South Carolina

GOP, lobbying groups trying to oust firebrand SC Sen. Bright

David McGraw
David McGraw

Three Republicans and two state lobbying power houses are gunning to oust arguably the most provocative, confrontational and headline-grabbing voice in the S.C. General Assembly.

State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, is seeking a third term, running against three challengers in June’s GOP primary. They say Bright is more interested in gaining political celebrity than fixing roads or strengthening the laws that oversee public officials’ behavior.

“For someone to make a statement about seceding from the Union in a position of power, that’s not in the best interest of our state,” David McGraw, a Greer financial adviser, said of Bright.

Of another Bright proposal, McGraw said: “How would we (South Carolina) ever have our own currency, and how would we exchange it? All of those ideas have no substance. It’s just to get your name into the public eye to make a name for yourself.”

“You don’t just show up on the floor and vote against everything,” said former state Rep. Scott Talley, an attorney from Moore who loaned himself $100,000 to run against Bright, leaving the challenger with more money to spend than the incumbent at the end of March.

“You’ve got to have a seat at the table. You’ve got to have at least the respect of your colleagues,” Talley said. “That is not being done right now.”

You’ve got to have a seat at the table. You’ve got to have at least the respect of your colleagues. ... That is not being done right now.”

– Scott Talley, a Moore attorney

Lodging their own complaints about the senator, the political arms of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina also plan to oppose Bright.

State chamber president Ted Pitts said Bright consistently has the worst record on agenda items important to businesses. A former chief of staff to Gov. Nikki Haley, Pitts said Bright also wastes time with his proposals.

“Lee Bright introducing a bill that passes and becomes law is about as likely as me going to beach this weekend and getting bit by a shark,” Pitts said.

Bright brushes off his critics – whom he has said are being pushed by the GOP establishment. Bright annoyed some in that establishment in 2014 when he unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in the GOP primary.

Bright calls the Chamber of Commerce “the epicenter of crony capitalism in this state. They are all about incentives and big business. And I think small businesses are in more need of assistance.”

Bright added that his comment about the state seceding was a joke to a reporter – not a serious proposal – and his currency bill only asked for a committee to study the possibility of the state having its own money.

“If those two items are the best criticism they had, what they should probably do is just ask for a yard sign because obviously I must have done a good job.”

If those two items are the best criticism they had, what they should probably do is just ask for a yard sign because obviously I must have done a good job.”

– S.C. Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg

Bright: Accomplishments overlooked

Sitting in his Senate office Thursday – with a framed Confederate flag on the wall and, leaning on a shelf, an anti-abortion poster with the picture of a fetus – the second-term senator said he is ready for a fight.

As a member of the Senate’s ultraconservative William Wallace Caucus, Bright is familiar with facing opposition, including from within his own party.

For example, Bright was one of just three state senators to vote against Gov. Nikki Haley’s push to removethe Confederate flag from the State House grounds last summer after a racially motivated mass slaying at a Charleston church aroused new cries to furl the divisive banner.

Less than two weeks after the shooting, Bright was campaigning to keep the flag up, offering Confederate flag bumper stickers to campaign contributors.

Duncan Mayor Lisa Scott, Bright’s third opponent in the GOP primary, said the incumbent’s focus on the flag is one reason she is opposing him.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry and bigger problems to deal with than those issues,” she said, adding that finding a long-term solution to paying for roads and education should be top priorities.

Bright said the media have latched on to the more sensational things he has said and done, ignoring some of what he sees as his bigger accomplishments.

For example, Bright said he helped small businesses by sponsoring a bill that expanded the reasons a fired employee can be disqualified for unemployment benefits. State law now disqualifies employees from receiving unemployment compensation if they were fired for misconduct, such as missing too many days of work.

Bright also sponsored a bill that would require refugees to register and allow the state to track them. Sponsors of refugees also could be held liable if a refugee committed a crime, including terrorism.

The refugee bill has passed the Senate and now is in the House, where Bright expects it to be approved.

Thumbing an inch-thick S.C. Department of Transportation audit on his desk, Bright said he was the lead lawmaker pushing for that comprehensive review at a time when road spending is dominating the debate in Columbia.

Never shy about filibustering, Bright helped block a gas tax increase last year – a move he says forced lawmakers to send money from the state’s general fund directly to counties to pay for road repairs.

Bright also filibustered a bill last year that would have banned abortion at 20 weeks and later because it included exceptions for rape and incest.

That move surprised anti-abortion advocates and other lawmakers because Bright has been a leading sponsor of anti-abortion bills, including so-called “personhood” legislation that declares life as starting at conception and gives embryos and fetuses the same rights as people who’ve been born.

Filibustering the abortion bill also ate up some of the rapidly diminishing time that lawmakers had left to pass the gas tax proposal, part of Bright’s strategy.

“In the Senate, you measure accomplishment a lot on what you’re able to stop.”

