Sen. Robert Ford, the Charleston Democrat who’s served 16 years in the Statehouse, is being challenged by fellow Democrat Dwayne Green in the June 10 primary. Ford points to his record of hard work for the district, while Green says he’ll put a sharper focus on the issues voters are concerned about.
The most contentious sparring seen in this campaign has come from Ford’s assertion that Green may not be a true Democrat — since he was appointed to lead the state’s parole board by Republican Gov. Mark Sanford.
“I’m surprised the fellow is running as a Democrat,” Ford says.
Green was quick to combat the claim, sending a mailing to voters earlier this month that lists his history of supporting Democratic candidates, with both his time and money. Green has been a strong supporter of Sen. Barack Obama for president, while Ford endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton and famously suggested America isn’t ready for a black president.
“That sends a bad message to the African-American youth of this state,” Green says. “People are trying to move this country forward.”
Ford says constituent service is at the heart of his success in the Statehouse, including at least five letters a year to constituents chronicling the goings-on in the legislature.
He also points to his seniority in the Senate, with high-ranking committee appointments that couldn’t be easily replaced by a fresh face.
“McConnell knows I’m a workhorse,” Ford says of his relationship with the Republican Senate leader. “The kind of seniority I’ve got is good for Charleston County and District 42.”
That seniority has provided dividends in pulling in a large number of competitive grants for the district, he says, along with securing up-or-down votes for judicial nominees in the Senate in an effort to improve racial diversity on the bench.
Ford says he’s proud of the efforts to eliminate taxes on owner-occupied homes, removing more than half the taxes through last year’s property tax reform and sales tax swap. In the next term, he says he’ll work to eliminate property taxes for these homeowners.
The tax reforms were rushed through the legislature, Green says, suggesting effort needs to be made to address the increased burden left on businesses.
“Economic growth isn’t just residential, it’s also commercial,” Green says. “We don’t want tax disincentives for commercial development.”
There are problems the legislature can address, Green says, but they don’t include some of Ford’s recent causes, including threats of lawsuits to address mortgage disparity that impacts black homeowners or calling for the popular election of judges to get more diversity on the bench. And it doesn’t include legislation that would prevent landlords from tossing out the belongings of evicted tenants.
All of those issues are legitimate problems, Green says, but they either don’t come with true legislative fixes or they’re diverting attention from larger problems.
“How does that move South Carolina forward?” Green asks of Ford’s eviction bill. “Those are issues that are more ‘Look what I’m doing,’ than ‘I’m getting things done.'”
A constitutional amendment that would let voters decide if judges should be elected is slowly gaining traction, Ford says. As for the tenant property legislation, Ford says it’s about doing the humane thing. He is working with landlords from around the state to reach an agreement on the legislation.
“All over the state, citizens find their stuff out on the street,” he says. “Some of them don’t find there stuff on the streets because it’s already gone.”
The key to economic development in the Lowcountry, Green says, is continued aid to the State Ports Authority.
“There’s been an ambivalence at the state level in support of port expansion,” Green says. “Without a real effort by the local delegation to support the port in terms of infrastructure and streamlining expansion permitting, we’re going to lose one of our biggest economic assets.”
State incentives are also important to draw new high-tech industries and clusters of port-related jobs to the region, Green says.
“Not that the tourism economy is bad, but when we’re talking about South Carolina moving forward, (high tech) jobs are going to be a premium,” he says.
Ford says his clout in the Senate has helped secure stop-gap funding for the Charleston County schools over the last few years, including $7 million in additional funding this year. But he says that changing the formula is still a priority.
Green says students need expanded early childhood education options and safe schools statewide. While looking for true funding reforms in Columbia is one answer, Green would also look to adjusting lottery dollars that have been going to college students and get some of that money to at-risk students.
“Why are we putting our education lottery funds in scholarships for students who have already made it and beaten the odds,” he asks.
Ford was one of the most active supporters of the state lottery. “I didn’t just vote for it,” he says. “I went statewide to push it.”
He now sees legal gambling as an important way to infuse money into the shrinking state coffers, even if it’s over the opposition of conservatives.
“They didn’t want the lottery, but now they fight for that money every year,” he says.
With a focus in the next legislative session likely to include reforming the state’s criminal justice system, especially when it comes to sentencing, Green says he’d like to see violent criminals receive mandatory minimum sentencing. He also wants to see more judges and stiffer penalties for repeat offenders.
In regards to housing concerns, Green would require developers to donate land or money for affordable and workforce housing.
“The approach to housing — which the City of Charleston gets right — is to have a focus on workforce housing, not just low-income housing for the poorest residents,” he says. “We’re losing young people just out of college or high school who can’t afford to live where the jobs are.”
One issue where Ford has been a pioneer in the legislature has been gay rights. He’s introduced a bill that would create a statewide hate crime law that would establish penalties for targeting people because of their sexuality, race, gender, disability, or transgendered status. He’s also pioneered civil union legislation and laws protecting gay rights in housing and employment and a bill that would allow broader hospital visitations, a frequent concern for gay partners.
Green applauds Ford for his support of gays and lesbians and says that he’ll continue those fights if elected.
“As a member of a minority group, I believe in equal rights for everybody,” he says. “This is an issue I agree with Robert strongly on. What I would want the community to know is that they wouldn’t be losing anything with me.”
Ford’s support of gays and lesbians is only the latest example of his civil rights record. The state senator also points to his hand in establishing the African American monument on the Statehouse grounds, the establishment of a state holiday recognizing Martin Luther King Jr., and the effort to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome. He’s also helped strengthen the state’s domestic violence penalties.
“He has been a voice that’s spoken up on issues in ways that others weren’t willing,” Green says. But “this race is about focus and style. That, and getting things done.”