- Associated Press - Thursday, October 5, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A longtime state House member and Army veteran announced Thursday that he is running for South Carolina governor, giving Democrats a candidate nearly a year after Republicans began lining up for the 2018 election.

State Rep. James Smith’s online announcement followed months of speculation.

The 50-year-old Columbia native says he feels called to do all he can for the people of South Carolina.

“This race is not about me or any other candidate. It’s about the people of South Carolina and what we know South Carolina can be,” the father of four told The Associated Press. “Everything I’ve done is not what I’ve done, but my family. My mission to Afghanistan was not my mission, but my family’s. It requires everyone to be invested.”

Smith, first elected to the House in 1996, joined the Army Reserve that year as a lawyer and switched to the Army National Guard two years later. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he resigned his commission as a JAG officer and went back through basic training to move to the infantry, as he sought to fight for the country overseas.

Smith left the 2006 session early for training and was deployed in Afghanistan for 16 months, returning in May 2008 to a standing ovation from his colleagues.

“I came home a different man. With a deeper faith. More thankful for my wife and family. Less caught up in the petty politics at the State Capitol. And believing I could do even more. That I was called to do more,” his online statement said. Whether in the Statehouse or Afghanistan, it concluded, “I have fought for you and for the values that we each hold dear and I want to fight for you as your governor.”

Smith was key in defeating GOP proposals to use state funds to help parents pay private school tuition. Before his 2007 deployment, Smith got leave to fly back to Columbia, energizing the opposition a day after private school choice advocates thought they had the votes on an issue that divided Republicans. Legislators then approved a public school choice plan. The state’s first, and still only, private school scholarship was approved in 2013 and limited to special-needs children.

Smith opened a campaign account last month toward an expected gubernatorial run. He has a lot of catching up to do in the money race.

Gov. Henry McMaster, who is seeking his first full term, had $1.5 million available as of his latest campaign filing in July. His closest challenger, Catherine Templeton, had $1.3 million cash on hand. The former director of two state agencies under Gov. Nikki Haley is making her first run for elected office. Neither has posted third-quarter filings yet.

Other announced Republicans competing in June’s primary are Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, who had $291,000 available as of Tuesday - most of it from his own pocket - and former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill, a longtime Democratic senator, who had $12,200 in cash as of July.

Whether Smith will have a primary challenger remains to be seen.

South Carolinians have not elected a Democrat as governor since 1998.

Smith was encouraged to run for governor in 2010 and 2014 but declined. Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden lost both bids to Haley. She resigned after the U.S. Senate confirmed her as President Donald Trump’s pick for United Nations ambassador, giving the job of state CEO to then-Lt. Gov. McMaster, an early Trump supporter.

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