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A student in the senate

McElveen adjusting to life as a new South Carolina lawmaker

Posted: February 7, 2013 5:44 p.m.
Updated: February 8, 2013 5:00 a.m.
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McElveen's wife, Brownyn, recently joined him after a Senate meeting to talk with President Pro Tempore of the Senate John Courson (right).

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Before his election to the S.C. Senate last November, Thomas McElveen was used to a fairly commonplace routine.

Each morning, he would commute only about a mile down the road from his house to start the workday at his law office on Calhoun Street in Sumter. All that changed though with his victory over Republican Tony Barwick in the general election last fall.

Now, the 34-year-old heads to Columbia at least three times a week to listen, watch, and debate matters of importance to virtually all residents of South Carolina.

“It’s been a learning experience, but I’m catching onto it pretty quick,” McElveen said of his time in the senate so far. “There’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of to keep track of.”

The son of Sumter’s mayor, he’s certainly picked up an understanding of the world of politics, but up to this point, never held office at any level.

Years ago, however, his dad, Joe, imparted some non-political advice that still sticks in the younger McElveen’s mind as he transitions into his new role.  

“When I started practicing law, my dad used to always tell me that if you know the rules, that will give you a leg up. So now I’ve read the senate rules backward and forward,” McElveen said.

Paying attention to the details comes in handy due to the size of his district, which stretches all the way from the middle of Sumter County to the top of Lee County to parts of Kershaw and Richland counties.  

“I get a lot of emails and I get a lot of phone calls. I try to return those as fast as I can,” he said.

As a result of last year’s redistricting, McElveen’s senate district, previously represented by now retired Sen. Phil Leventis, was anchored only in Lee and Sumter counties, but has since been stretched to add two more counties in the Midlands.  

“I think a lot of folks, particularly in Northeast Richland and the West Wateree area, still don’t know who exactly is representing them in the senate,” McElveen said.

Portions of Kershaw and Richland counties, held before by senators Vincent Sheheen and Joel Lourie, have been drawn into Senate District 35.

“I’m hoping sometime here in the near future that I can start setting up town hall meetings in those areas,” McElveen said. “That will give folks an opportunity to at least come out and meet me and tell me what some of their concerns are.”

As a new member of the senate, he’s set his focus on the state’s election laws, an area of concern that raised eyebrows last year after nearly 200 candidates were left off ballots across the state. Many seeking to be first-time officeholders were dropped from the ballot due to not meeting filing standards that were actually different for incumbents.

On Jan. 23, the Senate approved legislation that syncs the candidate filing process for new candidates and those already holding office. It also allows those who don’t file properly to pay a fine and remain on the ballot, as long as they fix it before the primary.

“I was pretty involved in that as a first-time candidate who was filing to run. I never had a real legal challenge, but I was still kind of in the middle of it. So I was pretty familiar with that process and how that law works,” McElveen said.

Another area of concentration is the push to establish early voting in the state, which would open polling stations before a set election day. As a member of the senate’s judiciary committee, he’s helping to hash out details of a proposal instituting the change.  

“It’s really interesting. There’s a lot of work there to be done,” McElveen said. “I think that’s going to have some bipartisan support. As long as it’s done the right way and people are fair and honest then we should make access to the ballot as easy as possible.”

McElveen is also championing the creation of a S.C. Department of Administration, an idea forged by Sheheen. The bill would scrap the S.C. Budget and Control Board, a body consisting of two legislators, the state’s governor, comptroller general, and treasurer, which can initiate a variety of executive duties. The proposal is being deliberated in the Senate Finance Committee and should be on the senate floor for debate starting Feb. 20.

 “I campaigned on the fact that I thought the elimination of the Budget and Control Board was a good thing. So I’m inclined to support that bill right now unless I see some reason why I shouldn’t,” McElveen said.

As the pace of the General Assembly picks up this spring, McElveen expects to dive deeper into a number of other concerns facing the state including ethics reform and the possible expansion of Medicaid. He also hopes to continue working with Sheheen and other members of the senate to help move the state forward.    

“Every time I go in there, say the pledge of allegiance and take my seat, I feel proud and honored to represent this area and work for this state. It’s a really good feeling.”

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