On June 28, Sumter County voters will return to the polls once again to settle the Democratic Party nomination in two runoffs for Sumter County specific offices, the Sumter County Coroner’s race and the Sumter County Council District 1 race. (A third race that some Sumter County citizens can participate in, the State House of Representatives District 50 race, features two candidates from outside the county to represent portions of Sumter and Kershaw Counties, as well as Lee County).
Since there is no Republican opponent for the Democratic nominees to face in the November general election, the June 28 contest will all but guarantee the winner a four-year term in office.
In what we hope will be a four-part series, we plan to speak with the four candidates remaining and allow them to answer questions and post their responses without interpretation. (Note: invitations were extended to each of the four candidates as of Friday afternoon.)
We start with Robbie Baker, one of the two remaining candidates in Sumter County Coroner’s race.
Sumter Citizen: Let’s start with Tuesday night, where the election was about as close as it could be on whether or not you’d actually make it into the runoff. Tell me a little about what that night was like for you.
Robbie Baker: It was hot. We were upstairs on the second floor of the old courthouse. The air conditioner was broken. The room was packed with people, so we were sweating, not to mention the fact that we were looking at the results and we’d go up by 25 votes, then we’d be down by 15. Then we’d be up by 10 votes. Then we’d be down by 15. It kind of did that most of the evening until the last two precincts came in. I actually won one of the last two precincts and was second I the other, and Mr. Johnson was in third in both of those, so that’s what put me over the top. It was a nail-biter, back and forth, back and forth, and you didn’t know which precincts were reporting, they were just bringing them to us in bulk numbers and putting them on the screen. So, it was nerve racking, to tell you the truth.
SC: I bet. To that end, you did finish second. The election has been certified, so you’re in the runoff which means about a week and a half from now, people have to get back to the polls to vote again. What are you doing to get those people back on the 28th?
RB: Without divulging too much information that might go to my opponent, I’ve got a base of people who are going to be rallying and personally contacting people. And what we’re going to do, we’re going to reach out and not only try to touch the base that we reached this past election, but we’re going to reach out and try to touch those that also supported Mr. Johnson. And we’re also going to reach out and try to touch all those untapped resources of registered independents and Republicans. Those that did not vote in this past election last Tuesday are free and welcome to come over and vote in my election Tuesday, and it does not affect how they can vote as far as November is concerned. So what I’m asking is that Republicans and independents that did not vote, come on over and make your vote count and your voice be heard. This is an important local elected position, and I think that, number one, it’s a constitutional right that’s granted to you, but it’s a privilege that people before us fought and died to give us the right to do, so make your voice be heard. I don’t care what your party affiliation is, come and vote for me because you think I’m the best qualified. And on paper, and in all other sense, I am the best qualified. So, I’m asking all those who did not participate for one reason or another…we’re going to be personally contacting them and personally following up with them to get them out to the polls.
SC: O.K., and along those lines, since you brought it up and it is something that has been put out there, your opponent, the incumbent, Harvin Bullock, has recently to social media and letting folks know that in the past you have run for public office as a Republican. How do you answer those critics that are saying you shouldn’t be in the Democratic Party race in the first place?
RB: There’s a couple of ways I answer that question. Like I did at the forum a week-and-a-half ago, or two weeks ago, nobody from the Republican Party even contacted me or asked me to step up to the plate and run as a Republican in the coroner’s race. I had two gentlemen in Sumter, one was African-American, one was white, they asked me and told me they would support me 100 percent if I ran as a Democrat. I felt like I didn’t have a problem with that, because as far as I was concerned, I’m not defined by party affiliation. I stand on my own two feet. I’m my own man. I’m a straight shooter, I tell it like it is, and nobody from the Republican Party even contacted me.
And as far as the coroner’s office is concerned, I really don’t see party affiliation, because you’re dealing with the death of an individual and the family and answering their questions. It doesn’t matter to me, that individual that’s lost their life by whatever means, it doesn’t matter to me if they’re Democrat, Republican, independent, black, white, rich, poor, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t see party affiliation when it comes to them.
SC: You announced your decision to run for office back in December, is that right?
RB: I believe it was in late December. It was either late December or early January.
SC: And one of the things you’ve been putting out in your campaign materials and you’ve been touting is your law enforcement experience. You’ve served for 31 years in local law enforcement. What is the best thing that comes from that qualification to help you in the coroner’s office?
RB: Two things. Personal contact with people in the most adverse and terrible situations. Having to sit down with them, on any kind of an issue, and having to mediate a problem. Talking to people face to face. Being compassionate, but yet being forceful when I need to be. Being straight forward and honest. But the biggest thing is, five of those years that I worked with the sheriff’s office, and I still work with them, I was a homicide investigator. I was a fire fatality investigator. So I’ve worked every type of death investigation, from homicide, suicide, accidental drowning, accidental overdoses, natural deaths, fire fatality, I’m certified as a fire investigator, so I’ve been to autopsies, too many of them. I’ve actually made arrests from murder cases from start to finish. And I’ve to deal with hundreds of other deaths. Car wrecks, shootings.
