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Campaign costs to increase in high-profile York County race

A matchup between two high-profile Rock Hill residents may make the race for a seat on the York County Council one of the most expensive and interesting the county has seen, York County political analysts say.

Rock Hill businessman Gary Williams told The Herald on Wednesday he plans to challenge incumbent Councilman Chairman and District 6 representative Britt Blackwell in the June Republican primary. Williams said he will announce his candidacy publicly next week.

Williams is cofounder and owner of Williams & Fudge, a debt-collection agency in Rock Hill. Williams has served on national trade boards and local community boards. He and his company are known for widespread charitable giving.

Blackwell, a Rock Hill eye doctor with a private practice on Ebenezer Road, is a Republican serving his first term. Blackwell, who has served on local and state education and medical boards, rode a wave of anti-incumbent, tea party fervor to a decisive victory over former Chairman Buddy Motz fighting for his seventh term in the 2010 interim elections.

The success of these businessmen and their contributions to the community will certainly contribute to how the race shapes up, experts say. Supporters in both camps are already lining up.

"I've had folks call me, grassroots folks," said Glenn McCall, chairman of the York County Republican Party.

"I think it's going to be a race about conservative values and who best will meet that bill," McCall said. "It's good both have served the community" and have "a history of service. I think it will be a hard-fought battle."

That experience could lead to a very different race, said Rick Whisonant, a political science and history instructor at York Technical College.

"Usually you don't get these really competitive races" at the county council level, because voters see "a gap between the knowledge of the incumbent versus the challenger," one that gives the "experienced" incumbent the advantage, he said.

"But in this case, you're not really looking at it as the incumbent versus the challenger. You're looking at it as two well-known individuals the public knows much about."

'Boots on the ground'

Most County Council races are "low information" races where the candidates' ability to gain the trust of the community carries more weight than the content of the message, said Scott Huffmon, Winthrop University pollster and political scientist.

Many times, that means candidates rely heavily on volunteers and grassroots efforts. They might spend a few thousand dollars, which is still high, but this race could be different, topping $10,000 for one candidate, Huffmon said.

One reason, Huffmon said, is Williams matches the profile of a state House or Senate candidate.

Wealthier candidates seeking power in public office might ask what's the highest office they can win with their profile, Huffmon said.

"If he's running for this office, it's probably because he wants to make a difference."

Given the competition, Blackwell and Williams will likely buy lists of registered voters and spend more on mailers, pamphlets and signs than usual, Huffmon said.

"The expense certainly is going to be quite dramatically increased, and you're going to see that on both sides," Whisonant said, adding that the rhetoric won't necessarily reflect the candidates' buying power.

"One will probably say, 'I'm just a little guy versus a big guy,' but the fact of the matter is, they're both big."

Blackwell took a similar tack after Williams said he was running, painting himself as the people's candidate and aligning Williams with "the establishment."

Williams said Friday he hasn't finalized his campaign budget but expects to spend between $10,000 and $15,000, which is in line with campaigns he said he has researched.

On Saturday, Blackwell hadn't decided on a figure, but said, "It would be nice to spend less. It just comes down to what you have to do and how much it costs."

The 2010 race for District 6, which covers northern Rock Hill, between Motz and Blackwell exceeded expected costs. According to campaign finance records, Motz spent nearly $13,300 in his campaign against Blackwell, who spent about $12,600 in 2010.

But money doesn't win races in York County, said Joe St. John, a local political operative who has worked on a variety of campaigns.

"It's about getting out, knocking on the doors, town halls."

St. John said he has helped several county councilmen into their seats, including Blackwell in 2010, and the winner isn't always the big spender.

St. John and McCall both recalled former York County Councilman Joe Cox's 2006 victory over then-incumbent Steve McNeely despite spending less than his opponent.

"You can overcome money by having a good ground game and grassroots game," McCall said. "It's going to be boots on the ground."

Conservatives dividing

Hamp Atkins, a former York County GOP chair, said it is unusual to see such a strong opposition mounting to Blackwell, the chairman, who, just in 2010, was challenging a long-seated incumbent.

The race also illustrates "the different centers of power where people are gravitating, maybe some more moderate, some more conservative, some more tea party versus regular Republicans," he said.

While Blackwell will again cull tea party support, Williams will pull the business community and the "downtown crowd" of people, Atkins said, who, like Williams, who have been supportive of the city's revitalization efforts and community events.

Both candidates' camps are growing.

Jim Vining, vice-chairman of the Rock Hill School Board, sent out an email encouraging others to support Williams.

"If you are tired of ineptitude, this will be a vision into what York County can be, by someone who walks the talk," he wrote.

On Friday, Vining said he "wasn't thinking of Britt Blackwell at all" when he wrote the comment. Instead, he included it as "a sign of the times," and said the County Council needs more "global thinkers" who can foster relationships and collaboration county-wide.

In response, Blackwell said he's been working hard to forge new partnerships across county lines and with the state to combat what he sees as the state giving little recognition to the region's needs.

He called together the state legislative delegation and the County Council twice and set up meetings between economic development officials from York, Chester and Lancaster counties. He's been commended for his efforts by state leaders and others, he said.

Blackwell's efforts to reach out to county staff to foster a more "business-friendly" and "user-friendly" government have led to tension between the council and county staff. He said it's all in an effort to build trust and teamwork.

"We're all for the same team. There has to be open communication, you have to work together, there has to be a trust factor, and I'm working hard to build that trust," Blackwell said, noting that sometimes asking questions leads to a defensive response.

McCall has been fielding phone calls from mostly tea party conservatives "concerned about conservative credentials," namely those of Gary Williams, he said.

"A lot of folks didn't know that Gary Williams was a Republican," McCall said.

Paul Anderko, a member of GPS Conservatives for Action, a Rock Hill-based tea party group, said Williams supported former U.S. Congressman John Spratt, a Democrat from York who served the 5th Congressional district for nearly three decades.

In 2010, Williams gave Spratt the maximum of $4,800 because Spratt supported the trade organization Williams was president of, but also because he wanted to support him and the "community supported him for 28 years," Williams said.

"That doesn't make me a non-Republican. That makes me a good businessman to make the right decision."

Williams said that he has also given money to U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham, both of South Carolina, and Republicans running for Congress in other states.

Spratt is the only Democrat he's supported, Williams said.