South Carolina's two major-party candidates for governor aggressively criticized each other's legislative records, campaign-trail statements and how they earn a living during the first of three debates before the Nov. 2 election.
Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen and Republican state Rep. Nikki Haley on Tuesday differed on how to reform K-12 and higher education, the use of taxes and other incentives to attract jobs and illegal-immigration laws.
Green and United Citizens parties candidate Morgan Bruce Reeves was excluded from the debate.
Much of the debate was personal, with the candidates vigorously questioning each other's sources of income and legislative record.
"What he's doing is he represents the state and he's been suing the taxpayers of the state," Haley said, surprising Sheheen with a flurry of questions whether his Camden law firm had sued the state, as public records show.
"You can't regulate an industry and turn around and sue it," Haley said, referring to a class-action suit Sheheen joined against payday lenders.
At one point during the debate, Haley said she did not accept campaign donations from payday lenders while serving on the House Labor, Commerce and Industry subcommittee that regulates the industry. But state campaign finance records show Haley accepted payday-lending donations while serving on LCI in 2007 and 2008.
Sheheen emphasized the importance of trusting a candidate, repeating the word in most of his answers. Haley's statements do not always match her record, he said, singling out how she earned consulting fees while introducing a bill to require income disclosure and how she applied for state grants while criticizing the program.
"You signed an application for somebody supporting it...and then go out and pretend like you don't want it to happen," Sheheen said. "Nobody believes that." Sheheen later pointed out the Haley family had earned their income -- nearly $200,000 a year at its peak -- exclusively from public sources.
Sheheen said the state should fund local programs that provide return on investment. Haley said she had consistently voted against the now-defunct competitive grants fund and said government "was never intended to be all things to all people."
Another point of disagreement was education funding.
Haley said the state needs to trim down its Columbia K-12 bureaucracy and put more money into classrooms. Sheheen said those state Education Department numbers include bus mechanics, and trimming jobs in Columbia is not the cure-all for K-12 funding.
For state colleges and universities, Haley argued they should be measured by graduation rates, the ratio of in-state and out-of-state students and their economic development efforts, and be funded accordingly. Sheheen argued for a stronger central oversight committee, with "stronger teeth" to ensure higher-education money is spent wisely.
Haley has made an issue of national Democratic policies, such as the recently-enacted health care law, but President Barack Obama and Washington were seldom mentioned Tuesday night.
The candidates differed on the one national issue that did come up: Whether South Carolina should approve an Arizona-style immigration law. The constitutionality of that law is being challenged in federal court. Both said illegal workers are a problem.
An S.C. law passed two years ago is more effective than the Arizona law, Sheheen said, because enforcement emphasizes employers and not workers.
"I think that is the appropriate focus for South Carolina," Sheheen said, noting state law enforcement has said budget cuts have impacted its ability to uphold the law. "Our bill is in fact is tougher than the Arizona law, especially on employers. I'm not going to pass a bill that would water down our bill."
Sheheen said he would support tougher measures if approved by the Legislature.
Haley countered that Sheheen voted for a budget that did not fund enforcement. She favored the Arizona law, which allows law enforcement to check documents of suspected illegal immigrants.
The two candidates will meet again Monday in Columbia in a debate televised statewide by S.C. ETV. A debate follows Tuesday night at Francis Marion University in Florence.