After 2018 defeat, Democrat Smith ponders next move
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — James Smith has been scrolling through photos on his iPhone for a few minutes now, but he can’t find the one he is looking for.
The 2018 Democratic nominee for S.C. governor stops every so often to look at a few of the thousands of pictures from his campaign. There are photos of overworked teachers, South Carolinians who can’t afford health care and a mother who is trying to get autism therapy for her 14-year-old son.
They were counting on the Columbia Democrat to win the Nov. 6 election, Smith says wistfully.
Instead, after a sound defeat to Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, Smith is out of elected office for the first time in 22 years.
A month later, Smith is sorting through a half-dozen job offers, writing a book, pondering his political future — he says he isn’t done with elected office — and, at least on this December morning, still grieving his failure to win so he could deliver on the promises that he made to voters.
“For me, I know I’m going to be fine,” Smith told The State during an hour-long, sometimes emotional interview at his downtown Columbia law firm. “But there are so many in South Carolina that I was fortunate to meet, and I worry there will be things that just won’t happen over the next four years that need to happen.”
Taking a chance
Smith was a long shot in ruby red South Carolina.
S.C. voters last elected a Democrat to the governor’s office in 1998. In statewide races, a Republican can coast to victory by keeping his or her head down and avoiding scandal.
But Smith, by all accounts, sincerely thought he would win, buoyed by research from national Democrat operatives. They concluded Smith could beat McMaster if voters knew Smith’s back-story, including his military service in Afghanistan, as well as the governor’s.
He also was encouraged to run by former Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime friend. Smith acknowledges now that, in 2017, he was set to run for the state Senate seat long held by former state Senate Education Committee chairman John Courson, the Richland Republican later forced to resign in the State House corruption investigation.
But when Smith shared those plans with Biden after an April 2017 statue unveiling in Charleston for former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, the former vice president failed to conceal his disappointment. Biden wanted Smith to aim higher, saying South Carolinians want an “authentic” candidate who can transcend partisan politics.
“He was absolutely right about the decision to run and why to do it,” Smith says now, adding he has no regrets about the campaign and only he is to blame for its failure.
Smith’s run was rocky, marked by campaign staff turnover and a $4 million fundraising disadvantage.
Two decades in the S.C. House hadn’t earned Smith name recognition outside the Midlands, meaning he had to spend most of his campaign and much of the more than $3 million that he raised introducing himself to voters for the first time.
Smith couldn’t afford to hit the airwaves in the Charlotte or Augusta markets. He also was criticized for spending too much time in front of small audiences in places like Clio in Marlboro County, population 667.
While McMaster avoided scandal and touted a popular economic development message, Smith tried to sell Medicaid expansion to a state full of Republicans who weren’t buying it.
And Smith’s message that South Carolina could do better than its near-the-bottom rankings in education and health care failed to move the needle.
“He seemed to run a campaign that just didn’t have a whole lot of juice to it,” said McMaster strategist Tim Pearson.
Smith defends the campaign, noting that, due to the huge midterm turnout, he won more votes in November than former Republican Gov. Nikki Haley did in winning election in 2010 or 2014.
He said he performed well in Greenville, Columbia and Charleston — the three markets where he could afford to tell voters about his military record — on the airwaves.
“When people knew who I was and knew my story as compared to Henry’s, we were winning those votes,” Smith says. “We lost because too many people didn’t know who I was . . . when they went to vote on Election Day.”
On the campaign trail, Smith liked to tell the story of a camping trip that he took as a Cub Scout. His father insisted Smith, then 6 years old, clean up trash lying all over the campground, not just their own.
The message resonated, Smith said.
“We all need to find ways to leave this place, wherever you are, better than you found it,” he said. “That’s kind of my driving value that has always been there. I’ll continue to do that.”
Now, though, Smith will have to find ways to do that in the private sector.
Smith woke up at 4 a.m. on the morning after Election Day, still on his campaign schedule, and began fielding job offers. He doesn’t yet know what is next.
He plans to take on fewer cases at his private law practice on Laurel Street. And he is shutting down the Congaree Group, a side business he owned that lost its ability to win lucrative U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs contracts earlier this year after declining to cooperate with an audit.
(Smith vehemently has denied allegations he used his status as a disabled veteran to win contracts and then pass the actual work off to non-veteran-owned companies.)
Smith said there is a chance he will return to Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, the high-powered Columbia law firm founded by his great-great-grandfather, Patrick Henry Nelson, where four generations of Smith’s family have worked.
Smith started his professional career at Nelson Mullins but had to leave when he first ran for the House because the firm employs State House lobbyists.
