With only two weeks left to influence voters before they head to the polls, the three men looking to be Sumter’s mayor for the next four years faced off Tuesday night, hoping to garner whatever last-minute support they could.
While described as a debate, the two-hour event at Sumter High School between four-time incumbent Joe McElveen and his challengers – Charlie Jones and William “Dutch” Holland – was in reality more of a forum, as the candidates fielded directly from moderator Lefford Fate and a group of local students but rarely interacted with each other.
Because of the format and each the lack of interplay, the candidates didn’t delve too far into any specific plans they had for the Gamecock City. Still, throughout the evening the three men were able to establish overarching themes for why they felt they should get support from Sumter voters.
For McElveen, who is seeking his fifth term in office, the message to voters was one of an “ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” variety, touting what he labeled dramatic improvements in the city’s overall welfare during his tenure. “The proof is in the pudding,” McElveen said, making several references to the city’s downtown revitalization efforts, park expansion, and recent economic development announcements as proof that his leadership was working. In addition, the 70-year-old McElveen, who is already the longest serving mayor in the history of Sumter, said he still has the passion to lead the community.
“I’m still energized. I can still see what can happen,” McElveen said. “We are on the verge of breaking loose. We are going to see incredible growth in a few years.”
For his cause, Holland promoted himself not so much as having a radically different direction that he wanted to take Sumter in, but rather as a developed leader ready to head the community. On several occasions the retired U.S. Air Force General sited his training and experience in the military, saying it gave him the type of objective leadership the city needs.
“I’m not a politician, but I am hell-bent on being a public servant,” Holland said, adding that the best way to improve Sumter’s quality of life standards would be to infuse more servant leadership into the municipality. “Government is here to support the people, and not the other way around,” Holland said.
And while McElveen, as he has in the past, called himself the city’s biggest unabashed cheerleader, Holland tried to differentiate himself by saying he felt to make true changes in the community you have to be willing to recognize weaknesses in the city as well, especially when trying to convince either businesses or individuals to relocate to the area.
“You have to show the true side of Sumter, not just the best side, because that’s just reality,” saying that would be the first step in tackling any issues Sumter might face in improving it’s quality of life.
The third candidate, Charlie Jones, however, said he didn’t believe the city was headed in a strong direction at all. Early in his comments Jones said he disagreed by and large with most of the decisions made by McElveen, city council and city employee. Jones even said he disagreed with the form of government the Gamecock City currently operates under, saying he wanted to see the city change to a “strong mayor” system, where the mayor, not a city manager, makes many of the decisions involving municipal operations.
As he has with his campaign literature, Jones also made it very clear early in the evening that he felt the area’s black communities were being sorely neglected.
“There are no plans that I’ve seen that include the black communities of Sumter,” Jones said. “Resources seem to be going other places, and are going other places.”
“You go into the black community – you don’t have to look hard – some of them look like a third-world country,” Jones later added.
As was to be expected at event sponsored by the Sumter Board of Realtors (as well as the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce and the Building Industry Association of Central South Carolina), many of the questions for the candidates focused on real estate questions, including topics like home ownership, property tax rates, community blight and home insurance rates. These questions didn’t lead to much variance in the answers from the candidates. However, one topic where the three men varied dramatically was the community’s “Penny For Progress” sales tax.
Calling it ”one of the most positive things we’ve done,” McElveen voiced full-throated support for the penny sales tax, going so far as to call for the community to strongly support another sales tax referendum in seven years when the current sunset tax expires. “If you want things to happen, you have to invest in yourself,” McElveen said.
Holland approached the topic with a bit more pessimism than McElveen, saying that while there have been some positive projects coming from the additional sales tax, it also created some unfunded liabilities.
“I certainly don’t think that we need to establish this as the way we’re going to fund things in the future,” Holland said, pointing out several of the infrastructure projects created by the recent referendums would require a separate revenue source to keep them operational.
Jones said while he once considered supporting the sales tax, the way it was ultimately used made him adamantly opposed to it in its past, current, and any future form.
“It could have been (good), but it wasn’t,” Jones said, calling out what he perceived as a lack of assistance to Sumter’s black communities. Sepcifically, Jones attacked the use of penny sales tax revenues for the county to purchase the Sumter Item building facility owned by Osteen Publishing, saying the local government overpaid for the facility and could have spent the money more wisely. For Jones, “If you use it for one or two good things, it doesn’t outweigh the abuse of the other things,” he said.