When Clover Mayor Herb Kirsh challenged Bate Harvey, a 16-year veteran of the state legislature, 32 years ago, he did so because Harvey was "an older gentleman. He didn't know anything in my opinion."
The custom of the day was "millgate" campaigning, gathering outside the mills at shift change to solicit votes. But by 1978 the mills were closing. Kirsh, then 48, opted instead to stay up every evening with a stack of notebook paper, writing letters to potential voters. He wrote 100 letters a night. More than 5,000 people got letters.
The tactic worked. Kirsh, a Democrat, has represented York County voters ever since. He is the longest serving member of the legislature, earning the coveted "1" South Carolina license plate.
Tommy Pope has studied Kirsh's inaugural legislative campaign. Like Kirsh, Pope knows a little about age and politics. When he ran for the 16th Circuit solicitor, people told Pope he was too young, too inexperienced. He was 30 years old in 1992. Pope won, serving as solicitor for 13 years. He gained national prominence in 1995 for his prosecution of Susan Smith of Union County for the drowning of her two children.
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Now Pope, a Republican, is trying to unseat Kirsh in a legislative district that covers most of western York County. The part-time job pays $10,400. Legislators also get a per diem allowance and a monthly stipend, so the actual compensation is usually higher. The election is Nov. 2.
The parallels to previous elections are not unnoticed.
Pope is respectful in framing the election conversation. He praises Kirsh for his long, distinguished service. Pope says the race is about ability.
Kirsh said this is a race about experience and reputation. He quickly reminds potential voters he is known in Columbia as "Mr. No."
"Every time I say 'no,' it's to save people money," he said.
Pope, 48, slowly and carefully chooses his words when asked about the clash with the 81-year-old Kirsh.
"There is a different dynamic from the campaign standpoint," Pope said. "He has served the district admirably. I can bring new energy, new leadership."
And, "sometimes 'no' is not enough. You have to work to find solutions."
Pope says he has a reputation as a team builder. When he was elected solicitor, the office had the worst backlog of cases in the state. He and his office worked hard to erase that backlog.
"We went from worst to best in the state in case management," he said.
Kirsh say the election is about experience. "I know everyone down there. I intend to keep it that way."
He said his health is excellent despite fracturing a shoulder earlier this summer. He has lost weight, and "I have more pep and energy," he says.
Positions on the issues
Q. Should Act 388 which funds education in South Carolina be changed?
Kirsh: "People don't remember the property tax reduction they got," he said. But, with the recession, the drop in sales-tax revenue has reduced state school funds. "We need to do something different," he said, but he does not have specifics. He also wants school districts to spend money from their rainy-day funds, instead of holding onto them.
Pope: "It was a great treat that we didn't have to pay property taxes," he said. Like Kirsh, he said changes need to be made, but he does not have specifics. "We need to remove politics from the process. You heard two different answers. People here say we don't have the money. Columbia says they are getting plenty of money. I don't know the answers."
Q: Are there any local bills you would file in the upcoming session?
Kirsh: "I have already prefilled my Toll-Free Telephone bill. If you call Rock Hill from Clover it's a long-distance call. I don't think that is right." Kirsh said he has filed this bill for the last 10 years but it has not gotten out of committee "because of the telephone lobbyists."
Pope: "I don't see any specific needs. What people want is faith in their leadership."
Q: What can the state government do to create jobs?
Kirsh: "It takes a sharp Department of Commerce."
Pope: "We need a simpler, fairer and flatter tax code that gets off the back of businesses and we need more local collaboration."