Petition candidate Ervin could make difference in South Carolina's gubernatorial race


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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — In a governor's race otherwise viewed as a 2010 rematch, former judge and legislator Tom Ervin is looking to shake things up, as he criticizes both Gov. Nikki Haley and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen and takes positions they won't.

Not a typical third-party candidate, Ervin already has spent millions of his own money on ads airing statewide and has no intention of reining in his checkbook.

"We're going to spend what it takes to get our message out," he told The Associated Press, declining to be specific.

His campaign is also getting attention through a series of public, town hall meetings across the state. And he's scheduled to participate in televised gubernatorial debates.

Ervin could be South Carolina's first-ever petition candidate on the ballot for governor — the first since at least 1950, before state laws governing the petition process were enacted, according to the state Election Commission.

The Greenville attorney and radio station owner entered the gubernatorial race this year as Haley's primary challenger. But he withdrew from the Republican contest days after filing to run, saying he needed more time to introduce himself to voters. In July, he secured a spot on the November ballot after collecting twice the required 10,000 signatures.

Ervin insists he's in it to win. While that seems improbable, especially given that half of 2010 voters took the straight-party option, his candidacy could make an impact regardless. Four years ago, just 4.5 percentage points separated Haley, then a three-term House member, from Sheheen, who's been in the Legislature since 2001.

Morgan Reeves is again on the ballot as a third-party candidate. Libertarian Steve French is the other new name.

Ervin identifies himself as an "independent Republican." And when he jumped in, he immediately took aim at Haley and her Department of Social Services, saying testimony before a Senate panel about the beating death of a 4-year-old Richland County boy prompted him to run.

But the 62-year-old Honea Path native discounts both Haley, 42, and Sheheen, 43, as career politicians and expects to take votes from both.

Ervin is the only candidate who advocates raising the gas tax to help fix the state's dilapidated roads and bridges, what he says should be a top priority.

South Carolina's 16-cents-per-gallon fuel tax — which funds roadwork, along with federal matches — hasn't changed since 1987. The Department of Transportation says it needs an additional $1.5 billion annually over 20 years just to bring roads to good conditions.

Haley said in July she'll provide a funding plan, but not until after the election. Sheheen's proposal includes designating 5 percent of the budget, plus revenue surpluses, to infrastructure. Similar ideas have died in the Legislature.

Ervin says raising the gas tax puts a good portion of the cost on out-of-state truckers and tourists who use the roads.

"They should have to pay their fair share. Gov. Haley and Sen. Sheheen want to put the whole burden on us by raiding the general fund," he said.

Ervin also stands out in pushing for a state law boosting the minimum wage — normally a Democratic issue. Ervin says he wants the wage to increase to $10 an hour through a three-year phase-in, while providing tax credits to small businesses "so they won't get hurt by it."

"Rural areas are still suffering," he said. "These folks need a living wage. I see so many single parents working two or three part-time jobs. That's no way to raise a family."

At other times, Ervin's platform aligns with one candidate or the other.

Like Sheheen, Ervin wants to expand Medicaid eligibility to more poor people as the federal health overhaul intended — something Haley adamantly refuses to do — raise teachers' pay and make pre-kindergarten available for all 4-year-olds statewide. For the past two sessions, Sheheen has successfully worked to incrementally expand the state's full-day 4K program for at-risk students.

Like Haley, Ervin wants to eliminate the state's personal income tax.

He contends the state can simultaneously lower the state's 6 percent sales tax by eliminating sales tax exemptions — something the Legislature's tried and failed to do. Ervin says it can be done by following a 2010 "Taxation Realignment Commission" report that was quickly shelved; its recommendations include adding a low sales tax for utilities and prescriptions, partially reinstating the tax on groceries, and removing the $300 sales tax cap on vehicles, boats and planes.

Haley has discounted Ervin, a former prosecutor and 14-year circuit court judge, as just another Democratic trial lawyer. The party label refers to Ervin's two terms in the House as a Democrat representing Anderson County, starting in 1979, when Democrats ruled the state. He is far from alone in switching parties since. Other Democrats he served with in the Legislature now lead the Senate's GOP majority. Ervin says he's changed parties but not his views.

Last month, a group of political science professors discounted Ervin's candidacy, during a University of South Carolina symposium, as a non-factor in the race between Haley and Sheheen.

"What's going to be fun is, we're going to prove the experts wrong and give them a lesson in civics," Ervin said.

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