- Associated Press - Monday, January 2, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - For Lee Bright, the situation appeared beyond daunting.

The headline-grabbing arch conservative from Spartanburg County faced a trio of opponents in his primary battle to win a third term in the Senate. The State Chamber of Commerce also opposed his re-election.

His proposals to require transgender people to use the bathroom for their sex at birth, his push for anti-abortion legislation and support of the Confederate flag had collected a basketful of political enemies.

And then, during the final weeks of the legislative session, with his daughters’ graduation and the primary vote on the horizon, he decided to postpone surgery to remove his gall bladder, leaving him sick and in pain.

Weeks later he lost in a runoff with former Rep. Scott Talley.

But Bright, 46, insists today he has no regrets.

“I knew I had collected so many enemies that winning that re-election was going to be really hard,” he told The Greenville News, “so I thought, ‘You’ve got to live like this is it, like you’re never coming back.’ That’s how I did it.”

Shed of his Statehouse obligations, Bright sells insurance, is filling in for a talk-radio host and is pondering a brighter future for conservatives in Washington with the election of Donald Trump. He is not as hopeful of the South Carolina Senate.

“We’ve taken some strides in the House but obviously, I’m a little biased, but I think we took a step back in the Senate,” he said of his defeat. “The reformers lost one and I’m not sure we gained. But I like to give people a chance and see how they do.”

Bright’s path to the Statehouse was filled with obstacles and challenges, starting with high school when doctors discovered he had cancer and removed some of his colon and lymph nodes, he said.

In 1999, at the age of 29, Bright won a seat on a Spartanburg County school board, a seat he kept until moving to the Statehouse.

He decided in 2004 to run for the state Senate, challenging incumbent John Hawkins, who won the race by a narrow margin.

Four years later, with Hawkins not running, Bright ran again and won, this time with the support of then-Gov. Mark Sanford.

“I felt like it was a miracle to get in there to begin with,” Bright said. “When you don’t pull any punches and you don’t have much of a filter, that is not your typical person who wins elections.”

Over the next seven years, Bright made his presence known in the Senate with provocative statements and proposals.

The states’ rights advocate once quipped that “if at first you don’t secede, try again” and proposed creating a study committee for the state to create its own currency. He railed against welfare programs, arguing if people are able-bodied and don’t work, “they shouldn’t eat.”

He championed legislation that aligned with his conservative values but did not pass, including bills aimed at protecting fetuses at conception, bills to exempt South Carolina-made guns from federal regulation and to allow gun owners to carry guns without a state permit, as well as legislation to instruct students on the use of firearms.

He voted against state budgets and against the lowering of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds following the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans by a white supremacist at a Charleston Church.

“It didn’t take any courage to take it down,” he said, “especially in my district, it took courage to keep it up.”

In 2013, Bright announced he would run against incumbent U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, arguing the Republican was not conservative enough.

“He caves on judges,” he said at the time. “He caves on energy policy and he criticizes those who are trying to turn things around.”

Graham won the primary, with Bright taking a distant second place.

In 2015, with pressure mounting for lawmakers to improve the state’s roads and a proposal waiting for debate to raise the state’s gas tax, Bright went to the well of the Senate and filibustered, holding out for an amendment that would send more than $200 million to county transportation committees. The gas tax effort failed, earning the ire of the state chamber.

In 2016, Bright proposed legislation to register and track refugees, after some, including Gov. Nikki Haley, opposed efforts to bring Syrian refugees into the state, arguing that background checks were inadequate.

But his bathroom bill gained more attention, prompting packed hearings at which both proponents and opponents of the bill voiced their opinions.

Critics argued the bill was a waste of time and energy and pointed to the negative fallout in North Carolina after lawmakers there passed a similar law.

Haley said she thought the bill unnecessary, as did state chamber officials. The bill never made it out of committee. Bright today says he has no regrets about the legislation.

“One of these men that likes to dress up like women and go into the women’s bathroom, they rape somebody in South Carolina, that’s unfortunate,” he told The News. “And the Legislature ought to be held accountable. Something like that happens, then people will do something.”

Bright said during his runoff, a voter called him up and asked him whether he supported the bathroom bill. He told the man he was the bill’s sponsor.

“People were confused about the issue,” he said. “People legitimately thought I was on the other side of the issue. It’s a matter of voters have to be more informed. They have got to pay closer attention.”

By then, Bright said, he had been targeted for opposition by the establishment because of his stance on the gas tax, the flag and the bathroom bill.

Rep. Tommy Stringer of Greenville supported Bright’s re-election.

“Sometimes courage demands the sacrifice of the very office that you hold if you stand against the prevailing winds of expediency,” Stringer posted on his blog earlier this year. “Lee Bright has consistently made this stand, this stonewall against the powers that control our state capitol, against their collusion with groups that would enrich themselves at the expense of the common citizen, against their cynical promises of conservative reform to advance their own political careers, against their ready abandonment of the very ideals that have sustained our republic since its founding.”

By late April, Bright said pain and sickness led him to see a doctor and consider surgery to remove his gallbladder. But doctors were unsure of doing laparoscopic surgery because of his prior cancer procedures, he said, and Bright said he did not want to be sidelined for one daughter’s college graduation, his other daughter’s high school graduation and his primary race.

“Being in constant pain is no way to run a re-election campaign,” he said. “Probably if I had it to do it all over again I would have had that surgery.”

The issue arose again in September, he said, when he hesitated because of a daughter’s upcoming wedding. The surgeon told him if he didn’t have the surgery then, he would definitely miss the wedding with another major attack. The surgery was successful, he said.

Bright’s trucking business failed in 2008, due in part, he said, to a wave of bad debt. He subsequently started an independent insurance business and sells insurance today. He says he still believes hard work can produce success.

“I’m a very big believer in providence and everything happens for a reason,” he said. “A lot of people ask me what’s next? I don’t know what’s next. I’m going to try and make a living. I’m going to try and make a difference.”

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Information from: The Greenville News, https://www.greenvillenews.com


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