary, said voter contact was essential to get people to the polls.
Hilton Head resident Renee Smith, 58, said candidates like Sheheen and Rob Miller inspired her. Smith said she plans on volunteering to help get the word out.
"Obama needs help in Congress," she said. "We are hopeful."