A portrait of Patrick Henry Nelson — who famously and successfully defended then-Lt. Gov. James Tillman after he shot and killed State newspaper editor N.G. Gonzales — hangs in a meeting room in Smith’s law office.
But Smith thinks he could have the greatest public impact working in economic development, having gotten a taste while helping to recruit tech giant Capgemini to invest in Columbia over the past year.
Smith is sure of one thing. He won’t become a lobbyist — a job choice that would hurt his electability should he decide to run for office again.
He also is working on a book about his experiences — including his run for governor and his time in the House — and the importance of strong leadership in politics.
He has talked with former state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, about life after public office and says he is excited to focus more on his family and professional career.
Lourie, who retired from the state Senate after a dozen years in 2016, said he told Smith it is normal to feel withdrawal when the General Assembly returns to Columbia in January.
Smith says he will miss the daily grind of the legislative session, working to pass and defeat legislation in the GOP-controlled House. But, Lourie adds, Smith might find he doesn’t miss the daily stress of being a legislator.
“So many people have told me I look 10 years younger since I got out of the State House,” Lourie said.
‘I couldn’t throw it away’
Smith still can’t find that photo he was looking for.
It showed a banner that Smith’s wife, Kirkland, had posted in the campaign’s Taylor Street office that asked anyone who came by, “What is your dream for South Carolina?”
On the huge sheet of paper under it, Smith’s supporters had scribbled their hopes in every color possible.
Come to think of it, forget the picture, Smith says. The banner is upstairs.
He climbs the wooden stairs of his two-story office and enters a small room packed with leftovers from his political life.
Navy blue “James Smith — Governor” yard signs and stickers sit on a set of shelves, along with a multicolored, penciled drawing that reads “James Smith for Governor” — a gift to the campaign by a fan in elementary school.
A “Legislator of the Year” plaque sits face-up on a box. The banner that Smith is looking for is rolled up and leaning against a wall.
He unfurls it onto the floor, poring over the words.
“Fix education.” ″Prison reform.” ″Close health care gaps.” ″Support Planned Parenthood.” ″Better pay for teachers.” ″Sensible gun control laws.” ″Affordable college.”
Seconds of silence go by, and Smith soon is wiping tears from his eyes with a handkerchief.
“I couldn’t throw it away,” he says. “There’s just so many people that put their hearts and dreams into it. That’s what got me up every day.”
Winning in November was important to Smith, not so he could be governor but so he could help others, his friends say.
“Every time we would hear the story of somebody we knew we could help, he would say, ‘We have to win,’ ” said state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, a Lancaster Democrat who ran for lieutenant governor on Smith’s ticket.
Powers Norrell said she always would reply to Smith, saying, “We have to do everything in our power to win,” only to hear him revert back to the former we-have-to-win line anyway.
“There was such a heaviness to what we were trying to do and the impact it could have,” she said. “The impact on health care and education, and knowing there are people who are getting sick who can’t go to the doctor because they can’t afford to pay for it.”
Gov. McMaster won’t forsake those people, his spokesman said, adding the Columbia Republican plans to make education a priority next year. McMaster has said the state can’t afford to expand Medicaid’s health insurance to more South Carolinians. Instead, he has focused on economic development as a way to bring good jobs to South Carolina and lift families out of poverty, so they can afford health coverage, spokesman Brian Symmes said.
“What you saw was two men running for governor who have a genuine passion for our state and agreed that there are challenges ahead,” Symmes said. “But the real differences between the two were in how to address those challenges.”
‘I don’t feel done’
Smith, 51, says he isn’t giving up on politics but also hasn’t planned his next campaign. His House seat has been filled by fellow Democrat Seth Rose, a 37-year-old former Richland County councilman.
But Smith hasn’t ruled out another run for governor or a race for the state Senate’s District 20 seat, won in November by fellow Democrat Dick Harpootlian.
“I’ve indicated to him this was not going to be a career for me,” said Harpootlian, who runs a high-profile law practice on Laurel Street, a few doors down from Smith’s. “So sometime after 2021, after we do reapportionment, he and I can have that discussion.”
At Smith’s office, four businessmen are waiting to talk with the former candidate about a possible job opportunity. Smith might join them in the private sector for a few years. But he hints he could be back in the public spotlight soon enough.
“I don’t feel done,” Smith said. “But I’m not at the same time thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to run at this time, in this place, in this moment.’ You don’t make any decisions along any of these lines quickly. ...
But, he says, “My passion for South Carolina’s future and being involved in public office has not waned.”
Information from: The State, http://www.thestate.com