COLUMBIA, SC — In the cotton fields of Calhoun County, the Kimpson family started and ended each day in the dark.
Six of them – mom and dad, plus four children – would pick up to 1,500 pounds of seed cotton each day for the family of Marion Gressette, one of the most powerful state senators in South Carolina history. As sharecroppers, the Kimpsons could keep half of the profits, so the incentive was to pick as much cotton as they could.
“Out there in that field, what kept us going was, ‘We are going to be somebody. We are not going to be field hands. We’re not going to pick cotton for Mr. Gressette all of our lives,’” Milton Kimpson said. “The Gressettes were nice to us. But we were ... still field hands, you know?”
Earlier this month, Marlon Kimpson of Charleston – Milton Kimpson’s son – was elected to the state Senate. Decades after his father picked cotton for the Gressette family to save money for college, Marlon Kimpson now has an office on the State House grounds – in the Gressette Building.
“It just shows you how public education and educational opportunities are the great equalizer in life,” said Marlon Kimpson, who replaced longtime Sen. Robert Ford, who resigned amid an ethics scandal.
“I am living the American dream, and we want other families to participate in the American dream.”
Marlon Kimpson earned his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta, and his law degree from the University of South Carolina. He is now a member of the Charleston-based law firm Motley Rice, one of the largest plaintiff’s law firms in the country. There, he has sued the NFL about an alleged Ponzi scheme (he lost), and filed a class-action lawsuit against local police after a guns-drawn drug raid at a local high school that found no drugs. (Kimpson won, and donated his legal fees to charity.)
Kimpson’s political career includes a stint as the first vice chairman for the state’s Democratic Party, where he endorsed former presidential candidate John Edwards during the 2004 presidential primary.
Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges also appointed Kimpson as the chairman of the State Election Commission. There, in 2002, Kimpson made a controversial decision to keep activist Kevin Gray off the general election ballot for governor, a move political observers saw as beneficial to Hodges. Kimpson said politics played no part in the decision, and Hodges went on to lose the election to Republican Mark Sanford.
Kimpson’s first race for public office came when 20-year state Senate veteran Ford resigned in May amid a Senate Ethics Committee investigation alleging Ford used campaign donations as a personal checking account, paying for medical expenses, gym memberships and items from a pair of adult bookstores. Ford, who maintained his innocence, said he resigned for health reasons. Since his resignation, government watchdog groups have used Ford – along with former Republican Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who entered a guilty plea to ethics charges – as “Exhibits A” for why lawmakers need to reform the state’s ethics laws.
But Kimpson said he does not see himself as a crusader for ethics reform. He says he will follow the law – publicly disclosing his campaign contributions and expenditures – but he does not favor appointing a joint ethics committee of independent citizens to enforce ethics laws in the state Legislature.
“I don’t think I’ll be leading that effort to change those rules,” he said. “I am not aware that there has been gross abuse of the system.”
Instead, Kimpson said he will focus his efforts on changing how the state pays for public education – a passionate topic for Kimpson and his family.
The first school Kimpson’s father attended was a segregated one-room school house. “When they put electricity in there, oh, we thought it was something,” the elder Kimpson recalled.
After graduating from Benedict College, Milton Kimpson was a teacher and, eventually, became an education adviser to Democratic Gov. Dick Riley, working on the Education Improvement Act, still one of the major sources of financing for public education in South Carolina.
Since then, lawmakers passed Act 388 in 2006, which substituted a higher sales tax for many of the residential property taxes that had been levied to pay for public education. Marlon Kimpson said he opposes that move.
“We replaced the most stable source of funding with more of the most volatile source of funding,” he said.
It is an opportune time for a public education advocate to be in the state Legislature.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, running for re-election in 2014, often is criticized by Democrats for not doing anything on education. Haley has promised a major proposal to reform education funding when lawmakers return to Columbia in January, an issue that is sure to dominate the session.
As a Democrat, Kimpson most likely will be in the legislative minority on some of the debate’s most controversial topics – including giving tax credits to parents who send their children to private school. That is where Kimpson says his training as an attorney will be useful.
“Oftentimes in law practice, I’m negotiating against powerful corporations. As a legislator, I’ll be negotiating with the majority in the power, the Republicans,” he said. “The Senate is often viewed as more collegial. So I look forward to using that same approach in the Senate and, in fact, I’ve already begun.
“I had a polite conversation with Paul Thurmond (a Republican state senator, also from Charleston). ... I look forward to working across the party aisle in order to move South Carolina forward.”
Thurmond, a son of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, said he enjoyed talking with Kimpson, adding he “will have the opportunity to be persuasive.”
“He is a sharp guy with a lot of energy, and I think that he is going to do very well,” Thurmond said. “And if he’s reasonable and rational and willing to listen, which is, I think, what all of us kind of sign on for, each one of us will have an opportunity to be persuasive. He’ll be persuasive to me and others, just like I hope to be to him.”
The newest S.C. state senator representing District 42 in Charleston
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Morehouse College; law degree, University of South Carolina
Political experience: Former first vice chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party
Family: Wife, Kimberlyn; 4-month-old daughter Marleigh
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.