The back room at Zorba’s in Irmo was packed. The staff had to retrieve extra chairs from an adjoining room to make sure everyone had a seat. While the food at Zorba’s is delicious, it probably wasn’t the main reason for the crowd. The monthly meeting of Irmo Democrats was bigger than usual because Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D- Kershaw) was the guest speaker.
Sheheen challenged Nikki Haley for governor in 2010 and was narrowly defeated. It’s widely assumed that he will again challenge Haley in 2014. His appearance at Zorba’s did little to refute that assumption.
After dinner, Sheheen spoke briefly in a manner that sounded a lot like a stump speech.
Not everyone in the crowd was a Democrat, but everyone listened intently to Sheheen’s easy drawl, nodding often as he rattled off the problems of the state—a lack of emphasis on education and economic opportunity, the DOR Hack, a collapsing infrastructure, a disrespect towards the environment and ongoing ethics lapses.
When Sheheen was finished, a member of the audience reminded him that a recent poll showed him ahead of Haley in a head-to-head race for governor. Sheheen smiled but did not respond.
Sheheen has made his dissatisfaction with the Haley Administration clear. He held a press conference to blast the administration’s handling of the DOR Hack and he called for the entire constitution to be re-written to rid the state of corruption once and for all.
Haley emphasized public education in her State of the State Address on Wednesday, but Sheheen said she offered few specifics.
Within the context of public education is the issue of school choice, which is popular among voters. But Sheheen took issue with the term “choice.”
“It’s not choice. It’s vouchers,” Sheheen said. “What this issue really is about is taking public money out of public schools and giving it to people so they can send their kids to private schools. And we’re talking about giving public dollars to a school that’s not held to the same standards of other public schools.”
“The thing is, there’s no proof that any of this improves education,” Sheheen explained. “What there is proof of are quality teachers and small classes. That makes a difference. That improves the results.”
In the wake of the Newtown massacre, school safety has become a hot-button topic and a bill in the Senate calls for funding of a school resource officer in every building. Sheheen said he supports the bill, but he’s also wary of overreaction. “A school is still the safest place for a kid to be and parents need to know that,” Sheheen said. “We need to understand that a school resource officer is more than just protection. They can be a learning tool and someone who can help solve social problems.”
After education and school safety, the issue that most interested those in attendance on Thursday was the issue of Medicaid expansion. In its ruling last summer, the Supreme Court gave states the chance to opt out of Obamacare and decline federal dollars. Gov. Haley and GOP leadership in both chambers of the state legislature plan on doing just that.
Sheheen said he has more to learn on the issue, but said, “Here’s the thing, when I pay taxes to the Federal Government I want those taxes to come back to South Carolina as much as possible and not go to Texas or wherever else.”
“I don’t think we should be writing off any federal money when a lot of it is ours. That’s a mistake. We need to take a hard look at what this will cost us now and down the road if we do accept the funding.”
Sheheen acknowledged the problem of funding health care is complex, which means sophisticated solutions are needed.
“There are two aspects to the health care question, the human effect and the financial effect. We need to consider them both and Gov. Haley hasn’t considered either of them,” Sheheen said. “She’s making a knee jerk decision based on national politics.”
Issues like education and health care have a clear divide between Republicans and Democrats. In a still-hypothetical pairing against Haley, Sheheen would have to gain the support from most of the independents and maybe even peel off some Republicans if he wants to win. That’s not an impossible task, especially considering he lost by only 60,000 votes in 2010 while getting more votes than Mark Sanford did in either 2006 or 2002.
But in order to do that, Sheheen will have to walk a tightrope on the issues. He’ll have to keep the Democratic base satisfied while attracting the support of those without strong ideological ties. And on education and health care, South Carolina moderates lean pointedly to the right.
Like the rest of the country, the demographics in the Palmetto State are changing. They probably won’t change enough by 2014 to help the Democrats on issues alone, so other factors come into play. In any event, Sheheen sounded like someone who’s analyzed the dynamics of a statewide race.
“People are much more sophisticated as voters now. They’re more independent-minded and they receive their media in all sorts of different places,” Sheheen said. “There’s no machine anymore so you have to build each campaign.”
With this in mind, Sheheen said he will make a final decision about another bid for the Governor's office in the next two months.
As he was finishing a conversation, a supporter stopped to shake Sheheen’s hand and said, “Vince, you let me know when you’re going to do it and you have my support.”
Much as he had when the favorable poll was brought up after dinner, Sheheen smiled but did not respond.