There are some clear – and not so clear – choices when voters cast their ballots in the District 15 state Senate race on Tuesday.
Wes Hayes, the incumbent, is Rock Hill born and bred, a Rock Hill High School graduate, and a Rock Hill lawyer for almost 30 years.
Joe Thompson hails from the “farm equipment capital of the world,” Moline, Ill. His first job was working at the John Deere combine plant. He worked in the farm-equipment industry for many years before coming York County in 2002. He now works as general manager for FHS Supply of Clover which makes oils and fuel for go-karts and radio-controlled machines.
Hayes has been in office 28 years, serving six years in the S.C. House before being elected to the state Senate in 1991. He is endorsed by the local Republican Party for another term.
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This is Thompson’s first run for office. He is running as a petition candidate.
While both are officially Republicans, this is where they part ways.
Thompson supporters say Hayes is not fiscally conservative enough. A number of legislative votes show Hayes wants to “spend more money, grow government,” said Larry Barrett, president of the GPS Conservatives for Action PAC, a tea-party inspired group. GPS encouraged Thompson to challenge Hayes.
Thompson says the free market can solve most problems and “government intrusion creates problems.”
Thompson supporters, such as Barrett, also say that Hayes’ longevity makes him part of the problem, not the solution.
Hayes’ supporters counter that his seniority gives York County clout in the Legislature, especially in the Senate where committee assignments are largely dictated by years of service.
The seniority, says state Rep. Gary Simrill of Rock Hill, makes sure York County isn’t overlooked in a legislature that’s dominated by Charleston representatives. Before becoming lieutenant governor, Glenn McConnell, was the Senate president. Bobby Harrell is the House speaker. Both represent the Charleston region.
Hayes’ calm, deliberative style gives York County an influential voice, Simrill said.
Hayes says his tenure, and the relationships and seniority he has developed, are important. So too is his record. This election, he said, is about “the manner in which you serve and integrity.”
Their path to politics are different.
Hayes’ father, Bob, served in the state Senate for 10 years before becoming a judge. Thompson became politically active in 2008 “when the tea party movement struck a nerve.” He volunteered with the Mick Mulvaney campaign and has been politically active since.
Both point to moments in their youth that they say helped define them personally and politically.
Hayes pointed to his first election – as sophomore class president at Rock Hill High School. The class of about 700 students elected him in a contested race. The election taught him, “you don’t do anything by yourself,” and “to beat someone, the burden is on you, you have to do a good job or better.”
Another important moment, Hayes said, was his time in the U.S. Army, as a cadet at the academy at West Point, and later as a captain with the 82nd Airborne. “In the Army I learned how people react under pressure, how to keep them motivated, not let someone down.”
For Thompson his first day on the job selling John Deere left a lasting impact. Thompson had grown up around the machines and gone to technical schools to repair them. He knew the product, a veteran salesman helped teach him the business.
They started talking about Thompson’s new expense account.
“You’re not spending your money,” Thompson remembers being told. “It’s the stockholders, the company’s money. And if you spend $5 you have to sell $100 and if you spend $50, you have to sell $1,000. That’s carried over to everything I’ve done.
“That’s the respect I’ll give York County, I’ll respect their money.”
Thompson’s business background is a reason to elect him, say his supporters.
“You clearly understand the urgency of making South Carolina the freest state in the nation – for state government to pay down its debt, fund its long-term liabilities, cut spending, curb entitlements, reform a tax code that discourages entrepreneurs and capital investment, and operate in a way that is more transparent and accountable to the people,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican from Beaufort, in endorsing Thompson.
Hayes and Thompson often agree in principle, but not in degree.
On the economy, Hayes said the role of government is not to create jobs, but to create an environment for the private sector. Thompson said tax reform and better education are needed to attract jobs.
Both target the state’s 10.5 percent tax on corporate assets for change. Thompson wants to eliminate the tax because it is a “detriment to reinvestment” and to “the people who build the machines.”
Hayes said he wants to get the tax “as low as we can,” but he also wants to identify ways to replace the funds local governments would lose if the tax is cut.
They also agree the list of items exempt from state sales tax needs to be changed. The list of 77 exemptions fills 11 pages of the state tax code. Hayes and Thompson agree that exemptions for food, drugs and other necessities need to stay in place. Hayes said that behind each exemption is a constituency that would be affected. “There may be a good reason for that exemption,” Hayes said.
On education, Thompson minced no words. “We are failing, every way you can measure. We are at the bottom of the barrel,” he said.
Hayes said much has changed since he was in school – his West Point class used slide rules and Fortran was the new computer language. “Part of the challenge in education is being open-minded,” he said.
Hayes said he supports parents having choice within the public school system. Hayes is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Thompson said the state per-pupil funding should go with the child and parents could use that money for public, private or other education options.
Making public school compete for students will improve the schools, Thompson said.
Ethics reform is one of the state’s hot-button issues. Both Gov. Nikki Haley and former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard have faced ethics violation questions.
Ard, a Pamplico Republican, resigned in May and entered a guilty plea to using campaign money for personal purchases. The House Ethics Committee heard allegations that Haley used her office for personal gain while a state representative from Lexington County. The panel cleared Haley.
House Speaker Harrell took payments of roughly $300,000 from his campaign fund since 2008. Harrell has repaid $23,000 to his campaign but denies any wrongdoing.
And there was the snafu over candidate filings and disclosure documents that removed nearly 250 candidates statewide from June primaries – 70 of them from legislative races. The state Supreme Court ruled they filed improperly; others say it was a paperwork technicality.
(Thompson was not one of those candidates. He filed as petition candidate after the deadline to run in the primary.)
As chairman of the Senate Ethics Commission, Hayes has had his chance to reform ethics, Thompson said.
Thompson is calling for total transparency in government. The ethics problems, he said, “are bad for business.” Thompson said people in politics can’t police themselves and there needs to be an independent authority to investigate ethics complaints.
Hayes said he wants the rules concerning the statements of economic interest to be clear. He also said the state’s Ethics Commission needs better funding. It should also seek help with investigations from other agencies who do that regularly, Hayes said.
Hayes even acknowledges Thompson’s point about an independent ethics investigator, but notes that would require amending the state Constitution; and to even get that on the ballot requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. “I don’t know if that’s possible,” he said.
Thompson knows he faces an uphill challenge. “I’m a no-name and the reality is he (Hayes) has a record.” But from his perspective, Hayes is one of “the old boys,” one of the reasons there is legislative gridlock. It’s time for change, Thompson said.
Hayes counters that “it’s a matter of perspective” whether he’s been there too long and he says he faces term limits with every election.
Scott Huffmon, political science professor at Winthrop University, said Thompson’s chances may hinge on just how much voters know about him.
Thompson could get support from Democrats who see his name on the ballot and assume he’s a political opposite of Hayes, Huffmon said.
As far as Republicans, Huffmon said the opposite is true. Thompson needs Republicans voters to be very educated, able to see the differences between the candidates and be willing not to vote the straight Republican ticket.
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