ELECTION 2014

7 seek GOP votes for Lexington County coroner

tflach@thestate.comJune 29, 2014 

For the first time in two generations, Lexington County residents go to the polls Tuesday to face ballot options for coroner that will not include Harry Harman.

Seven GOP candidates are vying for the post that the late Harman held for more than 37 years until his death on April 18. No Democrat is running.

The choices include a former Harman aide, a former Richland County coroner, and five current and past law enforcement officers.

Some officials are surprised at the number of candidates for the $86,000-a-year post, which usually is low-profile politically and often deals with families in distress.

“It’s an amazing number of people running,” Batesburg-Leesville Police Chief Wallace Oswald said.

The post oversees the investigation of the cause and manner of violent and unusual deaths. Currently, it handles 1,900 cases yearly.

Many candidates in the contest pledge compassion, thorough investigations and fast response to calls for help.

The lack of significant differences among most of the candidates makes the race partly a popularity contest with a focus on getting family, friends and supporters to the polls.

But that’s a challenge, since it will be the third ballot in four weeks in the county after primary and runoff elections.

Harman’s death occurred too late to allow the contest for his successor to be added to earlier ballots.

The ballot for a new coroner also occurs during a holiday week.

Despite those concerns, county election director Dean Crepes predicts that as much as 20 percent of county’s nearly 160,0000 voters will go to the polls Tuesday.

So far, more than 1,500 absentee ballots have been cast, a higher-than-usual amount for such elections, he said.

The crowded field makes a runoff likely July 15 between the top two finishers, since few political leaders expect any of the seven candidates to garner more than 50 percent of votes Tuesday.

Since no Democrat is running, winning the GOP match is tantamount to election Nov. 4. The winner will serve through 2016.

Here’s a brief look at each candidate:

Frank Barron: It’s a different race this time for Barron after an unsuccessful attempt to oust Harman in 2012.

But his main theme remains his experience from 22 years as Richland County coroner.

Barron says he’s kept pace with advances during 14 years out of office, paying personally for training. “I felt compelled to stay up-to-date,” he said.

He favors hiring a medical examiner – an expert trained in autopsies – as well as working to reduce drunken driving and other life-saving causes.

Barron, 70, is battling the impression he’s an outsider unfamiliar with Lexington County, even though he settled in West Columbia nearly eight years ago. He is a part-time commercial real estate broker and stock investment teacher.

Clay Burkett: It’s a delayed campaign for Burkett after his effort two years ago was blocked.

He was among more than 200 candidates statewide removed from the ballot in 2012 after a snafu on disclosure of personal finances when filing for office, a problem since corrected.

His emphasis is making sure the coroner’s staff knows its job. “You can never get enough training,” he said. “Things change every day and everybody should stay current.”

Burkett, who lives in Batesburg-Leesville, operates a tile business after 27 years as a local and state law enforcement officer.

He wants voters to give him a present “they won’t have to wrap” on his 55th birthday Tuesday in making him their choice.

Margaret Fisher: She stresses that she “is not going to be a sit-at-the-desk coroner,” promising to emulate Harman‘s reputation for helping.

Fisher calls her medical training as a nurse a plus. Such training is not required to hold the post.

She is a Richland County deputy who supervises mounted officers and is a member of the unit that patrols Lake Murray.

Her family is well known for its role in supplying camels and other animals for church festivals at Christmas and other celebrations.

Fisher, 49, lives in Red Bank.

Jay Phillips: He pledges to be a hands-on coroner who regularly goes to the scene.

His background as a deputy and supervisor who investigated homicides and other major crimes provides experience a coroner needs, he says.

“You’ve got to have somebody who can wear a wide variety of hats,” he said.

Phillips, 55, is an investigative consultant who lives in the Lexington area.

He’s been endorsed by Harman’s brother Paul and sister Beth.

Andrew Richbourg: Being a candidate is a challenge, he said.

“I’m not a politician,” he said. “I’m a worker.”

Richbourg, 34, is a homicide investigator with Columbia police. “My passion for investigating will result in questions being answered,” he said.

Other than improving response to calls for investigation, Richbourg is satisfied that the coroner’s office is well-run.

Known by the nickname “Bear,” Richbourg lives in the Gaston area.

Brian Setree: The former assistant to Harman pledges to keep the office “moving forward.”

His two years in that role as well as experience as a homicide investigator while a policeman and deputy provide insights into what needs to be done, he said.

Like Barron, he promises to work to lessen deaths associated with drunken driving, drug use and motorcycle riding.

He also hopes to recruit volunteers who can assist with some aspects of investigations, modeled on what reserve deputies do. Burkett also favors the idea.

Setree, 43, is a private investigator who lives in the Lexington area.

Jason Willoughby: His background as a Richland County deputy who investigates homicides and as an intelligence analyst with the South Carolina National Guard are “paramount” in making sure the job of determining why death happen is done right, he says.

Willoughby currently is a school resource officer at Dutch Fork High School after returning from military assignments in Iraq.

He intends to reassess current practices in the office, adding that “there’s probably a need for some modernization.”

Willoughby, 37, lives in Lexington.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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