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April 30, 2012

Blackwell, Williams trade barbs in York County Council debate

York County Council incumbent Britt Blackwell and challenger Gary Williams faced off in a debate, the first in a campaign expected to be the most contentious in the county.

To a crowd of more than 200 people, candidates in York County Council’s most contentious contest traded barbs about their records, campaign contributions, leadership style and conservative values.

York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell, an eye doctor, and challenger Gary Williams, owner of a debt collection agency, are running for the York County Council District 6 seat representing northern Rock Hill and the Newport area.

Written questions came from the audience for about an hour at the Magnolia Room in Rock Hill.

Williams was asked to justify his campaign contributions to a Democrat and his involvement in the Culture and Heritage Foundation. The foundation was under investigation by the S.C. Secretary of State, which referred the case to the state Attorney General’s Office.

A question about why Williams donated money to former U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a Democrat from York who held South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District seat for nearly three decades before being ousted by Republican Mick Mulvaney, was repeated so many times, it became a humorous refrain Monday night.

“Yes, I gave to him. I gave to our entire delegation,” Williams said. “It’s important that we support our men in Washington.”

Blackwell responded, “It’s real important ... with government regulation and all the burdens that government adds to our life that we have a true conservative sitting on this seat, and let me tell you something, no true conservative would have voted for John Spratt.”

Blackwell answered several repeated questions about the County Council’s decisions and its impact on the Culture and Heritage Museums, supported by Williams’ foundation.

In answering a question on why the council decided to abandon an audit of the foundation’s books, Blackwell said the council gave up once the state got involved. He disagreed when Williams said the foundation was willing to work with the county on the audit.

“That’s kind of news to me,” Blackwell said. “Why was I trying for six months to get the books if they were willing to hand them over?”

Blackwell was questioned regarding his support of county and school employees, as well as contributors to his campaign from building and development community, which recently pushed the council to abolish the work it had done revising its building and development codes.

The room appeared split in support for Blackwell and Williams, and in a show of hands of undecided voters, only about a dozen rose up among many audience members who wore Williams’ yellow stickers or Blackwell’s blue.

Throughout the debate, supporters clapped enthusiastically after their candidate’s response.

Tom Sparks, assistant principal at Northwestern High School, said after the debate he’s supporting Williams.

Blackwell, unlike Williams, “is not a friend of teachers,” he said, adding that Blackwell “has attacked (teachers) personally” while he served on the Rock Hill school board from 1994 to 2002.

“Then why were teachers always calling me?” Blackwell responded when hearing the comment. “Because they trusted me.”

Mike Munn said he’s definitely voting for Blackwell. If Williams gets elected, it’ll be “another vote for the city of Rock Hill on county council,” he said, questioning the relationship between Williams and the city where his business is located.

But satisfaction with the choices didn’t drive every voter to the debate.

Ron and Jeanie Thompson, lifelong Rock Hill residents, were holding a Blackwell sign and wearing his sticker as they left the debate, but siding with Blackwell was more about not siding with Williams, they said.

“Better the devil you know than the one you don’t,” Jeanie Thompson said, clarifying, “It’s not that I’m so enamored with Britt Blackwell.”

The two got involved in politics because they’re tired of the country, the county and the city using taxpayer money to go into competition with businesses.

Moderator Scott Huffmon, Winthrop University political science professor and director of the Winthrop Poll, pointed out that the number of voters at the Magnolia Room in Rock Hill for the debate could mean the difference in June’s election.

In 2010’s election, Huffmon said, Blackwell beat opponent Buddy Motz by only about 274 votes.

“Your vote matters,” he said.

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