Thursday, August 31, 2006

Frank Eppes for Senate - SC - 5th Dist.

The great Frank Eppes is finally running for office. The fates have smiled on him and given the incumbent state senator a dibilitating condition, forcing his untimely resignation. And creating an open seat. Frank has swung into action and is the favorite to win the Democratic primary, and given good odds in the general. The retiring incumbent switched from "D" to "R" in 2000, so Frank's win would swing this conservative district back into the blue.

I've found some background on Frank's campaign in "Metrobeat," a section of the "Upstate Beat." Political writer and comumnist James Shannon provides good background in this August 22 piece:

According to Ecclesiastes, for everything there is a season – and our eyes and ears tell us this is so. When athletes remain on the field of play as their abilities wane, we suffer along with them. Visions of a hobbled Joe Namath in a Los Angeles Rams uniform or a depleted Willie Mays in the New York Mets outfield were all the more painful because we so vividly remembered them in their prime.

The same holds true in politics. Recall the final years of Strom Thurmond’s career in the US Senate, when as a colleague gently observed, he was “no longer mentally keen.” Another long-running political career ended recently when state Sen. Verne Smith of Greer resigned his seat after a storied career in the General Assembly that began when Richard Nixon was president. This was no long goodbye, however. Through the 2005 legislative session, Smith remained a force in Columbia. 2006 was a different story, as illness kept him away from the daily business of the Senate. Although his term would not expire until 2008, he decided to step down.

A special election will be held to pick his successor, with Democratic and Republican primaries on September 19. The winners will face off on November 7. Verne Smith often said his role in government “was to help the raggedy-ass children and frail elderly.” They can only hope whoever wins the seat has the same commitment to those without access to the corridors of power.

He leaves some big shoesto fill, and not just because he was a large man in physical size. In a political arena increasingly populated by narrow ideologues and self-interested sycophants, Verne Smith was a giant. This lends added importance to the choice voters will make in the Fifth Senate District, and an examination of the candidates reveals some curious undercurrents.

On the Republican side, Rep. Lewis Vaughn would have to be considered the front-runner. He has served in the House since 1989 and chaired the Greenville County delegation when he announced earlier this year that he would not seek reelection. His “retirement” quickly ended, and he announced he would seek the Senate seat on the day Smith resigned. Vaughn’s ambitions for higher office are no secret. In 2003, when Jim DeMint indicated he would give up his seat in Congress to run for the US Senate, Vaughn publicly said he wanted to run but garnered no real support despite a reputation as a rabid GOP partisan.

Expect to hear a lot between now and November about candidates embracing the legacy of Verne Smith, but one area where Vaughn and Smith part company concerns vouchers that transfer public money to private schools. Smith was a strong supporter of public education, while Vaughn was perhaps the leading promoter of “school choice” in the General Assembly. Although the initiative called Put Parents In Charge went down in flames in 2005 and was pulled off the legislative agenda in this election year by Gov. Mark Sanford, it has not gone away. Campaign finance records confirm an avalanche of cash flowing into the Sanford and Karen Floyd coffers from out-of-state voucher advocates, and there is a reasonable expectation that Vaughn will ride that same gravy train. In a district with excellent public schools in Greer, Travelers Rest and Blue Ridge, it will be interesting to watch Vaughn try to convince voters that tax money needs to be removed from those schools in favor of affluent private schools and Christian academies.

The other Republicans running in the primary have taken notice of Vaughn’s presumed front-runner status, and appear to be attempting to move even further to the right – if that’s possible. Kathleen Jennings Gresham describes herself as the first female prosecutor in the Upstate, but she was disbarred in 1996 following numerous allegations including misrepresentation and forging a signature on a document. She is waging an aggressive campaign, taking Vaughn to task for failing to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. This is a gimmick frequently trotted out by ultra-conservative candidates trying to put their opponents on the spot. Gresham’s yard signs contain the slogan “Share the Vision,” although what that vision is remains unclear. Her radio commercials emphasize her gender, asserting she is not part of the “old boy” network. Hey, she’s a woman.

Also on the ballot is Timothy Macko, described as an accountant and graduate of Bob Jones University. It turns out Macko has experience in elective office, serving six years in the New Mexico legislature. On the one hand, the Bob Jones connection should not be discounted, especially in a GOP primary in the Upstate. On the other hand, New Mexico may as well be France to more provincial area voters.

The fourth GOP candidate in the race is Michael Meilinger, reportedly a certified public accountant. Meilinger did not participate in a recent debate of GOP candidates at Greenville Tech, and no further information had surfaced at press time. Beyond Vaughn’s built-in advantage as a well-known incumbent who has secured the support of virtually all the establishment Republicans in the district, the primary race is difficult to handicap. But after 18 years in office, Vaughn has undoubtedly made some enemies. If Jennings or Macko can assemble enough malcontents and wing-nuts to push Vaughn into a run-off, then all bets are off. But Lewis Vaughn looks like a safe bet in the GOP primary.

Things get a little more complicated on the other side of the aisle, not least because Verne Smith was a Democrat until 2001. When he changed parties, the Senate was evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats, with Republican Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler holding the tie-breaking vote. Although many Democrats – reportedly including Smith’s son Jeff – disagreed with the decision, he believed he could more effectively serve the people of his district as a Republican. Verne Smith did not change his beliefs, only the letter after his name.

What makes this discussion interesting is the emergence of a Democratic candidate making his first run for public office who vows to implement a “pro-education, pro-business agenda that shuns partisan, political game-playing and puts people first.” His name is Frank Eppes, a well-known attorney and the son of former Circuit Court Judge Frank Eppes. The funeral of Judge Eppes in 2002 has been described as one of the watershed political events of the decade, as the meek and the mighty gathered in large numbers to pay tribute to a man who touched countless lives. “My father loved people, and he loved helping people,” says Frank Eppes. “If it was in his power to help them, he’d do it whether he knew them well or not. I hope I can live up to that legacy.” The wild card in this election is that voters may have a chance to choose a successor who embodies the core values of the man they seek to replace. “Strom Thurmond and Verne Smith shared one important trait that I always admired,” recounts Eppes. “When someone asked for their help, neither man ever applied any kind of litmus test or asked about political affiliation. An effective legislator shares our values, speaks our language and understands the things that matter most to us. An effective legislator does what is best and right for people because it is best and right. While no one will be able to fill Senator Smith’s shoes, we certainly have the right model to follow.” Eppes faces one challenger in the Democratic primary. Charles E. Winfield ran as a Republican in the June primary for the Greenville County Council seat being vacated by Mark Kingsbury, losing to Willis Meadows. Previously, he ran against Tommie Reece in the non-partisan school board elections, finishing third in a three candidate race. Now he has filed to run as a Democrat. The odds would appear to greatly favor Eppes in the primary, but he says he’s taking nothing for granted.

Should Eppes and Vaughn win their respective primaries, expect the November election to focus on the issues – especially education – to give voters a real choice. According to Eppes, “Public education is the most important function of state government. I support our public schools and the dedicated teachers, principals and parents who serve our children so tirelessly. Using tax dollars to fund private school vouchers steals from our public schools, which hurts our children and our future.”

Eppes is an imposing man, standing 6’10” tall and solid as a rock. But it is the solidity of his convictions that make him a worthy candidate to succeed Verne Smith in the South Carolina Senate. It’s not easy to fill the shoes of a giant.

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