Local and State News

S.C. Democrats Square Off Against Outsider Senate Candidate

By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014 |
(L-R) Jay Stamper, S.C. Sen. Brad Hutto
The Democratic Party primary to decide who will face off against Lindsey Graham in November has devolved into an exchange of barbs between party insiders intent on protecting their brand against further damage by hack politicians, and the consummate outsider candidate, Jay Stamper.

Stamper is such an outsider that no in-state Democrats even seem to know what he’s doing in South Carolina, having arrived here from Seattle last year shortly before announcing his candidacy.

Since then, he’s had trouble shaking a shadowy image, given that what little is known of his background includes Internet hijinks aimed at elected officials and pleading guilty to three state felony charges stemming from sketchy-sounding business deals. The similarities to Alvin Greene — the out-of-nowhere 2010 Democratic challenger to former senator Jim DeMint, whose candidacy humiliated the party and still has the media scratching their heads — cause many a faithful Democrat to shudder.

So, just before the candidates’ filing deadline, S.C. Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg stepped up, hoping to shoulder the Democratic banner against Graham and help his party avoid another “only in South Carolina” moment.

The acrimony between Stamper and the state Democratic party first emerged last November on the candidate’s campaign website in the form of a blog post titled “I Won’t Back Down.” In it, Stamper claimed an unnamed party official had urged him to drop out of the race after he stated his support for marriage equality.

“Apparently, certain well-connected ‘party elders’ believe that my candidacy is a distraction that will only hurt Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen by highlighting his opposition to marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights,” Stamper wrote. “Now, my campaign is meeting resistance from the last place I expected: from within the state party establishment.”

Last week, Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison identified himself to Free Times as that unnamed official and offered a more detailed version of the meeting.

“I kicked [Stamper] and his wife out of my office, and anybody who knows me knows that I’d never do that unless something is really, really wrong,” Harrison says.

Apparently, the meeting began cordially enough.

“I asked him to come so we could talk about his candidacy and told him I thought his candidacy was problematic,” Harrison says. “I told him, ‘To have you come to South Carolina and say you’re going to run for Senate and represent us and this party without [us] having any knowledge — and the knowledge that we do have is that you’re a convicted felon, you’ve run these Internet scams in the past — I just laid out X, Y and Z and said, ‘That’s problematic.’”

Harrison says he suggested that Stamper get settled in South Carolina and run for local office, let voters get to know him; but, in the course of the discussion, Stamper’s wife — “the brains behind the operation” — kept interjecting.

“Finally I stopped them and said, ‘With all due respect, Jay, to you and your wife,’ and I looked at him and said, ‘Jay, you are the candidate. Are you going to tell me that when you’re debating Lindsey Graham on the stage that your wife is going to jump up and answer every question?’ I said, ‘That can’t happen. If that’s the case, she should run for the Senate and you should support her,’” Harrison says.

Not long after that, Harrison says, he showed the Stampers the door.

“Since then, I’ve faced a concerted effort by people in party leadership to discredit me,” Stamper said by email Monday. “I’ve had stories posted about me by party leaders calling me a fraud, a stealth Republican and a Tea Party plant. Photoshopped or fabricated emails purporting to be from me have been anonymously circulated to my supporters.”

Stamper has declined repeatedly to be interviewed by telephone, very unusual behavior for a politician approaching a primary vote, writing that email “makes it so much easier for you; all you have to do is cut and paste my responses into a word doc and you have your article..kidding.”

No doubt about it, the Dems wants Stamper gone. At the party’s convention last Saturday, organizers projected an image on screens that they say is clear-cut proof of Stamper’s fakery: a Facebook message, purportedly from Stamper, apparently directed at a political consultant, in which the candidate describes himself as “a Rand Paul/tea party constitutional conservative.”

“If in January 2013 you described yourself as a Rand Paul tea party conservative and then in March of 2013, two or three months later, you now say that you’re the most progressive Democrat in South Carolina, there’s something in that milk — as my grandma says — that’s not clean,” Harrison contends.

But Stamper flatly denies having typed the Facebook message, saying it “is either an altered/Photoshopped version of a message I actually sent or it’s completely fabricated. In any event, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Tea Party plant.”

Meanwhile, Phil Bailey, director of the Senate Democratic Caucus, says, “Stamper has no grounds to stand on” in denying the message’s validity.

“It was passed on to me early in the year. [Stamper] was the only announced Democrat in the race at that point and somebody wanted to make sure I saw it.”

Bailey and Harrison say Stamper is the one who’s given to online fabrications, accusing the outsider of operating several phony Twitter accounts to promote his candidacy and attack the Democratic Party establishment.

As for Hutto, a folksy and outspoken detractor of Republicans and Tea Partiers, Harrison concedes that it took some convincing to get him in the race, but he firmly rejects the suggestion that the Hutto campaign’s priority might not be to beat Graham but to prevent Stamper from getting to the general election.

