State Rep. Wendell Gilliard came within a hair of winning the three-way Democratic special primary for state Senate District 42 outright Sept. 5. But after falling a little more than 100 votes short of claiming 50 percent, Gilliard and state Rep. Deon Tedder now must rally their supporters back to the polls for a Sept. 19 runoff.
Results of the first round indicate Gilliard, a pillar of Charleston politics for a quarter-century, might have an edge after winning 47 percent of the vote.
“I don’t take nothing for granted. Nothing’s ever in the bag,” Gilliard said Sept 15.
And in a race with pitiful turnout — 7.5 percent of eligible voters in the first round — Gilliard’s eight-point lead over Tedder was just 320 votes, something far from insurmountable, Tedder’s camp assures.
“It’s a big gap,” Tedder acknowledged, but he points to his runoff win after coming second in the 2020 House primary that launched his political career.
“It was a similar situation, and somehow (in) those next two weeks we prevailed,” he said.
State Rep. JA Moore came in third with 15 percent of the vote in the first round. Tedder believes voters who backed Moore, another young candidate, will pick him in the runoff.
The heavily Democratic district runs from Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston to Otranto Road in North Charleston and into part of Dorchester County. The winner of the primary runoff will face Republican Rosa Kay in the general election Nov. 7.
Both sides have scored high-profile endorsements in the race. On Sept. 15, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, threw his significant clout behind Tedder, recording a robocall obtained by The Post and Courier urging voters to pick Tedder.
“He should stay out of it. His job is in Washington,” Gilliard responded. “A leader (lets) the people run the party.”
Gilliard, a former union organizer, has the support of labor, like the International Longshoreman’s Association, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Gilliard’s long history of politics and advocacy in Charleston and the resulting high name recognition powered his strength in the first round, said Jessica Bright, a Charleston-based Democratic strategist who is neutral in the primary. But a second vote in what was already a low-energy election drowned out by crowded municipal races up and down the peninsula resets the race.
“It’s going to come down to who can get their people back out,” said Bright, who leads Emerge South Carolina, which supports female Democratic candidates. “I’ll be sitting on the edge of my seat.”
Since the first round, the candidates, both steadfast progressives, have sharpened their rhetoric and messaging.
Gilliard is running on the slogan “Our land. Our legacy.” He casts himself as the “homegrown” defender of long-time, working-class residents against encroaching gentrification.
“There’s room for coexistence, but it’s going to be about our land if we’re not invited to be at the table,” Gilliard said. “We can’t keep pushing and pushing and pushing people out until there’s nowhere to go.”
Supporters say Gilliard’s dire rhetoric on displacement resonates with voters and matches reality in a district that has seen an influx of richer newcomers.
“I hear it and I feel it and I believe it myself, and I’m not alone in that. We’re about to lose a culture,” said Charleston City Councilman Keith Waring, who has endorsed Gilliard and known him for more than 30 years. “He represents the voice of the unheard.”
Tedder also says he wants to ensure development doesn’t lead to displacement and has championed a bill to increase affordable housing. He has been pitching himself as part of a “new generation” with fresh ideas.
“A new generation of leadership does not mean that more seasoned officials or older elected officials are obsolete,” Tedder said Sept. 14. “I do believe that it’s important to have different perspectives in the General Assembly.”
Tedder, 33, would be the Senate’s youngest member if elected.
Former Sen. Marlon Kimpson endorsed Tedder to succeed him soon after he stepped down to take a role with the Biden administration this year. Kimpson said that Tedder’s advantage isn’t his youth in itself, but his preparation for a new reality at the Statehouse.
“The fight is different. No longer are Republicans moved by tactics of the ‘80s, which are press conferences and marches,” Kimpson said. Now the best the super-minority Statehouse Democrats can do is try to amend GOP bills and persuade moderates, something Tedder’s training as a lawyer has prepared him for, he said. “You can’t go in with a hammer,” Kimpson added.
Gilliard, 69, said it’s his 15 years in the House and the relationships that come with it that make him effective, pointing to the hate crimes bill, which he played a major role in passing through the House twice.
“I don’t agree with this young-old crap we’re getting into. I think it’s wrong,” Gilliard said.
On the other hand, Tedder said Gilliard’s messaging as a “born and bred” in the district and defending it from “outside interests” is a cheap attack on the fact he moved to South Carolina for college from North Carolina.
“It appears that messaging is to sort of scare people,” he said. “I’m no outsider. I’ve been living in South Carolina since I was 18 years old.”
As The Post and Courier has previously reported, Gilliard moved to the district last spring from West Ashley in order to contest the election, though he represented a swath of it in his House district and grew up there.