To hear her tell it, Anne Peterson Hutto’s first year in the state House of Representatives was one of the best of her life, even as she had her idealism challenged by the realpolitik of the General Assembly.
There was plenty of drama, with Gov. Mark Sanford spinning out of control and nearly getting himself impeached; the same governor spurning federal stimulus money to burnish his presidential credentials; and Boeing making a smooth landing in Charleston County, bringing the largest industrial development package ever to South Carolina.
There was also rancorous partisanship and bickering, as the District 115 Democrat ruefully acknowledged. “My biggest disappointment was the partisan fighting,” she said. She found the partisanship dispiriting and distracting from the important work she and her colleagues were sent there to do. That’s why she remembers warmly the afternoon last October when the General Assembly unanimously passed the $450 million incentives package that brought Boeing to the state.
“An afternoon of everybody behaving on the House floor was rather enjoyable,” she said in an interview last week. “Frankly, it doesn’t happen that often.”
Yet, as bad as it was, Peterson Hutto said that on a one-to-one basis the House is made up of 124 mostly likable people, with whom she has enjoyed working. “The collegiality is what I most enjoy about the job,” she said. “It’s the best part of being a legislator.”
Last year’s economic downturn devastated the state budget, leading to two rounds of across-the-board cuts. The 22,000 constituents in her district, covering Folly Beach and most of James Island, were hardly immune to the effects. “There are lots of teachers and MUSC employees in my district,” she said. “There is a (Department of Natural Resources) facility. They have all felt the cuts.”
The Tax Reform Commission will report its recommendations in March, she said. Until then, she does not want to speculate on the 2010 budget, except to say that the state is in need of major tax reform. The budget was one of the two most contentious issues in 2009. With the General Assembly a week from convening for its 2010 session, Peterson Hutto said she does not expect that to change in the new year.
The other ugly issue for lawmakers was the cigarette tax. Most legislators agree that the nation’s lowest state cigarette tax — 7 cents per pack — should be raised; it’s a question of where the money should go. Some want it to go to health care (Peterson Hutto’s choice), some to the general fund, some to pay down the debt.
It was that contentiousness that killed the cigarette tax last year and apparently left her with a bad taste for partisan politics. “That was my biggest disappointment last year,” she said. “I know we can do better. We owe it to the people who elected us.”
Another key issues in 2010 will be education. Peterson Hutto — who has one child in public school and one at Ashley Hall — said parents need to have more school choices and she thinks charter schools will be a big part of the solution, but she does not know where the money will come from to provide the teachers and infrastructure S.C.’s public schools desperately need.
An attorney, wife, and mother of two small children, Peterson Hutto won her seat in 2008 from five-term Republican incumbent Wallace Scarborough. At the end of a nasty campaign, she had 211 votes more than Scarborough on Election Day. Scarborough challenged the count, lost two rounds of appeals, and threatened to take his case to the House of Representatives — an unprecedented move — when GOP leaders prevailed upon him to concede. That election should have braced her for the ugliness of state politics. Nevertheless, she seems surprised and disappointed at the way things get done in Columbia.
Born and raised in New York, a product of Notre Dame University and Brooklyn Law School, she brings new ideas and energy to this most conservative and intellectually sterile state. Her buoyant optimism is a welcome antidote to the region’s innate fatalism. “I am still the eternal optimist,” she said. “I believe I can do good for the people of James Island and Folly Beach.”
To rumors that she may be running for Congress in the first district in November, she said it isn’t so. “I owe it to the people of James Island and Folly Beach to stay with it a while.”
She also refused to speculate on who the Republicans might put up against her in her first reelection fight next fall, but it really doesn’t matter, she said. “I can only tell you that I will work hard again for my constituents, and I hope they will give me their votes.”
For more, visit charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.