Handicapping the Race for County Council Chairman Nomination

By Paul Gable

Since filing for office closed March 30th, my friend and cohost on “Talking Politics”, John Bonsignor, has been trying to make the case that Johnny Gardner is not a serious challenger to incumbent Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus in the June 2018 Republican Primary election.

One thing John and I have proved through the years is that we can disagree (often) without being disagreeable.

I recently wrote about Gardner receiving the endorsement of Horry County Professional Firefighter Local 4345 IAFF. John responded with a diatribe on why Lazarus has nothing to worry about from Gardner in the primary, in John’s opinion.

John and I have lived in Horry County for over 30 years each, so I want to go back through history a little to demonstrate that an incumbent officeholder is not a shoe-in candidate for re-election.

It is often difficult to defeat an incumbent officeholder, but far from an impossible task.

Sheriff Philip Thompson was an underdog when he first ran for the office in 2000 against incumbent Teddy Henry. I remember Chicken Bog socials with Thompson speaking from the back of a truck to voters throughout the county. Accompanying Thompson on these journeys were off-duty officers from the Horry County Police Department showing their support for him. Ultimately, Thompson obtained the support of a majority of county employees and that made the difference in the election.

Melanie Huggins for Horry County Clerk of Courts and Roddy Dickinson for Horry County Treasurer, both in 2004, are other interesting examples. Incumbents were retiring from both offices, but Huggins was opposed by former Clerk of Courts Billie Richardson, coming out of retirement to run again. Dickinson was opposed by Robert Rabon, later to be Horry County Republican chairman. Richardson and Rabon had more money and the support of political insiders, but Huggins and Dickinson won primarily on the strength of a majority of county employees and their friends who supported them.

When Huggins and Dickinson retired, Angie Jones for Treasurer and Renee Elvis for Clerk of Court both won election to their current offices in 2016 on the strength of major support from county employees.

With respect to the Council Chairman position, Liz Gilland won a special election in 2003 and re-election in 2006. In 2003 Gilland, an incumbent on council, but a decided underdog in the race with little money and no real party insider support swept to victory over a host of candidates because the county employees believed she would best serve their interests. That same formula worked for Gilland in 2006 when she was challenged by Lazarus but swept to victory. By 2010, Gilland had lost the support of county employees and she has been unsuccessful in several election contests since.

Current U.S. House Representative Tom Rice was a decided outsider when he entered politics in 2010 running for council chairman. Gilland had chosen not to run but two-term incumbent council member Howard Barnard was Rice’s opposition. With no political experience, but considerable support from county employees Rice swept to victory. Two years later, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives when South Carolina House District 7 was created.

A most interesting example was the challenge by attorney Deirdre Edmonds to Probate Judge Diane Buffkin Creel in 2002. Again, Creel had more money and the support of the Republican establishment in the county behind her. Edmonds slowly made inroads into the support Creel had among county employees. However, when popular, respected local attorney Windell McCrackin endorsed Edmonds, her campaign took off. Edmonds stayed for three terms until she lost the support of county employees to her assistant Kathy Ward in 2014.

Lazarus defeated Gilland and several other candidates for chairman, in 2013, to fill out Rice’s unexpired term and was re-elected in 2014. In both elections, Lazarus carried a majority of county employees on his way to victory. However, lately, this support is dwindling.

Lazarus was endorsed by the firefighters in 2014. This time around, Gardner has been endorsed by the firefighters. Other county employees have dropped support of Lazarus since his 2014 re-election and since this is only a two man race, Gardner will probably be the recipient of this change in support.

I wrote a week ago that the currently proposed county budget was a “re-election budget” virtually pandering in its desire to please. But it’s going to take much more than a pay raise for Lazarus to win the county employees back.

To my friend John Bonsignor, if this election follows trend of countywide elections in this century, you might want to pay close attention to the support of the county employees (and their families, friends and neighbors) to handicap the result.


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