Whoever wins Tuesday’s special election in House District 115 could only serve three months in the state legislature, but their votes could have long-term implications.
Voters in the James Island-anchored district will determine who will finish out the term of former state prosecutor and House Rep. Peter McCoy, plucked from the legislature to become U.S. Attorney.
Normally, it would be a placeholder election, someone to keep the seat warm for a few months in case of a democratic fire drill. But this is 2020, a five-month (so far), four-alarm blaze.
So yes, it turns out one of three candidates on Tuesday’s ballot will actually cast consequential votes when the legislature reconvenes in September. From safeguarding the November election to divvying up coronavirus relief money to budgeting funds to operate state government, there’s work to be done.
Republican Josh Stokes, Democrat Spencer Wetmore and Green Party candidate Eugene Platt are seeking what amounts to a long Airbnb stay in Columbia. Mounting short, targeted local campaigns amid the coronavirus pandemic, the virus itself has added to the long list of important topics to the engaged communities in District 115, which also includes Folly Beach, Kiawah and Seabrook Islands.
“It’s almost like when you talk to people, they don’t just have one or two priorities, they have six,” said Wetmore, an attorney who works as the Folly Beach city administrator.
“Clearly schools are always an issue, with school funding, environmental preservation, wise spending of tax money, those things are always very important to me,” said Stokes, McCoy’s former law partner who served on James Island Town Council for five years.
But one coronavirus-related issue has “overtaken everything” in his conversations, Stokes said.
“From a perspective of ‘What are people talking about most right now?’ it’s the parking issue out at Folly,” he said.
Folly Beach was one of the first local governments to implement its own COVID-19 precautions before Charleston and other municipalities followed suit. Like other beach towns, Folly Beach has restricted parking to try to cut down on crowds seeking sun and sand.
Stokes said as a state lawmaker he would have worked to find a resolution that “continues to serve the purpose that they’re trying to serve that maybe doesn’t alienate other groups that want to use the island as well.” But, he added, “I still think the ultimate solution should be a determination made by the local governments.”
Wetmore is not an elected official, but as the Folly Beach city administrator, she was involved in drafting the ordinances. To her, the moves the town made boil down to leadership during a statewide emergency.
“You see the beaches sort of moving in coordinated ways because we’re trying very hard to work together, especially when state leadership is lacking. We’re trying really hard to work together to do our part,” she said.
Stokes’ and Wetmore’s divergent views on the state’s COVID-19 response as a whole mirror debates over masks and statewide orders versus piecemeal local actions.
“The state and the legislature’s position is probably one more of support than it is, in my opinion, dictating statewide restrictions,” he said, saying local leaders would be better suited to quickly respond to local circumstances.
“I think there’s no doubt that we needed a mandatory mask mandate,” Wetmore said. “From the state level, not having to piece it together city by city, I think that is leadership was a missed opportunity to get us on the road to recovery a lot sooner.”
On sweeping statewide orders such as mask mandates, Stokes again defers to local leaders.
“I think that’s something that’s better left to the municipalities,” Stokes said.
Unique for 2020, the state legislature will return for a brief period on Sept. 15 to settle issues left unaddressed when the coronavirus pandemic paused session earlier this year. Stokes and Wetmore agreed that expanding rules to allow no-excuse absentee voting in November should be one of the top priorities besides passing a state budget.
Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, Stokes and Wetmore will face off once again during the November election.
Green Party candidate Eugene Platt, a longtime fixture in local progressive politics, is also on Tuesday’s ballot. Platt said he filed for the special election to raise awareness of the Green Party, but also because he thought a quick three-month term suited him better than signing up for a two-year commute to Columbia.
If elected, Platt said he would file legislation to end the death penalty in South Carolina, saying, “I’ve always thought it was uncivilized.”
Platt also said he would phase out local magnet schools, which he said “unnecessarily complicates the public education system.”
“When the cream of the crop is skimmed off of regular public schools and concentrated in the magnet schools, those really bright kids are no longer where they can inspire their young peers who maybe are not as motivated,” Platt said. “That’s something I’ve thought a lot about.”
The candidates for the Tuesday special election will participate in a virtual town hall discussion with the League of Women Voters on Thursday evening at 7 p.m.
Polls will be open in House District 115 from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. on Tuesday. Absentee ballots for the race must be received by election officials by the time the polls close.
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