South Carolina Democratic Gubernatorial Primary Debate

Lorena Jordan

The one message all three Democratic candidates for Governor want the voters to know? This race is far from over.

All three candidates- Charleston businessman Phil Noble, Florence attorney Marguerite Willis, and state Representative James Smith of Columbia- met for the first time to debate on Tuesday night at the College of Charleston. The GOP nominees will meet Wednesday, with the notable exception of current Governor Henry McMaster.

The debate covered topics ranging from current events to South Carolina policy. Candidates discussed the failed V.C. Summer Nuclear Station, the Bishopville prison riot and race relations. The two underdog nominees refused to hold back criticism of Rep. Smith while highlighting their own outsider status. 

“If we’re going to change Columbia, change the broken and corrupt State House system, we will need outsiders, people who are not part of the problem,” Noble said. Noble explained that his outsider position allows him and his lieutenant governor-running mate — former Atlanta City Councilwoman Gloria Tinubu —  to start fresh. “We don't have anybody that has bought us or compromised us."

Known for her fierce record as a Columbia litigator, Willis also critiqued Smith’s record. ”James Smith is not a very effective legislator," she told reporters. “He doesn’t have much legislation that he’s authored or passed.” Choosing this race as her first foray into politics, Willis highlighted the experience of her running mate — longtime state Sen. John Scott, D-Richland. "Senator Scott brings experience and substance," Willis said. "He has a long record of substantive work."

For his part, Smith, a veteran of the Afghanistan War with a 22-year career in the state house, was frustrated by his opponents' eagerness to attack him instead of the issues. 

“I’m intent on attacking the problems facing our people,” he told reporters. “I’ve been shot at for real. So overall, in the end, I’m not concerned about a few shots from a debate stage.”

All three candidates noted that winning the African-American vote will be vital to winning their party's nomination on June 12. The only female Democratic candidate, Willis, explains she offers voters something the other candidates can't.

"I'm a woman. Most of the African-American voters, the majority, are women," she said. "I don't know what it's like to live in a black person's skin. But I do know what it's like to live in a woman's skin. I have worked tirelessly for women and women's economic independence."

But Rep. Smith, who has received endorsements from key African-American South Carolina lawmakers and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state's senior member of Congress and third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House, said success within a state with a GOP-controlled Legislature will require building bipartisan support.

"We need to not nominate somebody who has no experience of getting legislation done," said Smith. "I have a long history of building bipartisan support and getting meaningful legislation passed."

On Wednesday, May 16th the Republican candidates take the stand at the College of Charleston. Stay tuned for analysis of their debate.

You can watch the full debate here