York County Council candidates Britt Blackwell and Gary Williams will debate Monday, the first of the campaign in what is expected to be an intense and costly race.
Blackwell, an eye doctor, and Williams, owner of Williams and Fudge debt collection agency, are competing to represent northern Rock Hill and the Newport area. Blackwell is serving his first term on council as chairman. The two Republicans will meet in a June primary.
The debate is 6:30 p.m. at the Magnolia Room at Laurel Creek, 4017 Laurel Creek Drive in Rock Hill. It is hosted by the York County Republican Party.
Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor, and director of the Winthrop Poll, will moderate the debate.
Audience members can submit their questions on note cards provided at the beginning of the forum. Debate organizers opted to take only written questions to maximize the number of people who can ask questions.
Huffmon was given the option to ask follow-up questions, but said he will mostly read audience questions and refrain from asking questions himself.
Political analysts have predicted this race would draw more voter interest and likely cost more than most county council races.
“It is very rare that you see this much passion in a county council primary. This seems to be definitely an anomaly,” Huffmon said.
Huffmon said the divisiveness within the Republican Party is also notable, and is fueled by voters who are passionate about the candidates.
“If you look at the past several county council meetings, you can see that people are very angry, they’re kind of bubbling up,” he said.
“The chatter that you hear seems to show very strong feelings on both sides,” he said. “If you bump into a Blackwell supporter,” he or she will be “adamant” that Blackwell needs to be reelected because he’s the “ideological bulwark against big government,” Huffmon said.
Williams supporters would say that “Blackwell needs to go,” and that Williams is a “champion of business” who will help the county, Huffmon said.
Blackwell ahead in fundraising
Blackwell’s fundraising is outpacing Williams at the end of March, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state ethics commission.
Blackwell has raised $11,400. Most of his support is from the real estate and development community,current and former York County museum leaders, and members of a tea party conservative political group called GPS Conservatives for Action.
About half of Blackwell’s contributions are from Rock Hill residents. Others were from residents living in York, Sharon, Catawba, Clover and Fort Mill. He also received one contribution each from people with Charlotte or Columbia addresses.
Williams has raised $5,099 from mostly Rock Hill residents, one Charlotte, one York, and one Georgia resident. Among Williams’ donors are banking and investment professionals, attorneys, a school administrator, management professional, retirees and former York County Council Chairman Buddy Motz, who Blackwell defeated in the 2010 elections.
Huffmon said the race between Motz and Blackwell in 2010 sparked similar interest in voters, making District 6 a standout race in York County.
Blackwell said he expects to discuss “what’s on the mind of the people” Monday night while highlighting the council’s achievements of “making the county more business friendly and producing a very attractive environment for businesses.”
Williams said he hopes the debate will be “more about issues.”
At a York County GOP candidate forum, Williams was confronted with questions over his involvement with a foundation associated with the York County museum. The Secretary of State’s office investigated the foundation and referred the investigation to the state attorney general’s office.
Williams said he hopes to discuss how he will contribute to economic development in the county, as well as “leadership and the lack thereof” on the council.
Williams criticized Blackwell for voting with an elected official and builders who support his campaign at last Monday’s council meeting. Those contributors include state Rep. Ralph Norman who has been a vocal critic of the county staff in the process it used and the revisions proposed to the laws guiding development in York County.
Norman, bolstered by GPS members and representatives from the development community, urged the county council to abolish a draft revision of the development guidelines.
Blackwell broke a tie vote on the council at Monday’s meeting, siding with those who wanted to do away with the revision.
Williams said the move was poor leadership, given that county staff had been working on the revision for three years, spending county money and staff hours on the project.
Williams said Blackwell is a “puppet” moved by political motivations.
“It appears clearly from Monday night's meeting that Britt is controlled by the people, including the developers, who give him money and by elected officials like Ralph Norman who come to meetings and tell him how to vote.”
Williams said the county council should have looked at the issue from “both sides” considering the “quarter of a million people” in the county, rather than vote with “political pressure from a few, well-organized people.”
On Thursday, Blackwell chuckled at the charge, saying he has always “pushed toward business-friendly values” and was doing so “long before” the builders contributed to his campaign.
“Certainly it would be natural for them to support me,” he said.
As for the proposed development ordinance, Blackwell said he read through the document. Because he is not an engineer or developer who deals with the code it every day, he decided to side with the professionals.
“I don’t think anyone would disagree with me, there’s too much government regulation,” he said.