“It took a lot of conversations to make him comfortable that he has a chance to win, because all candidates and politicians want to make sure there’s a path to victory,” Harrison says. “We were able to show that to him and he jumped on board.”



Senate Budget Would Expand 4K, Other Education

By Porter Barron Jr.



The S.C. Senate appears set this week to pass a general fund appropriations bill, described by President Pro Tempore John Courson (R-Richland) as an “education budget,” a reflection of the priority lawmakers have given to schooling this legislative session.

Last week the Senate Finance Committee approved its version of the House appropriations bill, having made a few changes, and the full body began debate of the legislation Tuesday.

Most significant for education, and the Senate’s major point of departure from the House’s budget, was its decision to allocate $24.4 million to expanding 4-year-old kindergarten for children from low-income households and $25 million to funding higher education.

The House version of the budget already included spending for broad education initiatives pushed by Gov. Nikki Haley, such as reading coaches, summer reading camps and a literacy program targeting third-graders; but 4K expansion, while widely recognized as a smart investment, has been seen as a pet project of Haley’s Democratic challenger, Sen. Vincent Sheheen.

But, according to Courson, politics played little role in the Senate’s decision to fund 4K. “There’s been a compelling argument made on both sides of the aisle that if we don’t put money in 4K, if we don’t start educating our children at a very young age, then we will ultimately get some of them on the back end in the corrections institutions, and the cost of that is significant,” Courson says.

Kindergarten’s boon might come at a cost to local governments, though, as the Senate wants to fund 4K expansion using $15.8 million of $30 million that the House had set aside for local government to meet a legally required funding level.

But senators are counting on the Board of Economic Advisers to activate a supplemental appropriations bill, which happens when revenue surpasses earlier projections, to restore funding to local governments.

Another point of departure from the House budget was the Senate’s decision to restore $70,000 to the budgets of College of Charleston and USC-Upstate, which had been cut out of the school’s budgets by conservative representatives as punishment for assigning gay-themed books to students.

While this dispute has drawn nationwide attention, Courson sees the Senate’s decision to appropriate $30 million to higher education as having greater potential to gum up budget talks between the House and Senate than that flare-up in the culture war.

“That’s been a battle in itself because the House in the past several years has totally underfunded higher education. We’ve had to scramble in the Senate, shifting money from other sources,” Courson says. “That could be a sticking point, but it may not be.”

After the Senate settles on its amended budget, the bill will return to the House, where the representatives are unlikely to concur with the Senate’s changes, meaning three representatives from each body must meet in conference committee to hammer out a compromise to send to the governor. The governor then has five legislative days to review and veto line items, before sending the budget back to the General Assembly for final approval.

With $6.6 billion in the general fund, next year’s budget marks a return to the pre-recession spending levels of fiscal year 2007-2008, according to Les Boles, director of the State Budget Office.

“It’s taken us about eight years to get back to where we were,” Boles said Monday. “As a state, from a general fund perspective, we pretty much mirror the national economy. We’re not growing gangbusters but we are growing again, slow and steady.”



Ruling in House Speaker Case Stuns S.C.

By Porter Barron Jr.



Circuit Judge Casey Manning issued a big break to embattled House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) late Monday, ordering an end to a state grand jury criminal investigation into charges of public corruption against the much-feared legislative boss.

In so doing, Manning ruled that the House Ethics Committee is the proper body for investigating ethics complaints against Harrell, knocking Attorney General Alan Wilson off the case. Advocates for good government have voiced fear over recent months that Manning would issue such a ruling and kick the case back to the House, where Harrell holds inestimable sway.

Wilson’s office issued a terse response to the ruling: “We believe today’s order of Judge Manning is without any foundation or support in the law. This Office will vigorously pursue all appellate remedies and will seek to continue this investigation.”

As Team Harrell has framed the case against the Speaker as a political brawl between an ambitious Wilson and an innocent Bobby, it couldn’t resist rubbing the former’s nose in it.

“This entire process — both the mishandling of this matter and the allegations made — reeks of politics. The Court’s ruling supports what we have said from the start, that these allegations are political and do not rise to the level of criminal wrongdoing, by stating in its ruling that: ‘Despite multiple requests, the Attorney General has failed to offer or present to the Court any evidence or allegations which are criminal in nature.’”

Oddly enough, some courtroom observers remember Wilson’s argument differently. Former Republican attorney general Charlie Condon told The State that Wilson had clearly informed Manning of potential criminal charges that would be outside the House Ethics Committee’s purview of civil ethics violations.

Meanwhile, John Crangle, Common Cause South Carolina’s government watchdog, has sent a letter to the state Supreme Court, suggesting Chief Justice Jean Toal recuse herself from hearing an appeal by Wilson, citing Harrell’s role in her recent re-election to lead the court as a significant conflict of interest.

Wilson told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his office is preparing an appeal as well as considering a request for Manning to reconsider his ruling. He also told The State he would not suspend the investigation as the judge had ordered.

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