Heaven help us, Robert Ford is right

Front runners need a big idea, just one that's slightly less crazy

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If elected governor, state Sen. Robert Ford (D-Charleston) says he will bring $4 billion to the state's economy, creating 40,000 new jobs (including thousands of teachers who will reduce class sizes). And there will be 3,000 new small businesses and almost $1 billion in new tax revenues.

"That would get us out of the mess we're in right now in the first year," he says.

The only problem is how Ford expects to pay for all this: with revenue from video poker and casino gambling.

The hurdle, of course, is that gambling can't find enough support in the Statehouse to legalize a game of Old Maid at the kitchen table, much less a new Casino Royale on the Grand Strand.

That said, Ford is on to something. In a red state like South Carolina, a Democratic candidate needs to aim for the fences. Unfortunately for Ford, his is an imaginary fence.

But Ford's fantasy league home run provides a lesson for the primary front runners, state Education Superintendent Jim Rex and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Camden). You shouldn't make fictional promises, but you've got to come to the electorate with a unique vision that addresses their problems without raising their taxes.

In 1998, gambling would have never found support, but a lottery to pay for scholarships and preserve education programs not only thrived, it moved Democrat Jim Hodges into the governor's mansion. In 2002, Mark Sanford was elected on the promise of sweeping tax cuts that would drive new business to the state.

Unfortunately, those two quivers are out of arrows. Neither of those solutions proved to be the remedy for the state's education woes or employment struggles. There's no more money to throw at education, and tax cuts are going to have to wait out a comprehensive Statehouse review (unless you vote for Robert Ford, because he's going to have all those poker chips).

The problem for the leading Democratic candidates is that they're so damn practical. They realize that it's not just important to win over voters; they have to win over a GOP-controlled legislature. All three candidates know firsthand how the Statehouse wields its power. True executive decisions are few and far between, so you have to find a solution that will muster enough support among legislators.

Sheheen is pragmatic. He notes with pride that his Senate district leans Republican but continues to send him to the Statehouse.

Asked how he would address the rising college tuition costs, Sheheen blamed the state's shrinking investment in higher education. Then he said he'd propose a 1 percent annual increase in state aid to colleges and universities. Yawn.

Rex would provide tuition assistance for in-demand jobs and specifically seek out financial support for nursing programs and needy, worthy students. But there's nothing in there that addresses broader student woes.

What they're offering is achievable benchmarks. But it's not going to drive college students or frustrated parents to the polls. Somewhere between 1 percent and a new wing at the technical college for casino showgirl classes, there is an ambitious, creative proposal that will attract more than legislative consensus — it'll attract voter attention.

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