A battle of words: Candidates devolve during forum

  • Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Photos by A.M. Sheehan/South Strand News Al Joseph, moderator, left, keeps the clock on the candidates as they each answer questions presented by the panelists. Candidates, from left, Rep. Ronnie Sabb, Rep. Carl Anderson and Cezar McKnight.


What started as an informative and civil political forum, turned into a battle of sharp tongues and quick accusations Aug. 8, at the Senate District 32 Debate in Georgetown.

The Glisson Education Building at Bethel A.M.E. Church was filled to the brim with approximately 300 adamant supporters and curious voters who came to see three of the four S.C. Senate District 32 candidates speak. Rep. Carl Anderson, Cezar McKnight and Rep. Ronnie Sabb were all present; candidate Sam Floyd did not attend.

Citizens for Progress, a nonpartisan community organization, hosted the debate. Al Joseph, Georgetown Business Association president, was the moderator.

John Carr, Michaele Duke and Maya Prabhu, who all represent local media, were the panelists and asked the questions.

Each candidate was given an opportunity to make an opening and closing statement, each for two minutes, and each had 90 seconds to respond to the question asked. The candidates’ response order rotated with each question.

The 18 questions varied from dredging the Georgetown Port to public education to a woman’s right to choose.

When asked to describe his platform in three words, Sabb answered with “progressive improvement,” Anderson answered with “get it done” and McKnight answered with “jobs, education, opportunity.”

The candidates were also asked “What are the immediate areas of concern that you plan to address during your first year as senator?”

Anderson listed education as his first priority, followed by healthcare, the elderly and disabled, and roads and bridges. “Education is very much needed in South Carolina. Secondly, our people have the right to have the education that is needed that they might face anybody across this country. These are things in South Carolina that we need to step up to the plate and get done. … Healthcare, the Affordable Care Act, some call it ‘Obamacare,’ it’s been great. … The elderly and disabled, I get calls all the time and refer them to the appropriate offices and provide a source of help.”

“My area of immediate concern is to stop the drain of our young people from the community,” said McKnight. “We need our young people to work here, to pay taxes here, and be the brain trust in our future.” He suggested passing legislation that would allow state-certified or trained workers to be exempt from paying the South Carolina income tax for their first five years of work. “our other great area of need is [the] permanent class of people in our district that are unemployable. I’m talking about those with a felony conviction. We need laws that give nonviolent, first-time felony offenders an expungement.”

Sabb said healthcare was the most important to him.

“The missing piece of the puzzle is the Medicaid expansion piece. Nobody anticipated that a portion of the Affordable Care Act would be found constitutional and the other portion would not. … Hospitals have simply been left holding the bag by our failure to expand Medicaid. And that is a battle we simply have to continue to fight in the South Carolina Senate.”

He also touched on education and roads and bridges as top priorities.

Although many questions were answered civilly, the evening was not without verbal dispute; what started as candidates answering the question turned into candidates spending more time combatting an opponent’s previous statement than addressing the question asked.

Anderson and McKnight spent several minutes out of order following the second question, “What will you do to bring jobs to Senate District 32?” when Anderson interjected a correction regarding McKnight’s earlier statement and the two argued over the information.

The two continued a back-and-forth in later questions, such as when they discussed issues plaguing rural areas.

“The first thing I want to do if elected to Senate 32 is address the travesty that has befallen the people of Plantersville, in which they have to pay $250 a year extra in their property taxes because they received sewage. And might I add this was all done under the watch of Rep. Anderson. … I believe that we could have tackled the $250 burden…had not our legislators decided to give themselves a $12,000 raise not once, not twice, but three times this legislative session. The priorities under my administration would be the people,” said McKnight.

“Let me clear the air with my opponent,” said Anderson in response. “I have right here in black and white from Georgetown County Water and Sewer District… what took place in Plantersville community, the delegation searched and got a $1 million grant for the Plantersville project. … but, let me tell my opponent it was Carl Anderson who stood up in Plantersville and it’s in the record of the Georgetown Times that Carl Anderson said he would fight whoever it took to make sure the Plantersville community got sewer, and today Plantersville community has sewer.

“They are paying a $250 fee and the reason they are paying that fee, my opponent, is because they agreed. One hundred thirty six residents, right here in black and white.”

The back-and-forth between Anderson and McKnight eventually halted, and was replaced with back-and-forth between Sabb and McKnight.

In response to a question about changing the governor’s position on Medicaid, McKnight suggested, “what should have been done and what we could do is a grassroots effort from our communities to put pressure on Gov. Haley. There was no leadership from the legislature to turn down Medicaid.”

