As outrage continues over newly announced job losses tied to new U.S. tariffs, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster says he is doing all he can to protect Palmetto State industries. But McMaster’s opponent in the upcoming general election says the Republican is not doing nearly enough.
State Rep. James Smith, the Democratic nominee for governor, held a news conference Wednesday in Winnsboro to address Element Electronics’ decision to shut down its Fairfield County plant. The TV-maker says it will cut 126 jobs this fall because of the Trump administration’s tariffs on Chinese parts.
Smith said South Carolinians need a governor willing to ”speak truth to power.” The Columbia lawmaker criticized McMaster for not taking a more active role in opposing the “job-killing tariffs” of his ally, President Donald Trump.
“As governor, I will lead,” said Smith. “I will lead our congressional delegation, along with members of the chamber of commerce, and knock down the door of the Oval Office and tell this president how much his job-killing tariffs are killing South Carolina.”
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McMaster argues he and members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation have put a “full-court press” on the Trump administration over the impact of tariffs on state businesses, including Samsung and solar companies.
The governor said he supports Trump’s position on trade but has asked for policy changes and exemptions for S.C. businesses that have been affected.
“What we want to do is to be sure that the fix doesn’t hurt South Carolina,” McMaster told reporters Wednesday. “We’re doing everything that can be done to see that he understands — that the vice president, Congress and the administration understands — where we stand.”
At his news conference, Smith highlighted a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warning South Carolina would be the third hardest-hit state by retaliatory tariffs.
Smith also mocked McMaster’s relationship with Trump.
The first statewide elected official to endorse Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, McMaster often touts that close relationship. But, Smith asked rhetorically, “What has Henry McMaster’s close relationship with the president gotten us?”
McMaster campaign spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg pointed to $50 million in federal money secured by the state to deepen the Port of Charleston. “It’s clear the governor and the S.C. congressional delegation know how to work with this (administration) to get the best outcomes for S.C.”
Element Electronics’ closing announcement Monday has made national news.
In a letter to S.C. employment officials obtained by The State, Element wrote “the layoff and closure is a result of the new tariffs that were recently and unexpectedly imposed on many goods imported from China, including the key television components used in our assembly operations in Winnsboro.”
McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the governor’s office and state Commerce Department have been in constant contact with Element executives and stand ready to ask for a tariff exemption from the Trump administration. However, Symmes said Element hasn’t asked the governor — who has requested similar exemptions for others — to act.
Skeptics have suggested Element was going to close its Winnsboro plant anyway and is using Trump’s tariffs as a scapegoat.
But McMaster said Wednesday he has no reason to think Element is closing for any reason other than tariffs.
Element is trying to lobby the Trump administration for an exemption from the tariffs, Fairfield County economic development director Ty Davenport told The State, adding Fairfield County has requested McMaster’s help.
Davenport said Element had been operating on razor-thin profit margins since opening its Winnsboro assembly plant. The company’s business plan depended on obtaining a federal exemption from an existing 4.5-percent tariff on imported TV parts, he added.
In late June, Davenport said, Element thought it would get that exemption and the Trump administration was going to impose a higher tariff on imported TVs. That would have hurt Element’s competitors and boosted its business. Based on that belief, Element began talks with Fairfield County about expanding its production, according to Davenport and Fairfield County Council Chairman Billy Smith.
Then, the proposed tariff was flipped on its head.
In July, the Trump administration said it would slap a 25-percent import tax on TV components. That wiped out Element’s profit potential and rendered its business plans infeasible, Davenport said.
In 2013, Element announced it would invest $7.5 million to open a manufacturing facility in Fairfield County, expected to create 500 new jobs. The company, which received a $1.3 million state rural infrastructure grant and tax credits for job creation, never reached that goal. It now employs 134 at its Winnsboro plant and, after this fall’s announced layoffs, will keep a skeleton crew of eight.
Lifelong Winnsboro resident Dennis Miller, 73, said he does not fault any one political party for Fairfield’s job losses but said he feels like the community has been overlooked.
“Every time we get someone to come in, something comes up and they’re blown away,” Miller said.
But he said he remains optimistic.
“People up here got a lot of faith,” Miller said. “They went through a log of struggles ... but we are going to bounce back.”
State Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, said he was disappointed to see Smith use the county’s job losses to try to score political points “over bodies that aren’t even cold yet.”
He said McMaster has been “the single, most-ready partner” to help address Fairfield’s job losses, including holding job fairs and designating most of the county as an opportunity zone to encourage investment.
“We need to be united” to address the county’s economic woes, Fanning said. “I don’t need this childish, middle school finger pointing.”