To so many people here in Kershaw County he is “Vincent.”
If we haven’t grown up with him, we’ve come to know him pretty well.
That’s because State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, whether working on legislation or campaigning for governor, has always been “Vincent” and not some stand-offish, don’t-get-too-close-to-me politician.
Yet, at the same time, he is most definitely the definition of a good politician -- a man who not just wants to serve the people, but who truly wants to take government back to doing the same.
Vincent is also a bridge-maker -- and I’m not talking about bridges to nowhere, but bridges that cross the gap between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, even between the S.C. House and Senate.
And it showed during his campaign for governor these past two years.
The simple fact that -- despite losing the race -- he garnered more votes than soon-to-be ex-Gov. Mark Sanford did when he won reelection in 2006.
No single person as an individual put Kershaw County and his hometown of Camden in South Carolinians’ minds this year than he did, perhaps even in the country’s.
For that and so much more, I’m naming Vincent Sheheen my Kershaw County Person of the Year for 2010.
I first met Vincent just a few months after I began working here at the C-I. It was the fall of 2000. He was 29 and running in his first political campaign to fill his uncle Bob’s seat representing S.C. House District 79.
His twin boys, Austin and Joseph, were only 3; his wife, Amy, was pregnant with now 9-year-old Anthony.
We met on election night at the Kershaw County Courthouse which is where we all used to wait for ballot results. I was covering the city of Camden races, but couldn’t help noticing Vincent and his family.
They were, and still are, an attractive family. But what I noticed more than anything else were their relative youth and how infectious that was. These were happy people and not just because Vincent won the election that night.
For the next eight years, I only met with Vincent sporadically; I ran into Amy a few times here and there.
Each time I did, though, he was always cordial, open, full of energy and optimism and obviously very, very intelligent.
But it wasn’t until mid-September 2008 that we really began to connect both as reporter and interview subject and as people.
It was then, more than two years ago now, that he first seriously told me he was thinking of running for governor of South Carolina.
He would be the first to do so in 40 years, since John Carl West’s successful 1970 run.
From a professional angle as a reporter, I got very excited about the idea because ... well ... I admit I wanted that kind of access to the governor’s mansion.
As I talked to him for that first interview, though, I got more excited from a personal standpoint because so much of what he talked about made sense.
Vincent, himself, told me that folks were urging him to run, he thought, because he was a “consensus builder” and they were “looking for a younger person, because we need a new direction -- a next generation that can emerge to get the state moving.”
That wasn’t ego talking, although I would submit that anyone thinking of running for public office has to have a higher level of ego than most, simply because of the uber-competitiveness of the race.
If you had been there with me, you would have seen those self-assessments for what they were: an ability to know oneself well enough to understand not only his abilities, but his limitations as well -- youth, relative inexperience and, of course, being a Democrat in a Republican stronghold.
But, as he himself pointed out, he had already been tackling “the big issues.” And he had more he wanted to do: reform state government, ramp up economic development, ensure equity education funding, end the use of taxpayer money for lobbying the legislature and not just “protecting” the environment but actually preserving it.
From that late 2008 interview forward, I found myself realizing Vincent wanted to do one more thing: restoring the integrity of the governor’s office.
He was one of the first to call out when Sanford refused to accept $700 million in federal economic stimulus funds earmarked for education and public safety. Agree with the 2009 stimulus package or not, you can’t disagree with the fact that the state’s education system desperately needed money from somewhere and it certainly wasn’t coming from the state house.
On the other hand, he was all but silent about Sanford’s infidelity. He took the high road, which was absolutely the right thing to do.
And he ran a clean campaign. It was only near the end, and only due to the unfortunately reality of modern politics, that Vincent had to call Gov.-elect Nikki Haley out for some pretty outrageous accusations and rhetoric.
The good news is, I can almost guarantee that as Vincent gives even the remotest thoughts to 2014, he will continue to do as he has always done -- build those bridges, rather than burning them, fight for the changes this state needs to succeed and continue to so incredibly well-represent the people of Kershaw County.