Sabb responded, “If you came to Columbia you would know what’s up there. It was all in the newspaper, on the news, folks blocked the access to the statehouse…. This was not something that the state legislature took lightly.

“There were several events on Capital grounds. It’s disingenuous making allegations like that.”

The two went at it again addressing their plans to ensure the “best and brightest students” receive a quality education in the state and stay here to work.

McKnight suggested the state encourage students to stay in South Carolina by allowing them to be expect from the state income tax for their first five years in the workforce.

Sabb said that plan would encourage fraud, and called it “feel-good legislation being offered at the convenience of the moment with no chance of passing.”

After briefly addressing the next question, which regarded dredging the Georgetown Port, McKnight responded to Sabb: “Let me address his. Instead of attacking my plan, why not come up with a plan of your own, Mr. Sabb, to get our people to stay here? You’ve introduced no legislation at all in the two terms that you’ve been in the legislature. Not one bill! So what do you go to Columbia to do? Go along and get along?

“We need somebody in Columbia that just won’t be somebody in a seat, we need somebody there that will fight for us, not attack any idea that comes up that may make life better for our children.”

Sabb spent his entire response time addressing McKnight’s statement. “I want to be clear. The life I have lived has not been one of sitting on sidelines. ... Now, see, if you were really interested, and I know you’re not because it’s on my website, you can look at the bills I’ve been a part of introducing. … Here’s what I know y’all, here’s what I know: what you see is what you get. If that’s what you want in leadership, that’s what you get. What I would encourage you all to do is simply measure your candidates.

“Measure them in terms of their intellect, you measure them in terms of their history, you measure not what they say they will do, but what they have in fact done. … So when you talk about me [Mr. McKnight], let’s be absolutely clear that you are looking in the mirror and asking yourself the question ‘what have you done?’”

Each of the men had two minutes for a closing statement.

“We believe in this district we ought to be about the business of one people, one district, one senator, and one mission. And that one mission needs to be about the business of progressive improvement in our area,” said Sabb, who closed first.

Anderson followed. “I’ve worked very hard to do the things that are needed for our area. I’m not going to say I have satisfied everybody, if that was done it would be a miracle, but because we have put in legislation, we have passed legislation, we have worked across the aisles … we can lead the people of District 32 to higher heights.”

McKnight concluded with a statement in opposition to his opponents: “Because now, when it’s safe and they can’t lose their House seats, now they’re here and ready to take the lead for the race that we began. But that’s not going to happen on our watch! September 2 is our time, you had your chance and you didn’t take it, so it’s time to sit back. I’m willing to work with you, but it’s not your time now. It’s ours.”

Although there were 28 prepared questions, only 18 were asked because the event ran out of time. This was due to candidates going over their allotted answering time and breaking in and commanding the floor when they pleased and, in part, to an audience that stalled things with applause and comment.

After the two-hour forum ended, the crowd burst into cheers, applause and conversation. There was a mixed reaction from attendees, but all agreed they enjoyed hearing what the candidates had to say.

“I wish them all the best of luck, and I’m sure the best man will win,” said Celeste Graham of Andrews.

James McLaughlin of Kingstree said McKnight’s final statement resonated with him.

“Cezar McKnight is the bomb and you can write down that James McLaughlin said so. Last time Cezar ran, Sen. McGill beat him by 81 votes, that’s it. Cezar fought a hard fight. The other two should have sat and talked with him and given him their support. These guys have seats, let others have a chance. … Hopefully there is not a split vote, so that will put Cezar right where he needs to be. Where were these guys two years ago? Now they’re jumping on the bandwagon.”

Georgetown City Councilman Rudolph Bradley said he is an Anderson supporter: “I like them all but I was impressed with Carl Anderson the most. He told us who he was and what he has been trying to do. I was disappointed with the conduct of the audience, and the questioners were often not loud enough. But the intent was good, the idea was good. It’s sad we don’t have time to do this again.”

Marva Sessions of Andrews said she is an Anderson supporter because “I think he has more to offer.”

Sharon Thames traveled all the way from Clarendon County to watch the debate. “I thought it was informative. It was a good event, and something that the county needed. I favor Ronnie Sabb, he’s a good friend and will be a great senator.”

S.C. Sen. Kevin Johnson was also in attendance.

“I thought it was great that this many people came out to hear our senatorial candidates. I do agree with Rep. Sabb when he said ‘what you see is what you get.’ I think he represented himself well, and he was above the rest of them. What I saw was a very composed leader, and that’s what we need.”

The Senate District 32 special election primary will take place on Sept. 2.

The voter registration deadline has already passed. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held on Sept. 16.

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