One candidate is an embattled incumbent, a man facing his first reelection campaign with a federal charge hanging overhead. The other is a former state lawmaker, a 14-year veteran trying to make a comeback after being ousted by a relatively unknown opponent four years ago.
Regardless of whether Republican Stephen Goldfinch or Democrat Vida Miller wins State House District 108 on Nov. 4, this much is clear: the victor will have overcome a slate of challenges to get there.
Goldfinch, a 31-year-old Murrells Inlet lawyer, insists the letter beside his name is reason enough to return him to office for a second term.
“The question that needs to be asked by the voters of this district is ‘Can a Democrat, especially a liberal Democrat, walk in and be effective?’” he said. “A very pragmatic view of this race is,‘Who can be the most effective for this district?’ And the answer is very clear. It’s got to be a Republican and I’m the only Republican in this race.”
Miller disagrees. The 64-year-old Pawleys Island businesswoman argues that during her time in office she worked with lawmakers from both parties to accomplish her goals. She maintains Goldfinch isn’t addressing local concerns.
“This job belongs to the people,” she said. “It doesn’t belong to a party.”
Goldfinch makes his case
Along with his GOP ties, Goldfinch is also campaigning on his record over the last two years, particularly his efforts to find funding for the dredging of the Georgetown port.
While Miller points out that the bulk of the port money originated in Senate proposals, Goldfinch contends his support in the House was critical to that effort.
“The problem was $18 million in the Senate doesn’t mean anything if you can’t move it over to the House,” he said. “You had to have somebody, an effective leader, in the House of Representatives.”
Goldfinch also touts his support of Emma’s Law, which created tougher driving restrictions for those convicted of DUI, and a policy change that allows residents to rent property for a longer period of time without losing key homeowners’ tax benefits.
“That’s huge for our district,” he said. “That’s huge for Horry County and Georgetown County and Charleston County because we’ve got a lot of people that rent their homes during the summer to offset their tax burden.”
The freshman lawmaker is also proud of opposing Medicaid expansion in the state.
“That’s the implementation of Obamacare in South Carolina,” he said. “And that is one thing the Republicans, including myself, realize we just can’t afford.”
Looking back, Goldfinch said one issue he wishes he’d spent more time on during his first term is the state’s transportation infrastructure. He blames the debate on ethics reform for distracting lawmakers from a productive conversation on improving roads and bridges.
“Last year seemed to be the year of ethics,” he said. “It seemed like everyone was trying to play gotcha with ethics last year and we all got sucked into that. … Now it’s kind of the monkey on everybody’s back.”
If reelected, Goldfinch said he would make infrastructure projects a priority, both adding new ones and fixing roads in disrepair.
While he doubts there’s enough support for an increase in the state’s 16-cents-per-gallon gas tax – among the lowest in the nation – Goldfinch insists that smaller changes could add up. Specifically, he said he’d like to see bills that called for licensing trailers and golf carts or uncapping the sales tax on vehicles. Last year, Goldfinch said he proposed tacking on hefty fines to convictions for certain driving offenses, including DUI.
“Those are all out-of-the-box solutions that would probably raise $40 to $50 million apiece, and you multiply that times 10 or 12 viable solutions, you’ve got half a billion dollars to put in the highway fund now,” he said. “We’ve got to address this crumbling infrastructure.”
He also wants to see more attention given to widening U.S. 521 and to building roads in his district. When courting companies to the coast, Goldfinch said infrastructure is a frequent topic of discussion.
“That’s one of the first things they ask,” he said. “Do we have access to an interstate that goes in and out of here? The answer right now is no. So we’ve got to have 521 widened. We’ve got to have I-73. And I think we have to have SELL.”
SELL, or the Southern Evacuation Lifeline, would provide South Strand residents with a main evacuation route by building a bridge over the Waccamaw River that ends near Bucksport.
“This side over here has to have a way out,” Goldfinch said. “The current system is not adequate for getting this massive amount of people out of this area. We’ve got to have a bridge over the river.”
A veteran’s comeback push
Miller didn’t plan to run for her old seat at first.
She’d held the House 108 post from 1997 until 2010, when she lost to a 22-year-old Republican during a mid-term purge that hit incumbents hard, particularly Democrats. Goldfinch won the seat two years later.
Miller said she had moved on with her life, but when she saw no one else signing up to challenge Goldfinch, the seasoned politician listened to friends who had been urging her to jump back onto the campaign trail.
“I knew things were not getting done,” she said. “Since I’ve been out of office, we have no new projects coming in this area. We have money that we’ve left at the table. We have local issues that are receiving a deaf ear from our elected officials and our statehouse members. … I put my name back out there to give folks a choice.”
