Beaufort News

ELECTION TODAY: Bright Matthews, Fernandez face off in race to replace Pinckney

Republican SC Sen. District 45 candidate Al Fernandez, left, and Democratic candidate Margie Bright Matthews.
Republican SC Sen. District 45 candidate Al Fernandez, left, and Democratic candidate Margie Bright Matthews. Submitted photos

The race to replace state Sen. Clementa Pinckney ends today, just over five months after he was gunned down inside his Charleston church alongside eight of his parishioners.

The stakes are high for the residents of Senate District 45, which spans six counties -- including small portions of greater Bluffton and the Dale and Lobeco areas -- and some of the poorest, most neglected areas in South Carolina.

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But the stakes also are high for the two candidates in the race, both of whom are political newcomers looking to make the most out of serving the remaining year in Pinckney's term.

Democrat Margie Bright Matthews, a Walterboro attorney, seeks to become only the second woman serving in the S.C. Senate, alongside Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy of Lexington.

Republican Al Fernandez, a small-business owner and minister, hopes to pull off an unlikely upset for the GOP in a deep-blue pocket of the state against a well-funded, establishment-backed Democrat.

The issues at the heart of the race cut across party lines. Both candidates have made repeated pledges to improve public education and job training, repair dilapidated roads and highways, and promote economic development and job growth.

But with only about 11.5 percent voter turnout in both the Democratic primary and its subsequent runoff last month, the race is unlikely to draw much interest during the off-election year.

"With this short term and the way it came up, it's just important that people are out there to vote and be heard," Fernandez said Monday. "These counties are interconnected. You get (the people) behind the district together, and Columbia will listen."

BRIGHT MATTHEWS

Bright Matthews was born and raised in Colleton County and has owned her Walterboro law firm since 1992.

She is president of the Colleton County Bar Association and in the leadership of the South Carolina Association for Justice trial lawyers' group, according to her website.

She defeated state Rep. Kenneth Hodges, D-Green Pond, in a runoff for the Democratic nomination for the seat.

Bright Matthews has exponentially out-raised every candidate since the race began this summer, with almost $137,000 in total contributions as of Oct. 9, according to the most recent state campaign finance filings.

She is backed largely by the state's legal community, with dozens of attorneys, law firms and legal advocacy political action committees contributing the maximum $1,000 to her campaign, according to campaign records.

Education and economic development have topped Bright Matthews' campaign agendas, in addition to public safety and the "state budget," according to her website.

Bright Matthews has faced questions about whether she lives in the district and her delinquent property taxes.

Earlier this month she paid Colleton County almost $8,000 in delinquent taxes and fees to save six properties owned by her and her husband, Patrick Matthews, from the county's tax auction. She still owes another $6,200.80 to Colleton County in back taxes and fees on the couple's home on Jones Swamp Road, according to county officials.

Bright Matthews has said her personal finances are not relevant to her would-be duties as a legislator. Attempts to reach her this week and last were unsuccessful.

FERNANDEZ

The lone Republican to enter the race has lived and worked for much of the past 15 years across the state line in Georgia, where he owns an industrial cleaning business called Supreme Clean in Rincon and ministers to two congregations in Clyo.

Fernandez moved into the district last year while recovering from a kidney transplant. The kidney was donated to him by one of his four daughters. He was called upon to run in late summer by the Jasper County Republican Party, he said.

Originally from Illinois, the son of an illegal Mexican immigrant was raised by a single mother and later earned master's degrees in political science from Ball State University and in divinity from the Christian Theological Seminary.

He was a political science professor for Armstrong State University and a chaplain for the Effingham County Sheriff's Department and Indiana State Police, he said.

Education and economic development also top Fernandez's campaign agendas, and the combination of the two through expanded technical education programs would become his chief focus if elected, he has said.

Fernandez has spent the past weeks touring the district, and in the past few days, he has met with Hispanic leaders across Beaufort, Colleton and Jasper counties to talk about family values and crime prevention.

His signs dot highways across the district, from Beaufort to Walterboro, to try to make up for the name recognition he lacks among the Lowcountry's political circles, Fernandez said.

He admits that winning the predominantly Democratic district would be an uphill battle, but he hopes his connections within the Hispanic communities can help bolster voter turnout Tuesday.

"After being in it for a while, I'm even more optimistic," he said. "I hope to win, and I expect to win."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach and on Facebook at facebook.com/IPBGZach.

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