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South Carolina's Ethics Problem

Scandal and corruption have plagued Palmetto State politics for years. Some say it’s because it's virtually a one-party state.

It’s probably not something in the water, but there is something about South Carolina that seems to make its politicians especially prone to scandal.

Lt. Gov. Ken Ard has paid hefty fines, but refuses to resign amid continuing investigations into his apparent misuse of campaign funds. Ard’s predecessor in that office, Andre Bauer, was considered such an embarrassment, due to various personal scandals, that many South Carolina wags say his presence was the primary reason Gov. Mark Sanford was able to finish out his term, despite his infamous affair with his Argentine mistress.

In addition, South Carolina in recent years has seen a state treasurer fall to cocaine charges and an agriculture commissioner found guilty of extortion. “South Carolinians aren’t more tolerant of corruption than anybody else across the country,” says pollster Scott Huffmon, “but a lot of people just shake their head and have a sad resignation that this is what we’re going to get.”

Close observers of the state’s politics say one major explanation is that South Carolina has become essentially a one-party state. Republicans control every statewide office and hold big majorities in the Legislature. The value of statewide Democratic nominations has become so cheapened that last year, Alvin Greene, a complete non-entity who would soon be facing felony obscenity charges, came away with the party’s nod for the U.S. Senate.

The lack of real electoral competition means there’s less incentive among political power players to call out suspect behavior among their peers -- or for party elders to ensure that the ticket is kept embarrassment-free. “Party systems work best when there is two-party competition,” says David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist. “When you have one-party dominance, you don’t have much accountability.”

Huffmon agrees that the GOP’s dominance plays its part in producing scandals in the state. He notes that the same dynamic held true back in the days when South Carolina was a one-party Democratic state.

“But for it to be simply a symptom of one-party dominance, then it should have abated while we were transitioning from one party to the other,” he says. “I’m not sure a case can be made that it did.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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