State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the expected Democratic nominee for governor, sat down with a group of local women Saturday afternoon -- one of four stops across the state to discuss women's issues in South Carolina.
Some of the attendees at the Women for Sheheen event, held at a Hampton Hall home, questioned him on his plans to address equal pay for equal work and domestic violence. Most of the women, however, spoke about issues that touch all state residents, from what they see as a lack of support from government agencies to the disparity between life in Beaufort and Jasper counties.
Quality of education and infrastructure are especially different in those counties, several attendees said, pointing to the education achievement gap in Jasper County and the state of Hardeeville roadways near the South Carolina-Georgia border.
"It's heart-wrenching," said Denise Hadley, who moved from the Philadelphia area to Sun City in Jasper County, said of the agency and education issues. "Anything's better than what we have.
Sheheen said he sees the same divides across the state, and often within counties. While some of his proposed changes would require an increase in spending, others -- such as expanding kindergarten to four year olds across the state -- can be accomplished by shifting priorities, he said. The S.C. Senate approved a bill expanding the program Wednesday.
"I want it to be fair no matter where you come from, and that's really a tremendous challenge and opportunity," Sheheen said.
The senator, who lost to Republican Gov. Nikki Haley in 2010, said he would ensure agency leaders were chosen based on experience, rather than ideology. Social services in particular need to be improved, he said.
"It has literally been the step-child of state government for years and years and years," Sheheen told the group. "These workers are burning out."
Tackling those issues would correspond with what Sheheen calls his women's agenda, he said.
To combat domestic violence in South Carolina -- which ranked worst in the nation in terms of the number of men murdering women, according to one September report -- Sheheen plans to increase penalties for criminal convictions, improve education and preserve funding for rape crisis centers and women's shelters. Haley vetoed nearly $500,000 in funding for those centers in July 2012, though the S.C. House of Representatives later overrode that decision.
"I think our social issues are kind of pushed under the rug," Diana Bourgeois, one of ten women at the meeting. "If you don't think domestic violence is an issue, you've never sat with a women who's been beaten."
The discussion lasted about an hour, after which Sheheen continued on to another campaign event on Hilton Head Island. He held an earlier meetings in Orangeburg and Dorchester.
He said he plans to listen to as many ideas and perspectives as possible during his time in the Lowcountry.
"My life is not about being governor," he said. "It's about us changing the direction of the state."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.