Bakari Sellers was 22 when he won a seat in the state House of Representatives. At the time he was one of the youngest lawmakers serving in America. Six years later, the Democrat from rural Bamberg County is a rising star in his party and a lawyer at the firm of former U.S. Attorney Pete Strom. Now he’s ready for the next step — lieutenant governor — and he’s hired traditionally Republican campaign consultants to help him get there.
It’s a historic race. A black candidate hasn’t won a statewide office in South Carolina since Reconstruction, and other than former Gov. Doug Wilder of Virginia, there hasn’t been a black officeholder serving in the executive branch anywhere in the South in just as long. Next year will be the last time Palmetto State voters have the chance to cast a ballot for a lieutenant governor since voters passed a constitutional amendment allowing the lite-guv to run on the same ticket as the governor similar to a vice president.
That Sellers, the son of South Carolina civil rights legend Cleveland Sellers, has launched a 2014 bid for the office also creates a hard-to-miss irony: the current lieutenant governor, Republican Glenn McConnell of Charleston, is a Civil War reenactor. Sellers doesn’t come to the race without baggage. Last winter he told media “If you want a perfect politician, I’m not him,” after he was detained on suspicion of DUI — a charge that was later dropped on a technicality — and a Columbia TV station dug into his driving record and unearthed several suspensions in multiple states stemming from unpaid tickets.
The 2014 race is one to watch as McConnell says he’s planning to run for re-election, but hasn’t made anything final. Meanwhile, retired Charleston businessman Pat McKinney, a close ally of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, threw his hat in the ring last month. If McConnell ends up staying out, more GOP candidates are likely to jump in.
Sellers sat down with the City Paper to talk about his campaign over coffee on a recent morning in the lobby of the Francis Marion Hotel. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.
City Paper: When did you decide you were going to run statewide?
Sellers: I always knew that I was going to do something else, I firmly believe that eight years in one place, you can get a little stagnant. But I also thought that there was a leadership gap in the executive branch, and I wanted to be there to fill that void. I believe over the past few years we have been the epitome of dysfunction. Not Washington, D.C., but South Carolina state government. I wanted to be a new voice and kind of remedy that disfunction.
CP: Why lieutenant governor?
Sellers: I thought it was an amazing position. Not only can I do what I love, which is do some work with the Office of Aging, but I can also have a pulpit where I think it would be refreshing to have someone who appreciates public education in the executive branch. We haven’t had that in a very long period of time. I think it would be amazing to have somebody who actually has a plan to remedy some of our infrastructure problems. And somebody who’s in that executive branch who’s not full of animus. Someone who does not breed dysfunction. Someone who wants to bring people together, who is vocal about bringing people together.
CP: Glenn McConnell’s not dysfunctional is he?
Sellers: I don’t have any heartburn, per se, with Glenn McConnell. I have a great deal of respect for Glenn McConnell. This election is not about what South Carolina was. It’s not about what South Carolina is, but it’s about what South Carolina can be, and I’m focusing on what tomorrow in South Carolina looks like.
CP: You’ve hired traditionally Republican political consultants to handle your campaign. Why?
Sellers: They do some Democratic work, but I just went with a firm that was good. My race has to not be about titles. We work together, work together well, and have a natural chemistry. We’re not running a traditional race here. We can’t do the same things over and over again. We’re not going to talk about what Republicans are. That hasn’t won for a Democrat in two decades. We’re going to talk about what I stand for. We’re actually going to have ideas.
CP: Are you going to run a campaign alongside likely gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheheen?
Sellers: Me and Vincent get along. We’re going to run our own campaigns. Vincent Sheheen is a great candidate, but at the end of the day we all bring our own attributes to the table, and we all have to raise our own money and get out and meet people. I think, in my race, I’m going to have the best ideas, I’m going to have the most energy, and I’m going to have the best vision. And hopefully ideas win the election, not who you know or anything like that. Maybe that’s my youth and not being jaded, but I really believe that in this state if we begin to vote on ideas for what makes the state better we’ll see some change.
CP: You’ve been in the House for eight years. How will you prepare for presiding over the Senate?
Sellers: I think it’s a lot about personalities. A lot of people have watched me over the last seven years, and many of my colleagues have a great deal of respect for me. And I’ve grown to put aside labels and make friends. When you see me eating lunch on any afternoon I’m with [Lexington Republican Rep.] Rick Quinn or [GOP Rep.] Bruce Bannister, [Republican] Senator Ross. I think having that ability to deal with that group of people will be of some value but also being able to articulate ideas.
CP: Do you really want to be lieutenant governor, or do you want to learn how to run statewide so you can do something else?
Sellers: I really want to be the lieutenant governor. I really do.
CP: You’re excited about being lieutenant governor?
Sellers: I actually am.
CP: Would you rather be the governor of South Carolina?
Sellers: Right now I want to be the lieutenant governor of South Carolina. I really do.
CP: Would you one day want to be the governor of South Carolina. Did you think about that when you were a kid?
Sellers: Of course. I tell people this all the time, I’m not a huge fan of Washington, D.C. and the politics in it, but when I was graduating college and making a decision … I was trying to figure out how I was going to impact South Carolina. My father gave up so much for this state that I just can’t turn my back on it when the work’s not completed. So that drives me a lot. I don’t know all the answers to what’s going to happen in five years or where I want to be, but for me this is a great next step. And it’s exciting.
CP: Right now, in the House, you can make laws. As lieutenant governor, you lose that.
Sellers: But you have a voice. You have a voice that’s way more powerful than one of 124. I want to be able to have that voice. For example, we didn’t take millions of dollars from the feds in 2009. We didn’t even have a voice that was the antithesis of that. We didn’t even have a voice that the majority of South Carolinians would have appreciated that.
CP: What about state superintendent of education Jim Rex? He was saying that.
Sellers: But we didn’t have a voice at that level — the executive level. And now we don’t even have [Rex].
CP: One of the knocks on the GOP opponent Pat McKinney is that he seems to want the job for some of the reasons your outlining. Because it’s a bully pulpit and an opportunity to have a voice that can support the governor and do things like economic development. The criticism of that is that we already have the Department of Commerce, so why would you want to try and handle that in the No. 2 spot? So, I would ask you the same question, what do these things like education have to do with being lieutenant governor?
Sellers: I was looking at that more as a vision for the entire state. That doesn’t mean that you have to limit your vision or your voice. I do think there are a lot of things that can be done from that office and a lot of things that can be done that haven’t been done before. The Department of Aging has grown 45 percent over the past few years when I believe a lot of that money could go directly to the needs of seniors in our state.
CP: You sponsored a bill to have casinos on the coast. Is that part of your vision for the state?
Sellers: It didn’t go well, but we wanted to have a dialogue about it. We’re not shying away from the dialogue. We wanted to talk about it.
CP: Glenn McConnell has a four-person security detail paid for by taxpayers. McKinney says he’d scrap it. Your thoughts?
Sellers: Me too.
CP: Do you think South Carolina actually needs a lieutenant governor? Do you think the office should stick around?
Sellers: I’m going to put together a group of people to look at that. We’ll look at the viability of the office. We’ll look closely at that.
CP: Do you expect your driving record to come up a lot during the campaign?
Sellers: It may. My record is clean now. I don’t have any outstanding tickets. If you want to go back to my driving record in college, so be it. Other than that we’re moving forward. People brought up tickets from college, which is fine. We’re going to try to be as positive as possible. I expect it to come up, I expect a lot of things to come up, I’m certain. It’s the nature of statewide politics, but even more importantly it’s the nature of South Carolina politics.