Miller points to the projects she brought to the area during her tenure as reason for returning her to office.
“I was able to work with folks in Columbia to bring back [projects],” she said. “These are projects from beautification projects to senior citizens centers to school projects, road projects, public boat landings – money and grants that I constantly went after.”
While Goldfinch is campaigning on his conservative credentials, Miller aims to be more of a bridge-builder.
“My record shows that I was able to work across party lines with state agencies and with leaders in Columbia to work on issues that helped our community,” she said.
Among Miller’s central campaign issues are ethics and education reform.
The former lawmaker insists state officials must pass a strong ethics bill, which they recently failed to do.
“People deserve to have faith in their government,” she said. “It’s disheartening to me ... that that faith has been destroyed.”
As for education, Miller would like to see more equitable teacher pay across the state. There is currently disparity between wealthier districts and poorer ones. However, she couldn’t offer any specific remedies other than a pledge to work with education leaders on finding solutions.
“That is the dilemma,” she said. “The way the funding is distributed for public schools has always been a dilemma because of each county’s ability, or each school district’s ability, to add more to that. … You can’t penalize one county for having a higher tax base than another county. That has been an issue that has been debated since I can remember.”
Another issue that’s important to Miller is improving the tax climate for small businesses.
“It has become clear that we should go back and revisit that taxation structure on commercial property,” she said. “That would be a huge help to small businesses because those tax increases are passed down to the renters and to the property owners.”
Although Miller and Goldfinch have their disagreements, one area where they concur is on the importance of building SELL and Interstate 73.
“Of course, I support an east-west connector for our area and I always have supported those [projects],” Miller said. “I supported I-73 when it was proposed to come through Georgetown … if you can go back that far. That’s how far my support for I-73 goes back.”
Campaign heats up
Both candidates have traded barbs in recent weeks, and the intensity doesn’t appear to be waning.
Goldfinch has come under fire for continuing his campaign despite a pending federal case against him. The incumbent faces a misdemeanor charge of misbranding drugs that was filed after an employee at a company that the state representative formerly owned pleaded guilty to the same charge.
The employee was cited for producing stem cells that did not go through proper federal channels when sent to a Texas man, who was using the stem cells to treat patients suffering from multiple sclerosis despite the fact he was not a licensed physician, according to court documents.
Goldfinch’s former employee was sentenced to two years of probation, 100 hours of community service and banned from working in a lab again where he could harvest stem cells.
Goldfinch said he was charged last year because he was responsible for the employee. He insists he had no prior knowledge of the sales to the Texas man.
“He was the ultimate wrongdoer, according to the government,” he said of his former employee. “But unfortunately the government has a strict liability rule ... that says that owners, employers, are ultimately responsible for their employees’ wrongdoing. I took responsibility for it.”
Goldfinch has said he plans to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of selling misbranded drugs and has an agreement with prosecutors to serve probation. A federal docket sheet says the charge carries a possible penalty of up to a year in prison, a $100,000 fine and a year of supervised release.
“I’ve never tried to hide it,” Goldfinch said, adding that prosecutors still haven’t moved forward with the case.
“This is old news,” he said.
Miller, however, contends the allegations are serious.
“If I am ever in a situation where I have charges against me, I would resign from office,” she said.
Miller has also heard calls to drop out of the race, most recently from the Georgetown County Republican Party. The local GOP blasted Miller for accepting a “2010 contribution of $1,000 in tainted money, proceeds from a Ponzi scheme operated by a well-known racist and white supremacist,” according to a news release from the Georgetown County Republican Party.
Miller’s camp fired back, calling the attack “desperate.” In a news release of its own, the Miller campaign noted the man in question, Ron G. Wilson, had stolen “tens of thousands of dollars of Ms. Miller’s life savings.”
“This is truly outrageous,” Miller said in the release. “Like almost a thousand other investors around the country, I was a victim of Ron G. Wilson’s $60 million Ponzi scheme. Today, thankfully, Mr. Wilson is serving a long prison term for that crime. And with the help of the Justice Department and the S.C. Attorney General’s office, I hope to someday recover some portion of the tens of thousands of dollars Wilson stole from me. As for the campaign check in question, I have never spent that thousand dollars and never will. But I honestly have no idea how to return a check to a man who’s sitting in prison for stealing from me. Who am I supposed to send it to – the people who handle his prison commissary account?”
Despite their disagreements, both candidates are looking to the same source to sway voters – their records.
The State newspaper contributed to this report.