Defense lawyers across South Carolina are opening up the checkbooks to help one of their own.
Democratic state Senate candidate Mandy Powers Norrell has gotten donations from fellow attorneys as far as Columbia, Greenville and Charleston in her run against Republican real estate developer Mick Mulvaney.
Law firms and individual lawyers account for more than $15,800 of Norrell's total fundraising haul of $51,000, finance records show.
"I don't think they're buying her at all," said Mulvaney of Indian Land. "The question for me is, why do they want her to win? I know the answer, which is that if you take positions I have, that are pro-business, very often those are anti-trial lawyer."
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The irony behind Mulvaney's stance is that he used to earn a living as a lawyer. He practiced from 1992 to 2000 before going into real estate.
Mulvaney has emerged as one of the leading critics of South Carolina's legal establishment. That explains why Norrell's donors aren't just supporting her candidacy -- they want to end Mulvaney's.
The two are vying to replace Greg Gregory in District 16, which covers the Fort Mill and Indian Land areas.
"He's extreme in his approach to taking power away from the legal community and what I consider lawyers' efforts to look after the rights of people and workers," said Rock Hill attorney Jim Morton, a Democrat. "Big business is trying to protect themselves, and that's who he's working for."
Last year, Mulvaney sought sweeping changes aimed at revamping oversight of S.C. lawyers. He wanted to revoke oversight authority from the state Supreme Court and give it to the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Mulvaney says the idea came in response to the Supreme Court's handling of the state bar exam last year. The court changed the test results of 20 law students because of a scoring error, drawing allegations of favoritism and incompetence.
Mulvaney's proposal gained little support -- and angered many lawyers.
"They were upset because it would be a dumb move," Rock Hill lawyer Thomas McDow said. "You'd be handing it over to people who are less capable of understanding it. I don't see it as anything other than a cheap shot to gain popularity."
Mulvaney also helped lead the Republican effort in the House to put tighter limits on payments to disabled workers, a position at odds with what lawyers advocated.
Businesses complain the cost of workers' compensation insurance has skyrocketed because the state's standard for determining whether an injury is a lifetime disability is too lax. Mulvaney sided with business interests.
Moving into the real estate business gave Mulvaney a new perspective that shapes his approach to policy.
"I think the balance of power has swung in favor of the trial lawyers bar," he said last week. "I'm trying to bring some balance back to the system."
Relying on friends, colleagues
Norrell, who practices law in downtown Lancaster, says her support comes from the people who know her best. She said 128 of her 199 donations have come from within District 16.
"I go to my friends and colleagues when I'm running for office just as he does," she said. "Lawyers have given me the larger amounts of money because they have it. But my support is coming from teachers, retired people, the people I go to church with."
Among the attorneys donating to Norrell's campaign are Morton ($500), Chester public defender Yale Zamore ($1,000), the Lord Law Firm in Irmo ($1,000) and the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association ($1,000).
"There's this effort to demonize lawyers, as if I'm getting money from somebody who's bad," Norrell said. "I am proud to ... represent people who are facing foreclosure, who are about to lose their homes. We are a profession that represents people who need help."
The two candidates will meet at least three times before Election Day, with debates planned at Indian Land Middle School on Oct. 14, Sun City Carolina Lakes on Oct. 20 and at USC Lancaster on Oct. 21.