Though primary ballots won't be cast for another six months, the race to succeed Democrat Bessie Moody-Lawrence in the S.C. House is shaping up as a more competitive battle than expected.
Democrats John King and Montrio Belton already are jockeying for position in advance of the June primary, while Republican Marvin Rogers is building his own campaign and awaiting the winner.
Moody-Lawrence announced last month that she won't seek re-election when her term expires next year, throwing open the race for District 49 to three young contenders. The district stretches across black neighborhoods in southern Rock Hill and York County and has long been considered a Democratic stronghold. It has about 17,000 registered voters.
King, 31, a funeral home director whose family has deep roots in Chester, lost to Moody-Lawrence last year by only nine votes. Now a resident of Rock Hill, King is getting support from members of the state's Legislative Black Caucus, including Reps. Leon Howard, Todd Rutherford and Joe Neal.
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Belton, meanwhile, is likely to get the endorsement of Sam Foster, who held the seat in the 1970s and has long been a respected figure in Rock Hill political circles. Foster said he will wait until closer to the June 10 primary to formally announce his choice.
The winner will face off in the general election against Rogers, 31, who moved here from Greenville, where he worked in the district office of U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis. Rogers is the only declared GOP candidate.
Candidates building support
Moody-Lawrence has signaled that she doesn't intend to make an endorsement. But plenty of others already are voicing their opinions.
Howard, current chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, noted that King nearly won the seat last year and should be able to build on his success.
"We need that type of aggressive leadership," said Howard of Columbia. "In this state, there are a lot of ills. He's got the passion, the fire in his belly to step up."
Added Rutherford: "We've been going the wrong direction in this state for some time now. Very few people have been willing to stand up and say that. John is certainly one of those people."
Belton is a political newcomer who plans to make education the central issue of his campaign. The 34-year-old is principal of Monroe Middle School in Monroe, N.C., though he says he will resign the job if he wins the election. He is relying in part on his wife, the former Tonya Burns, whose relatives are longtime Rock Hillians.
"He's well-grounded in one of the great needs of South Carolina, and that's education," Foster said. "We desperately need people in the General Assembly who are going to continue to support a viable education system in this state."
Rogers, 31, hopes to convince traditionally Democratic voters that crossing over can help them gain more access to decision-makers in Columbia. A win by Rogers would lock up the entire York County delegation for the Republicans.
Whatever the outcome, Foster said he's pleased to see young minorities becoming active in public service. He noted Moody-Lawrence's daughter, Leah, as another example. Leah Moody declared last week for the state Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Linda Short.
"We need a new generation of young minorities to pick up the torch," Foster said, "and that's what I'm looking for."