As a representative of a district whose largest city has less than 7,000 people, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen says he understands the issues facing rural counties in the Lowcountry.
Campaigning at Sun City Hilton Head after morning visits to Beaufort and Hilton Head Island, Sheheen, a state senator from Camden, told the crowd of over 75 Saturday that rural South Carolina needed to move on from what he called traditional models of economic development. He suggested creating an alternative energy industry where older industries have died out.
"We've got lots of crop land and old textile mills that we can convert to create biofuels," he said. "Right now there is no state plan for biofuels. We should be linking alternative energy to job creation."
He also addressed what he said was a "crisis" of public education in rural counties resulting from a system where the quality of education was dictated by where students lived.
The solution, he said, was to move to a more equitable state funding formula that would distribute state resources based on need rather than an area's property values.Beaufort County is one of the few in the state not to receive money under the current state formula.
Sheheen finds himself in a tight three-way race in the June 8 Democratic primary. A March Rasmussen poll of likely Democratic voters showed Sheheen tied with Jim Rex, the state superintendent of education, at 16 percent, while fellow state senator Robert Ford of Charleston was just four points behind.
Thirty-seven percent remain undecided, the poll showed.
Anne Rafferty, a Sun City resident and member of the community's Democratic Club, said she believed that no matter who the party nominated, a Democrat would be able to capitalize on the failures of Republican Gov. Mark Sanford's administration.
"Our present governor has insulted the state," she said. "We've gone from having practically the lowest unemployment rate in the country to one of the highest... . I think we're ready to elect a Democrat."
Sheheen said any strategy for reviving tourism on the coast would be tied to reviving economic activity statewide.
Part of that effort, he said, would be to remake the state's image.
"Because of our leadership, we've had an embarrassing last few years," he said. "The goal for the next governor will be to reestablish the state's image, where we're not perceived as rude."