Finding similarities between Butch Johnson and Greg Hembree – the two men who want to replace Dick Elliott as the 28th district’s representative in the state Senate – is not as hard as you might think.
But finding differences is as easy as a short conversation with each of them.
Both men are in their 50s, both are lawyers and both say that creating jobs is the number one job now of every person in the General Assembly. Both even mention some of the same benchmarks for doing so – improved infrastructure and better education, for instance.
Both also acknowledge that as freshmen legislators, there will be little they can do individually to accomplish their goals.
But Johnson seemed in an interview to be focused on helping poor people one by one find homes and jobs through federal programs while Hembree talked of legislative things – elimination of the state corporate tax – that could help a lot of people with one swipe.
“How many senators that you know are going out to people’s houses to accommodate them?” Johnson asked to illustrate why he believes he is uniquely qualified for the job he seeks.
“Let’s get a van,” he said, “put a dozen people in the van and drive them to Columbia. Let them be there at 8 o’clock so they can get some food.”
Johnson talks of creating economic task forces and precinct meetings and going to them to tell people where help is available.
For decades, he said, he has been focused on helping ex-convicts and the homeless find homes and jobs, at least some of whom he hired to work in his business, Alcon Action Agency, which does real estate, mortgages and property management.
Helping the poor, he said, will help the rest of his constituents through things such as reducing crimes committed by people who need to get food.
But does he really think the majority of voters in the 28th District will choose him with that kind of platform?
“The middle class is right down with the poor,” he answered.
He hopes, through similar kinds of help for the middle class, to convince those who really have money to spend some of it to help those who are less fortunate.
Hembree’s view is that setting up a regional coalition to contribute to a state infrastructure bank could boost the chance that state and federal governments will fund Interstate 73, which will bring jobs during and after its construction. By showing that the people along its route think it important enough to put additional, locally-raised money into, then perhaps the people with the real money will give its construction a higher priority, he said.
“I think we have to look at things different from 1985 to get an interstate,” Hembree said.
The 15th Judicial District solicitor, Hembree said he has worked with legislators on a number of issues. He said that, if elected, he likely will be the only prosecutor in the General Assembly and as such, he will be able to offer his fellow lawmakers a different side from defense lawyers when crime-fighting bills are being considered.
Hembree said he’s observed that solicitors tend to lose their edge and that it’s hard for them to remain engaged and effective after a dozen years in office. He does not want to be one of those who stays a year too long, but he wants to remain in public service. Hence his bid for a state Senate seat.
He said he knows that eliminating the state corporate tax is not as simple as signing a bill and voila! all is done.
“When you do that,” he said, “you’ve got to fill the (revenue) hole.”
Perhaps the state needs to look at eliminating some of the exceptions to state sales taxes to help fill the gap, he suggested.
Hembree said he is a believer that you have to be willing to change if you really want to solve problems.
“I’m more of a builder than a maintainer,” he said.
But again, he and Johnson acknowledge that a legislator, especially a freshman, can’t operate in a vacuum and that building alliances is necessary for effective lawmaking.
“You can’t do any of this by yourself,” Hembree said.
“It’s not a self situation,” Johnson said. “It’s teamwork.”