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For folks leaning right, red and toward President Donald Trump this forum was their kind of party.
About 300 people turned out March 8 to an early candidates forum for U.S. Dist. 5, a seat that came open when Mick Mulvaney left for a White House budget post. Republican candidates Chad Connelly, Sheri Few, Ralph Norman, Tommy Pope and Kris Wampler participated in the Lake Wylie event. Several other stated candidates declined. Official filing doesn’t close until noon Monday.
Dr. Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University, moderated the debate, which was hosted and organized by the Lake Wylie and Clover chambers of commerce and the Clover-Lake Wylie Republican Women’s Club.
Until Norman left his state legislative seat to run for Dist. 5, he and Pope represented opposite sides of the highway guests used Wednesday to get to the forum at River Hills Community Church life center. The crowd showed it. At times with the feel of a local sporting event, Norman and Pope supporters turned out heaviest among T-shirt-wearing, brochure-distributing volunteers outside and inside the building.
Norman, a real estate developer, pointed out audience members to drive home key points. So did Pope, an attorney, who several times asked for a show of hands. Both drew considerable applause.
Few, a Lugoff resident and advocate against federal management of education, “kind of expected that in York County” but said voting trends in Kershaw County and elsewhere are opening up Dist. 5 to candidates from throughout the 11-county area.
“Just being in York County doesn’t give them the right of passage to the seat,” she said.
Immigration, healthcare and military spending were major topics, but not the only ones on the minds of guests. The 28 questions submitted by the audience ranged from environmental to philosophical to Trump’s tweets and tax returns.
Several wanted to know what candidates will do to help small business. Several wanted to know why Norman gave up his state seat to run, while Pope didn’t. Norman has said constituents deserve a fully committed representative, while Pope says they should have the one they elected.
Differing opinions on major issues were subtle.
All five candidates favor a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act pushed through by former President Barack Obama during the first of his two terms. All want competition and choice provided by the private sector. Wampler said, “states are like laboratories” that can come up with healthcare solutions and that healthcare is a state and not federal issue. All candidates said they want more choice and that a full repeal brings makes that happen.
“We just need competition,” Connelly said. “We don’t have any competition. We don’t have a real shopping experience.”
Stronger border security was another consensus. Norman said a “nation without borders ceases to be a nation,” and there are farms and construction sites in South Carolina that have workers who travel from – and return to – other countries legally, which should be the goal. Wampler said this country is a “massive welfare state” and that is part of the problem.
‘I’m in favor of not having welfare at any level of government,” he said.
Few said she believes the reason people are coming here is simple, because “we have a wide open southern border.” She supports securing that border and full vetting of resettled refugees. Connelly said there are “a lot of people coming here who really don’t care about being Americans” or working hard once they’re here.
“We’ve got to start incentivizing the right things,” he said.
Pope said we “don’t need to be the land of the handout just because you came here.”
All the candidates said they want military decisions made by military leaders rather than politicians. Norman said he believes “our military is the thing we need to support,” while Connelly believes the military is “flat fired up” with the transition to a conservative administration and needs to project strength on the global stage. Pope said he wants the country to regain the military strength “that Obama gave away.”
While most argued for increased military spending, Few is the only one who offered specifics:
“If we are to continue to be a strong nation, we need to fund (the military), and the funding could easily come by cutting things like the department of education at the tune of $70 billion dollars a year,” she said.
Few said strong international military bases are important so the U.S. can “fight from there rather than our own country” if required.
Only Wampler wasn’t in favor of increased military spending.
“I want to get back to when we declared wars,” he said.
Fighting “constitutionally declared wars” rather than special military actions would reduce the need for military spending, he argued, and keep the country from making as many new enemies through drone strikes and “interventionist wars.” Wampler said he believes the country needs to stop “going abroad looking for monsters to destroy.”
Attendees wanted to know how responsive the candidates would be once they got to Washington. All insisted they would be. Connelly said he returns every voicemail almost daily and has his cell number on his business cards. Pope said his cell is listed on his state government contact information and he returns calls regularly to keep his voicemail inbox from getting full. Wampler decided to go a stop further. He just read his cell phone number aloud.
“I don’t mind giving that out because it’s off right now,” he said. “At least I think it’s off.”
The most contested moment of the debate wasn’t between opposing candidates, but a candidate and audience member. Ray Scott, a Lake Wylie resident, questioned Norman why he didn’t do more to help when Scott contacted him about issues with his home builder. Norman said he advised the resident what he should do – look at the home warranty and consult an an attorney. Norman said an attorney could be of more assistance than a member of the S.C. House. The resident spoke out several times during the questioning, leaving and returning to his front row seat intermittently.
Norman received considerable applause when he spoke of his history of constituent service and turned the issue to plans for improving services for veterans. Pope also got a hand after questioning why Norman would respond to a constituent service issue by recommending someone call a lawyer.
Mullikin skips debate over moderator
Camden attorney Tom Mullikin chose to sit out the debate, saying he was disappointed in the choice of its moderator.
In a Facebook post, Mullikin claimed Huffmon was a biased choice to moderate the conversation. He included several screenshots of Tweets from Huffmon’s Twitter page that mentioned Trump, and said Huffmon’s “outspoken opposition” to Trump’s administration pushed Mullikin to “take a stand” to defend the President.
Mullikin told supporters that his campaign gave organizers an opportunity to make a change, but they declined.
Trump wasn’t present in Lake Wylie, but his influence was. The phrase “drain the swamp” came up numerous times, and “make America great again” at least once. A wall along the southern border was a theme.
Several candidates spoke of changes in healthcare, military safeguards, education and other issues they see steering further right with Trump in office.
Candidates aren’t tweets, but here’s a Twitter-sized breakdown of the candidates based on their answers Wednesday anyway:
▪ Connelly wants national security, faith-based collaboration. He’ll be accountable.
▪ Few wants education department nixed, less federal regulation across the board.
▪ Norman relies on his business and public service record. Compares voting record to Mulvaney, former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint.
▪ Pope, son of teacher and cop, “genetically engineered for public service.” Swamp drainer with law enforcement pedigree.
▪ Wampler wants to make Washington smaller, less relevant to citizens. Federal powers should be limited to constitution.
Candidate filing ends at noon Monday. Another public candidates forum is 7 p.m. March 20 when Fort Mill Oak Initiative hosts at Heritage International Ministries, 375 Star Light Drive, Fort Mill.