Poll: Bright is vulnerable

Bright’s opponents will have help in the June 14 primary – a rematch for the incumbent senator and Talley, a state House representative from 2001-2008 before he ran against Bright and another candidate for the state Senate seat in 2008.

Talley finished first in the GOP primary. But Bright beat Talley in a runoff after Talley failed to secure more than half the vote.

This year, the Conservation Voters group, which endorsed Talley, sees Bright as “highly vulnerable,” said the group’s political director, John Tynan.

The group commissioned a poll in the district, interviewing 361 GOP primary voters from March 22-24. The poll showed Bright with 31 percent support. Talley finished close behind at 24 percent, McGraw picked up 13 percent and Scott won 4 percent in the poll.

Bright’s narrow lead is “quite weak for an incumbent,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, which conducted the poll. If Bright’s numbers do not improve, he may have difficulty avoiding a runoff, where he could lose if the anti-Bright vote consolidates around a challenger, the pollster said.

Bright also had an unfavorable rating of 39 percent among Republicans polled in his district. Only 33 percent said they approve of Bright, and 29 percent said they were not sure.

“It’s pretty unusual for a state legislator to be under water (on approval) with voters inside their own party,” Jensen added.

Bright dismissed the poll as coming from a “left-leaning” group, adding that the only poll that matters is on Election Day.

Bright may miss some of the support he had in 2012.

Four years ago, Haley endorsed Bright when he faced opposition from an Upstate attorney.

But Bright and Haley since have butted heads. In addition to his opposition to bringing down the Confederate flag, they clashed/ most recently over Bright’s proposal to require transgender people to use the bathrooms assigned to their biological birth sex.

Haley said that bill was unnecessary.

One challenger targeted

The race will be hard fought.

Two contenders – Bright and McGraw – already have taken aim at Talley for filing bankruptcy in 2011 for debt related to failed Marble Slab Creamery shops.

Talley said he filed bankruptcy after realizing he still was listed as a guarantor on a $330,000 loan to the business. That realization came after he transferred all of his company stake – and with it his debt, he thought – to his partner, who later declared bankruptcy.

Talley owed almost $1.4 million to creditors at the time. Talley said he continues to pay off $1 million of that debt, which never was in default.

Until Bright raised issues about his financial history, Talley said he had not planned to bring up Bright’s business failures and debt – at least $1.4 million that Bright reported owing on disclosures when he ran for the U.S. Senate. The debt, Bright said, was related to the failure of the his trucking business.

Bright said he did not declare bankruptcy, against the advice of attorneys, adding he hopes to pay off that debt one day.

S.C. Sen. Lee Bright faces three in primary

Lee Bright, incumbent

Age: 46

Hometown: Spartanburg

Family: Married, Amy; two children

Education: Dorman High School

Job: Owner, vehicle insurance agency

Political experience: S.C. Senate, 2009-present; Spartanburg County District 6 school board

Money raised for election: $152,563

Cash available to spend: $114,946

David McGraw

Age: 48

Hometown: Greer

Family: Married, Catheryn

Education: University of South Carolina-Spartanburg, bachelor’s degree

Job: Financial adviser

Military experience: U.S. Air Force, 1985-89

Prior political experience: None

Money raised for election: $47,500, including $7,500 in personal money

Cash available to spend: $19,243

Lisa Scott

Age: 53

Hometown: Duncan

Family: Three children

Education: Clemson University, bachelor’s degree; University of South Carolina, master’s degree

Job: Commercial and residential real estate leasing

Political experience: Mayor of Duncan, 2013-present; formerly, member Duncan city council

Money raised for election: $64,000, including $40,000 personal loan and $10,100 in personal money

Cash available to spend: $58,628

Scott Talley

Age: 39

Hometown: Moore

Family: Married, Kelly; three sons

Education: Wofford College, bachelor’s degree; University of South Carolina Law School

Job: Owner of law firm where he is an attorney

Political experience: State House of Representatives, 2001-08

Money raised for election: $147,069, including $100,000 personal loan

Cash available to spend: $128,847

Some of Lee Bright’s more controversial proposals

The Spartanburg Republican says he has never shied away from controversy. Some of his proposals in the state Senate include:

▪  A bill that would ban transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice on state property. The bill is effectively dead for the year.

▪  A bill that would require refugees to register with the state and hold sponsors liable for any crimes, including terrorist acts, a refugee commits. Passed Senate and now before House.

▪  Bills to limit access to abortion, including proposals that say life begins at fertilization, giving embryos and fetuses the same constitutional protections as people. Stalled.

▪  A bill that would ban state and federal employees located in South Carolina from enforcing the Affordable Care Act, punishable with up to a year in prison and up to $1,000 fine. Failed last session; reintroduced this session and stalled.

▪  A bill that would allow a gun purchaser to carry the weapon without a concealed weapons permit or related training. Stalled.

▪  A bill calling for a study committee to see if the state should coin its own money in the event of a “major breakdown of the federal reserve system.” Failed.