City Watch

Sheheen Needs to Grow a Pair Politically

By Kevin Fisher
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
“Perhaps the Haley-Sheheen rematch will be all that and more, a nail-biting, barn-burning, fight-to-the-finish, last man/woman standing extravaganza that comes down to uncounted ballots found in a closet at the Richland County Elections Commission weeks after the voting.” — City Watch, July 10, 2013

I offered that observation after The Fix, a Washington Post political blog, rated the 2014 Nikki Haley-Vincent Sheheen contest at No. 7 among the top races for governor nationwide.

While that was a nice moment for Sheheen, it seemed like an overly rosy forecast to me. From the same column: “But is an upset likely, or is Vincent Sheheen’s best chance behind him? If he couldn’t beat little-known, much-troubled Rep. Nikki Haley last time, can he defeat sitting Gov. Nikki Haley this time? I tend to doubt it.”

I still do. And I still think the Democrats would have been stronger with a different candidate, rather than the one Haley already dispatched. While Sheheen is a fine representative from Camden in the family tradition, he is not a politician who has excited voters outside of Kershaw County. He had his chance, and his party should have moved on.

At the time, I suggested that Richland County Rep. James Smith would be good for the Dems, citing his combination of legislative experience, forthright demeanor and combat service in Afghanistan as a profile that could appeal to independents and disaffected Republicans.

I also speculated privately that a return to the political stage by former Gov. Jim Hodges could make for an interesting race — South Carolina’s first-ever Gov. vs. Gov. throw-down. But talking with him one night at Devine Foods, I sensed no interest at all on his part, so I never finished the “Hodges Should Hop In” column I had started.

In any case, Haley now looks much stronger than she did a year ago, with both her personal approval numbers and the public’s outlook on the state economy improving significantly in the recent Winthrop Poll. She is also a much stronger campaigner than Sheheen, making it a tough hill for him to climb.

Indeed, the latest horserace survey, conducted by Pulse Opinion Research for Rasmussen Reports and released April 17, showed Haley leading Sheheen by 52 percent to 37 percent, with only 7 percent of voters undecided and 3 percent committed to another candidate. While that’s more of a cakewalk than a horserace, Sheheen seems not to realize it’s time to be bold. Pardon my French, but if he is going to make a race of it he needs to grow a pair politically.

I was reminded of that again last week when the national Republican Governors Association launched its ad campaign about attorney Sheheen having represented men convicted of domestic violence and child abuse. While one would have expected a full-throated, hell-raising defense of the right to counsel and American jurisprudence from him, Sheheen’s response was painfully weak. Indeed, he offered no response himself, with his campaign issuing a statement saying Sheheen only handled a handful of criminal cases and that the ones being cited were a decade old.

Wow, that’s telling ‘em!

Fortunately for Sheheen, within a few days some less reticent attorneys from the South Carolina Bar Association and the American Bar Association began offering that full-throated, hell-raising defense of the constitutional right to legal representation.

Why didn’t Sheheen do that himself? Why didn’t he immediately lead the legal community’s response to the alleged attack on both their profession and the Constitution?

Just as Sheheen looked weak and defensive in this matter, he also looked weak and defensive on the issue of gay marriage when a South Carolina Highway Patrol officer and her partner sued to change the law in South Carolina. The Democratic standard bearer declined to call for equality under the law.

As I wrote then, “By openly supporting gay marriage, Sheheen could have lit a fire under the Democratic base, positioning himself as a political warrior rather than a political wimp. To make a run at an incumbent governor, he needs to develop that persona, both personally and politically.”
It ain’t happening. While Democrats are still waiting for Sheheen to take chances, Republicans are now salivating about a seventh win in the past eight gubernatorial elections.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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