Strike up the calliope...

Circus-like atmosphere surrounds candidates vying to represent the Strand on Capitol Hill

For Weekly SurgeJune 6, 2012 

Ricky the Elephant was working hard in North Myrtle Beach on a recent Thursday night.

He stood along U.S. 17 in front of the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce at 15th Avenue South, waving a sign that read “STOP OBAMA NOW! ANDRE BAUER – GET AMERICA WORKING AGAIN.”

Some motorists honked, a couple people gave the “thumbs-up” sign out the window.

Ricky is the official flack and mascot for former lieutenant governor Bauer’s campaign for the newly-drawn Seventh Congressional District. He travels around the state with Bauer, waves signs along roads, poses for pictures with people, appears at numerous events and even has his own Facebook page.

Ricky, as a member of a species beloved by fans of Ringling Brothers, is also a highly appropriate symbol for the campaign Bauer and 12 other candidates have run leading up to the state-wide primary election on Tuesday (June 12). Ever since the new seat was announced, the race to see who will take the big trip to Washington, D.C. to represent the Pee Dee area and the Grand Strand has taken on the distinct atmosphere of a political circus.

The sheer number of candidates crisscrossing the district for fundraisers, speaking events, and debates is enough to start carnival music playing inside the average voters’ head. Add to that the wacky variety of those vying for the seat, including everybody from Democrat Harry Pavilack, a Myrtle Beach lawyer best known for TV commercials to Democrat Parnell Diggs, a blind former restaurant musician and Dick Withington, a South Strand retiree who believes in the “Sybil” brand of politics, running a multiple-personality campaign for three seats at once.

The campaign has also produced the kind of snark-fests, arguments, accusations and in-fighting that can be expected in any race, but seem especially noticeable in the Seventh District because many people are paying special attention to this new seat which encompasses everything from the farm fields of Chesterfield to Horry County’s beaches.

Why the Seventh?

The first thing you need to know about the Seventh District as it is now is that it didn’t exist until the summer of 2011. South Carolina hasn’t had a seventh district since 1932, when the original district was disbanded after state politicians looked at figures from the 1930 census. Folks along the Grand Strand and in the Pee Dee have been represented by a series of different legislators, who often didn’t live anywhere near the area, and confusingly gerrymandered districts. That all changed, however, after 2010 census figures revealed explosive population growth in the area, particularly along the coast, and officials determined it was time for the area to have its own seat.

From South of the Border to Surfside

The sheer, schizophrenic geographic scope of the Seventh District is enough to confuse even the most well-informed voter. It includes seven counties – Chesterfield, Marlboro, Darlington, Florence, Marion, Dillon, Horry and Georgetown – which share geographic proximity but little else.

“It’s a huge district – it would take about two and a half hours to get, for instance, from Myrtle Beach in Horry County to Bennettsville (in Marlboro County),” said Myrtle Beach City Councilman Randal Wallace, who is running for the seat as a Republican and is one of five candidates with family roots in the district. “You have a huge diversity in economy. The beaches always have tourism, but even when times are good, places like Marion, Marlboro and Dillon counties struggle.”

Struggle is a mild term for the odds these three largely rural and poor counties have dealt with in recent years. Manufacturing and farming jobs have dried up, and new ones have not moved in to replace them. The three counties also gained sad fame as part of the notorious “Corridor of Shame,” a network of South Carolina counties along the I-95 corridor where rural schools have largely been neglected for many years. Remember the dilapidated, 111-year-old middle school President Obama visited in 2009? That was in Dillon, a city known for little else in recent years except as the original home of Ben Bernanke and, most famously, the home place of the outrageously tacky tourist trap South of the Border.

Chesterfield, meanwhile, wedged solidly against the North Carolina border, is a largely rural county known for farming and the historic city of Cheraw. Darlington, is of course, best known for NASCAR and the tourist dollars it brings, but the county also is home to a small but solid manufacturing base. Florence County, meanwhile, sports Francis Marion University, the McLeod Regional Medical Center, medical firms like Roche Carolina, and new arrivals such as Heinz, Honda and Monster.com. Horry and Georgetown counties, meanwhile, are tourism powerhouses who also have been attracting large influxes of retirees and young families for many years.

Donkey or elephant?

The newly-drawn district presents a mess of political challenges and potential intrigues, according to Mark Tompkins, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

While most seats in South Carolina have been staunchly Republican or Democrat for years, with changes possible but exceedingly rare, the Seventh is virgin political territory. Neither party has a tradition or a hold on it, so that makes it an increasingly valuable prize in the highly polarized world of Washington, D.C., where one seat could eventually mean the difference in which party controls the House or Senate.

While most of South Carolina is solidly red-state Republican, Tompkins noted that the seventh includes both GOP strongholds such as Horry County and counties with large African-American populations that traditionally vote Democratic, such as Marlboro and Dillon.

Because it’s new, the district is also that rarest of rarities in today’s incumbent-heavy political world – an open seat.

“There are precious few open seats in Congress because of redistricting and gerrymandering, and most folks once they’re there get re-elected,” Tompkins said. “When a seat does come open, it’s an opportunity for all sorts of people to get involved in the election, both established, ambitious politicians and others. The fact that this is a new district, and a possible swing district, makes it all the more tempting and interesting. It’s a seat without a tradition in one party or another, and that’s especially interesting in the context of today’s partisan politics.”

The district’s huge size and demographic differences will prove to be monumental challenges for whoever does get the seat, and experts say it will be interesting to see if voters go for somebody with strong ties to the area or simply whoever they think can bring the most results to the new district.

