It was a refreshing evening of political discourse on Thursday at The Artist’s Coop/Coffee Roost on the Laurens Square.
Peg Cwiakala, who owns the Coffee Roost with husband Marty, hosted a forum for Republican Stewart Jones and Democrat Garrett McDaniel, the county councilmen running to succeed state Rep. Mike Pitts in House District 14. The special election is Tuesday.
Why refreshing? Because Jones, from Seat 4, and McDaniel, from Seat 3, are friends who happen to disagree on a number of issues. Each was cordial and respectful of the other. In some areas, the differences were mild and a matter of degree.
Cwiakala set the rules, managed the rules and did so in a way that was charming.
Jones is a passionate conservative who spoke of constitutional rights, due process, transparency, individual freedom and returning to the gold standard as if they were all synonyms of the same word. He seeks to work in a government he wants to minimize. He wants to “get government out of the way.”
McDaniel is a pragmatic moderate in an uphill fight who wants to reach across the aisle in Columbia the same way he has on County Council. His campaign acronym is HELP: Health care, Education, Local government funding and Preservation of the state’s natural beauty. He likes to say that the government should show more empathy to its people. A major legislative priority would be persuading the General Assembly and the governor that Medicaid should be expanded.
“Our political leaders have to acknowledge that we have problems,” McDaniel said. “I think there’s a lack of empathy.”
The two found common ground on providing support for more technical education opportunities for the county’s students. They agreed on the need to raise teachers’ salaries. Both have deep roots here. Jones refers to himself as “an eighth-generation South Carolinian” and went through school at Thornwell in Clinton. McDaniel attended the public schools of District 55, earned a scholarship to South Carolina State and, after receiving a masters and spending time working in New Jersey and Indiana, returned home to Laurens.
School choice, which Jones enthusiastically supports, is fine with McDaniel, but the Democrat is insistent in his belief that tax money should not be used to send students to private schools. Jones said he favors using tax credits for families sending children to private schools.
Both candidates favor the legalization of marijuana for medicinal use. McDaniel advocates decriminalization (which is not the same as legalization) but believes the substance should eventually be legalized recreationally. Jones supports alternative medicines as a means of lessening the opioid crisis. McDaniel thinks medicinal legalization and decriminalization will raise additional tax revenues and reduce the prison population.
Jones spoke boldly of eliminating “cronyism” from the Department of Motor Vehicles, pointing principally at highway construction. He said when he joined County Council, the waste and lack of openness was “far worse than I thought.”
Both said they support the Second Amendment, but McDaniel cited rising violence and said something must be done in the form of mandatory background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of people “who shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun” by virtue of a history of violence or emotional and psychological instability.
Jones said simply, “Free individuals should not have to give up their rights.”
The affair was quite the contrast to the cacophany of many political dialogues these days. The old Courthouse never looked more stately with its shadow falling across the Square.