Pat McKinney and Bakari Sellers campaigned for the state’s No. 2 job last week without a large S.C. political shadow over them.
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican and longtime State House staple, stepped out of the race a week ago so he could push to become the president at the College of Charleston.
“He would be a formable opponent, so certainly there was a part of me that breathed a big sigh of relief,” said Republican McKinney, a retired, 64-year-old Charleston developer.
Sellers, a 29-year-old Democratic state representative from Denmark, said he was worried only about his own campaign, not McConnell’s plans.
The pair, the only announced candidates for the seat, share some views.
Both envision working full time work at the $46,545-a-year job, which is only a part-time position. They say they would review the Office of Aging, which the lieutenant governor oversees, but did not offer specific plans for it. They also said they would eliminate the security detail that legislators added to the post for McConnell, which costs the state about $450,000 a year.
If elected, McKinney said he wants to work closely with Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, whom he supported in her 2010 election, in economic development. Subsequently, Haley appointed McKinney to the state’s Ports Authority.
Sellers said that if elected, he wants to improve schools, roads and preventative health care.
McKinney, however, holds a 6-1 edge in cash on hand – helped by a $245,000 loan that he has made to his campaign.
A political analyst said McConnell’s departure means little for the race. The Republican nominee, whoever that is, will be the overwhelming favorite to win the general election regardless in GOP-leaning South Carolina.
A potential Republican primary rival for McKinney, a political newcomer, is the most interesting storyline, Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan said. “Are (Republicans) really going to allow a first-time candidate to get this?”
McKinney could yet face opposition. Mike Campbell, son of the late Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell, could mount another GOP bid for lieutenant governor, having run unsuccessfully for the post in 2006.
The race is also a curio for voters.
This November will be the last time a lieutenant governor will run alone in the state. Starting in 2018, candidates for governor will choose their lieutenant governor-running mates, and voters will cast ballots on a combined governor-lieutenant governor ticket, just as they do now with president and vice president.
“There’s not a lot of love for the lieutenant governor,” Buchanan said.
However, McKinney and Sellers want to change that.
The day after McConnell left the race, McKinney spoke to a Republican group that meets monthly at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia.
The grandfather told the luncheon how, after a career in real-estate development, he became interested in politics while working on Haley’s transition team in 2009.
His interest deepened after reading “We Still Hold These Truths” by Matthew Spalding, a gift that came with his membership in the Heritage Foundation, the conservative policy group. He said he was inspired by the book’s discussion of the principles of self-reliance, small government and states’ rights.
In 2012, as the Legislature discussed having the governor-lieutenant governor run together on a combined ticket, McKinney said he asked Haley about the possibility of being her running mate in 2014.
Haley didn’t say yes. “She said, ‘We can talk about it,’ ” McKinney said.
But the final bill delayed the first combined ticket until the 2018 election.
If he wins in November, McKinney sees himself aiding the governor when she is busy. “She’s got a lot to do,” he said after the speech.
McKinney said he could meet with economic-development prospects or the S.C. legislative delegation in Washington.
McKinney said that he has no political ambitions after serving as lieutenant governor for four years. He was emphatic in his speech that he was not “hand-picked” by the governor. But McKinney did not hide his support for Haley, who he approached in June about running.
“I explained [to] her, of course, I wanted to support her,” McKinney told the luncheon. “But I also said to her ... ‘I look at this office as a one-time opportunity for somebody at my particular stage in life with my particular skill set and interests to go up and work collaboratively with you in your second term.’ ”
Dream with eyes open
Sellers spoke last week to seniors at Irmo High School at the request of students who had heard the son of S.C. civil-rights icon Cleveland Sellers speak at Boy’s and Girl’s State last year.
The Denmark attorney suggested to about 150 seniors in the cafeteria that they “dream with their eyes open.”
“That’s my favorite saying in the entire world,” he said. “[Y]ou’ll be able to have moments where you can sit back and say, ‘Look, I took one step along this journey and maybe at the end of this journey, I can change the world.’ ”
Sellers dropped a few pop-culture names in his speech to the high-schoolers. He talked about his first phone call with then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama before the 2008 election and when he met singer Usher, actress Kerry Washington and actor Chris Tucker at an Obama rally.
He also said he turned down an appointment to become an advisor to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture after Obama was elected.
Sellers, a state representative since 2007, said he ran for political office to give people a chance at better lives. “I can’t make you succeed, but I can, at least, give you the opportunity.”
He also gave many of the seniors a glimpse of their future, saying he has $106,000 in college debt.
After his speech, Sellers said he hopes his appeal to younger audiences will help create a new voting base for him. But he understands most South Carolinians are worried about jobs, which he said he has worked to win.
“For me it’s not just saying, ‘I’m a businessman, and I create businesses,’ ” he said. “For me, it’s about toiling.”
In McKinney, Sellers is facing a candidate backed by a large group of Haley’s supporters.
“I’m like, ‘This is a machine over here,’ ” Sellers said when he saw McKinney’s executive committee list. But, he added, “At the end of the day, this election will not be decided on who you know.”