Attorney Margie Bright Matthews and state Rep. Kenneth Hodges, D-Green Pond, are both claiming lifelong ties to Senate District 45 as they vie to be its next state senator.
But neither Democrat may live in the six-county district.
While both candidates filed election paperwork that listed home addresses within the district's boundaries, neighbors and property records raise questions about where each candidate really lives.
Hodges is registered to vote at his Green Pond house in Colleton County, and he lists that address in election paperwork. But he also owns another home in Burton -- just over a mile outside the district -- where neighbors say he and his wife spend most nights. The home is closer to Beaufort's Tabernacle Baptist Church where Hodges serves as pastor.
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Meanwhile, Bright Matthews is registered to vote at a large apartment in downtown Walterboro in the same building as her law firm is located. But she also owns a home on Jones Swamp Road -- less than five miles outside of the district -- that is still taxed by Colleton County as her and her husband's primary residence. The couple hasn't paid property taxes on the property in more than two years, tax records show, but it is still legally theirs.
Bright Matthews and Hodges contend that confusion over where they live is irrelevant to their ability to represent the district.
Under current election laws, they could be right, say several experts.
While state rules require that S.C. lawmakers live within the districts to which they are elected, the rules are not as simple as they sound. For example, the location where a candidate sleeps every night is not necessarily considered his home.
And that's no good for South Carolinians, said Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, a Columbia-based group that pushes for state government accountability.
"The reason for residency requirements is that you have a right to be represented in office by someone who lives ... in your community," Landess said. "That's what your lawmakers are supposed to be. The laws they pass should affect them the same way they affect their constituents."
HODGES' TWO HOUSES
Despite Hodges' claim that he lives at his Green Pond home in Colleton County, neighbors near his second home in Burton say he lives there nearly full time.
Hodges and his wife, Patricia, have owned the home on Vaux Road for more than 15 years.
They bought the 1,500-square-foot house for $110,000 while she worked for the Beaufort County School District and he served at Tabernacle Baptist Church, according to Hodges and Beaufort County property records.
Despite spending much of their time there, the couple has always maintained their primary residence in Green Pond, where Hodges grew up, he said last week.
Judi Judge, who lives across the street on Vaux Road, said Hodges is being disingenuous.
For all practical purposes, Hodges lives in his Burton home, which also is just outside the district lines for the S.C. House District 121 seat he currently holds, Judge said.
"He's lived there for years. Yet he's always represented that (other) district," she said. "When I was reading (The Beaufort Gazette's election preview) article, I thought, 'How can he do this again?' I just don't feel like it's right."
Hodges dismisses Judge's claim.
"That's always been an issue that people would ask me about, even prior to running for the House," he said. "If there are some people over there who watch my going and coming, that's their opinion. But it's not fact. And even if I stayed there every day, that doesn't make it my primary residence. That's not an issue. That's not what the law requires."
The Hodges do not claim either the Burton or Green Pond home as their primary residence for property tax purposes, according to county records.
Patricia Hodges retired from the school district this year and the couple plan to live full-time at the Green Pond home whenever Kenneth Hodges retires, he added.
"Residency doesn't have anything to do with where I sleep," he said. "It's just like a person in the military. Just because they're stationed in Japan, it doesn't mean their home isn't in Green Pond."
"I'm certainly not looking for a loophole, that's just the way it is with me," he said.
BRIGHT MATTHEWS' TAXING SITUATION
More than a year ago, Bright Matthews moved from her home on Jones Swamp Road west of Interstate 95 in Colleton County into an apartment at her downtown Walterboro law office, she said last week. That apartment is within the district.
She moved while she and her husband renovated their home to try to sell it, she said. The home is less than five miles from the district line.
Even though Bright Matthews' says she no longer lives in the house, it is still classified as her primary residence and the property is assessed at the 4-percent property tax rate reserved for owner-occupied homes, according to the Colleton County Assessor's Office.
Those county tax bills are adding up. Bright Matthews has not paid property taxes on the home for more than two years, letting the property fall into delinquency, said Colleton County Tax Collector Larry Lightsey.
The property went up for auction at the county's delinquent tax sale in December, where it was bought for $99,000, he said.
The couple has until the first week of December to pay $6,200.80 in owed taxes and penalties to redeem the property, he added. If they don't, the deed to the property will be turned over to the bidder and the $99,000 -- minus the owed taxes and fees -- will go to the couple, Lightsey said.
Bright Matthews claims the property was not sold at the tax sale and that she has not received any notification from the county stating as much.
Meanwhile, the property is still legally classified as Bright Matthews' primary residence on the Colleton County tax rolls, regardless of where she says she is living currently, according to the county assessor's office.
Bright Matthews dismissed the issue as a technicality Friday afternoon.
"How many people can you find in Colleton County or (anywhere in) this district that don't see me inside the district every day?" she said. "I spend more time in the middle of this district than anyone ever has. I'm here everyday. Downtown Walterboro -- I'm walking down the streets. I'm there. I'm touching and speaking to the people. There is no issue about my residency."
BY THE BOOK
It doesn't immediately appear that either of these candidates' situations violate state elections law, but it does raise questions about the state's residency rules, experts said last week.
Those rules give candidates many ways to identify where they live, including the addresses listed on their driver's licenses, the physical addresses to which their mail is sent and the addresses at which they're registered to vote, said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the S.C. State Election Commission.
"The law says a person's fixed home is where he has an intention of returning when he's absent," Whitmire said. "It uses the word 'intention' a lot. It doesn't mean they have to sleep there every night."
And in the District 45 race, both Matthews Bright and Hodges listed their homes within District 45 on their voter registration forms.
This isn't the first time the district has grappled with residency issues.
Similar questions were raised about the late Sen. Clementa Pinckney who represented the same Senate district. Almost three years ago following his reelection, his unsuccessful challenger Leilani Bessinger, a Beaufort Republican, argued Pinckney did not live at the Ridgeland address he had listed on his voter registration.
But the state elections board ultimately sided with Pinckney.
Questions about Bright Matthews' and Hodges' residencies could lead to litigation should one of the nine candidates they defeated in last week's primary attempt to make a case against them, said John Crangle, director of Common Cause South Carolina, a nonpartisan government transparency and accountability advocacy group.
"As a question of the law, I think in this case, there are legitimate questions," he said. "I think they've got a problem. It's conceivable that both of those candidates could be knocked out of the race with litigation."
Anyone can challenge a candidate's residency with the S.C. State Elections Commission, Whitmire said.
But that process requires a person to try to stand up to potentially powerful legislators or community leaders, Landess said. Most importantly, it could endanger District 45 residents' ability to maintain proper representation in the Senate, she added.
"The fact that there is room for loopholes speaks to a larger problem in this state about these legislators writing laws to benefit themselves and never having anyone challenge them," Landess said.
- Election preview: Sen. Clementa Pinckney's replacement must tackle disparity issues, Aug. 30, 2015
- Special election: Hodges leans on experience while Walterboro candidates stand out in first debate among Democrats vying for Pinckney's seat, Aug. 19, 2015
- 13 candidates to vie for slain Sen. Clementa Pinckney's state Senate seat, July 13, 2015