The current field of candidates includes natives of Myrtle Beach and Florence. Republican Renee Culler, meanwhile, was born in Georgetown, while Democrat Gloria Bromell-Tinubu grew up in the rural Plantersville area of Georgetown County, a factor which might help her better relate to concerns faced by residents of rural areas in Dillon, Florence and Marlboro counties.

Perhaps nobody illustrates the difference between area native and newcomer than current Republican frontrunner Bauer.

Bauer moved to Myrtle Beach in the past year to begin his latest incarnation in state politics. The former lieutenant governor is a native of Charleston who also previously served in the state House and Senate, and has over the years claimed regions as diverse as the Upstate and Lexington County in the Midlands as home.

It’s unknown yet whether a majority of voters will go for Bauer’s political experience and expertise over his status as a short-timer in the District, and he always faces the threat that some people might consider him something of a “political carpetbagger” who moved to the area simply to further his own career. That derogatory term has already been earned by current congressman Mick Mulvaney, the self-described Tea Party Republican who famously defeated long-time Democratic Congressman John Spratt in the fifth congressional district in 2010. Mulvaney lives in and represents the Rock Hill area, but many of his critics routinely snark that he works in North Carolina, sends his kids to schools there, and has other numerous ties to our northern neighbor.

Bauer, however, might be able to overcome those accusations if he runs a strong campaign, focuses on his strengths and avoids some of the gaffes and mistakes of his ill-fated 2010 campaign for governor, said Paul Peterson, a professor of political science at Coastal Carolina University.

The real challenge for Bauer and anybody else who wants the seventh seat will be to somehow find a way to effectively represent such a disparate and diverse group of voters, he said.

“There are differences between the different areas of the district, but they aren’t contradictory,” Peterson said. “If you put together a good staff and know what you’re doing, you’re going to be able to take care of the needs of the western part of the district and also those of people on the coast.”

Bad boys, bad boys

There are some snarky political junkies who say no good campaign season is complete without at least one perp walk, and the Seventh hasn’t disappointed when it comes to run-ins with law enforcement. Although nobody has taken a public walk in cuffs with a jacket over his head (yet), two former candidates did get to star in their own personal episodes of “Cops.” They come from both sides of the political aisle, and both were considered possible front-runners for their party before meeting up with Johnny Law.

Former Republican state representative Thad Viers of Myrtle Beach was one of the first to throw his hat in the Seventh’s ring last August, but he withdrew from the race in January after an ex-girlfriend charged him with harassment. Viers, who had served five terms in the state’s House of Representatives, also resigned from his seat serving House District 68 after his arrest. It wasn’t the first time matters of the heart earned Viers a visit from the po-po. In 2006, he was charged with threatening to beat up a man who at the time was dating his estranged wife.

Democrat Ted Vick, who represents Chesterfield County in the House of Representatives, got to pose for his mug shot May 23 after he was arrested for drunk driving, speeding and illegal gun possession in Five Points, Columbia’s notorious college-student party district. At the time, the passenger in Vick’s car was a 21-year-old woman who was a student at the University of South Carolina. Vick, a part-time pastor who is married with two children, later claimed he was simply giving the lucky female a ride home after the two had shared some drinks at a couple of the area’s watering holes. Vick refused to take a Breathalyzer after Columbia police stopped him for speeding, and officers then discovered he was carrying a pistol with an expired permit. Within days, Vick had publicly apologized for causing “embarrassment” and resigned from the campaign for the Seventh. Before his arrest, Vick was considered the “family values” candidate on the Democratic ticket, with some in the party hoping he would appeal to social conservatives particularly in the rural areas of the new district. In the days before his arrest, he released a commercial touting his dedication to family and other traditional values, making him just the latest candidate to give lip-service to those values but end up in a not-so-squeaky-clean situation.

Vick’s withdrawal from the race might have given a boost to one of his former rivals. On May 29, two prominent state Democrats, Congressman Jim Clyburn and former Congressman John Spratt threw their support behind young Myrtle Beach attorney Preston Brittain, who is cultivating his own squeaky-clean, “new political generation” image. Many insiders thought Clyburn and the others would eventually have endorsed Vick if he hadn’t decided to take his little ride through Five Points.

Meanwhile, Bauer can breathe a sigh of relief that he, so far, has managed to stay above the fray when it comes to brushes with law enforcement. He became famous as a lead-foot after high-profile speeding incidents while he was lieutenant governor, including a traffic stop in downtown Columbia where a city police officer ended up drawing his gun at Bauer. So far, the most high profile and unusual thing he’s done in the run-up to the June 12th primary is a brief appearance at a professional wrestling event in Myrtle Beach over Memorial Day weekend.

Arrests, arguments, and sign-waving elephants aside, however, some voters are looking beyond the political circus and see the Seventh as a rare opportunity for voters in the seven counties to finally get some direct attention. This is particularly important for the Grand Strand, they say, which hasn’t had a homegrown legislator – or even one who grew up close by – in D.C. for quite a while.

Trudy Martin of Longs said the huge slate of candidates has been a little bit daunting, but she’s willing to take the time to hear them argue and learn about their differences. Like many area residents, she is a transplant who moved to the area from Pittsburgh in 1992, and she said economic concerns trump any squabbling or eccentricities the candidates might exhibit.

“The whole idea of job creation and cutting wasteful spending is what’s important to me,” Martin said. “I want to listen and hear who has the best ideas.”

“Whoever gets this seat is going to have an important chance to give us a voice in Washington, D.C.,” said Suzanne Pritchard, 33, of Little River, who attended a recent Republican candidates’ debate in North Myrtle Beach. “I think it’s really exciting we’re finally going to be represented up there by somebody local. It’s a great opportunity for this area.”

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