So, I know what I’m looking at. I know about evidence collection, evidence preservation, and I know about the importance of treating that body, as crude as it might sound, once it’s dead, it’s a piece of evidence. It’s got to be handled properly, but also, dealing with those families, not in the sense that that body is a piece of evidence, that body is a human being. It was a family member. And I’m the only candidate of the two that’s left that’s actually a certified investigator with the Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia.
SC: Then taking your experience and implying it to the coroner’s office, what do you think is the most important role of the coroner in his position, in his duties?
RB: Determining the cause and the manner of a death and then relaying that information to the family in a timely fashion and a professional manner. Compassionate, but yet being able to sit down with family members face-to-face, in the most adverse time of their life, and providing some answers to them, and being able to tell some things about that person’s death that they might not want to hear. That’s got to be done compassionately, but it’s also got to be done. It’s a positive job that’s got to be done. And in my 31+ years of law enforcement, I’ve had to sit down and mediate all kinds of different problems, from domestic disputes, disturbances, to delivering bad news in the middle of the night that someone’s lost a loved one. You’ve got to be able to sit down and talk with people. You’ve got to be a people person, which is what I am. But also, you’ve got to be someone that’s knowledgeable and experienced.
SC: In another part of your campaign materials, you do have a phrase that, in a certain light, might be considered, let’s say, aggressive toward the incumbent. You say in it specifically “let’s take the conflict of interest out of the coroner’s office and take the coroner’s office out of the funeral home.” That’s obviously pointing to the incumbent, who also operates a funeral home. Why do feel that that’s necessary?
RB: Well, number one, I don’t take it as a personal attack. I take it as an attack on his record, or lack of a record. And I stand behind what I say. I wrote that statement. I stood up at the NAACP forum just two weeks ago, looked at him face-to-face, he was sitting right beside me, and I repeated the same message. And I’ll tell you the reason why it’s a conflict of interest. You’re in the business of pronouncing a person’s death, but you’re also, on the other hand in the business, of burying the dead. And you’re the first funeral home that has any contact with the family members of the deceased. And, you can’t tell me that…and also by storing bodies from someone that’s lost their life, not putting them in a county morgue, which is a neutral site, instead you’re having those bodies transported to your funeral home, for people having to go in there the next day, with people in the worst shape of their life, and they’re having to make decisions on it and, “oh, by the way, I provide this service. The body’s at this funeral home. Why don’t you let me go ahead and take care of it.” That’s an unfair, built-in advantage over every other, 9, 10, 11 funeral homes in Sumter that are competing, trying to make a living. They don’t have that unfair, built-in advantage where they have contact with the family members of the deceased within the first 10 minutes.
Of course, the other point, I make no bones about the fact that my opponent is the only county elected official in Sumter County that conducts county business inside a private business, at his funeral home. Every other county elected official in Sumter County conducts their business either in a county building, or the sheriff, who I work for, is in the sheriff’s department. Every other county elected official conduct the people’s business…the office of coroner, I’ve told people this and I stand by it; the office of coroner is an elected official and his business belongs to the people. The people’s business needs to be conducted in the peoples’ building, which is the courthouse on Main Street.
SC: So, what you’re saying is, you don’t just perceive a potential conflict of interest with the incumbent, you believe he actually has operated with a conflict of interest over the past term?
RB: I make no bones about it. I’ve known people for 25 or 30 years that have had experiences with the coroner’s office, and they’ve heard with their own ears, and heard the coroner make reference to the fact that he, you know, “I’m in the funeral business. I’m already here. Let me take care of it for you.” I’ve got police officers, I’ve got firefighters, paramedics, that have all seen and heard, within the first 10 minutes of scenes, where Bullock Funeral Home was mentioned in the same conversation with family members that just lost a loved one because he’s in the business of it. Now, that’s not fair to all the other funeral homes in Sumter who don’t have that unfair, built-in advantage. They’re out there trying to compete and do business. I’m not bashing the funeral home business. One of them is going to bury me one day. Not one business should have an unfair, built-in advantage over the others.
SC: Let’s say you’ve been elected to office; let’s play the hypothetical. You’ve got a four-year commitment to Sumter County serving as the coroner. How do you see that position growing, or what needs to be changed, as opposed to how it’s been operated in the past?
RB: There are two promises I’ve made to the citizens of Sumter County, and I’ll have no problem fulfilling those promises; I will be a full-time dedicated coroner. It will be the only job that I have. If I’m elected, I’ll have to mandatorily resign from the sheriff’s office. So I will be a full-time coroner. There won’t be any other job I do on the side other than being a 24/7 coroner.
The second thing I’m going to do is, the coroner’s office is going to move back into the courthouse on Main Street, so that it’s conveniently located for all the citizens of Sumter County, but also for transparency and accountability purposes. The county’s business and the coroner’s office is going to be conducted in a public building.