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After quiet year, SC Democrats heat up in governor primary

After a year of a mostly quiet primary, one of the top two South Carolina Democrats competing for their party's gubernatorial nomination took on the top Democrat in the state's House of Representatives, castigating the chamber's minority leader on Twitter just hours after he endorsed one of her opponents.

In a string of tweets, state Sen. Mia McLeod and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford sparred back and forth with personal vitriol, which began with McLeod noting Rutherford had backed Joe Cunningham, and not her, because McLeod had refused "to appoint his unqualified new wife" as a magistrate.

McLeod went on to tweet that Rutherford, who has been in the state House for more than 20 years, could go back to "funding his mom in law's nonprofit w/state $$ & using the state plane as his personal vehicle."

In reply, Rutherford called out McLeod for her "attack" on a fellow Black woman, arguing that his wife had met the post's qualifications and that McLeod was echoing "the same attacks used by racists to undermine all black women as 'unqualified.'"

McLeod replied that Rutherford "probably shouldn't cheat w/ and marry the babysitter," to which Rutherford responded, "That's a lie and you know it," going on to ask why McLeod had not backed his ex-wife in her bid to become Richland County's first Black female coroner.

Rutherford came under fire last year after a newspaper probe found he had traveled on the state plane to conferences at luxury resorts with his then-girlfriend, while taxpayers picked up the tab for their flights. Once there, the Columbia Democrat sometimes spent his campaign donations to cover expenses, even though organizers already provided food and lodging.

Rutherford said there was nothing illegal or unethical with his actions, though at least four legal and ethics experts told the newspaper they disputed his interpretation of the law, saying officials and their invitees shall use the plane only for official business.

The dispute blew up just hours after Rutherford took part in a news conference to give his endorsement to Cunningham in next week's primary. Earlier Tuesday, Rutherford said he was supporting Cunningham in part due to their agreement over issues including marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion.

Later in the day, Rutherford told The Associated Press he was frustrated by McLeod's absence from Black Caucus meetings and what he characterized as "no care and concern over Black women, over Democrats, over people in particular."

"It's so sad to see how desperate she is, when she's had a do-nothing campaign and a do-nothing career in both the Senate and the House," Rutherford said of McLeod, who has represented Richland County since 2011. "Normally, I would sue somebody for making defamatory comments about me, but I don't think she even has a job."

McLeod's campaign did not immediately return an email message seeking comment on the back-and-forth, or on Rutherford's remarks.

Cunningham's campaign declined to comment on the spat. On Twitter, the candidate said he would "continue to keep my campaign positive and focused on the issues," like "failing schools, crumbling roads, hundreds of thousands without health coverage."

On Friday, both Democrats are among those scheduled to participate in a gubernatorial debate, just days before the June 14 balloting. The face-off, their only one during the contest, comes just as two weeks of early voting wraps up in the state.

Immediately following that debate, the candidates are expected to be on hand for a party fundraiser starring Vice President Kamala Harris, who has chosen the event with South Carolina Democrats as the first state party gathering since being sworn into office.

On Tuesday, Jalen Elrod, the third-highest ranked official in the South Carolina Democratic Party, said McLeod's tirade against her fellow Democrat Rutherford was "not a good look," for her campaign or for the party, which has not won the Governor's Mansion in more than 20 years.

"This is has not been a high-profile primary, and I think this is painting our party in a way that is viewed more as entertainment and less as a serious contender for power in South Carolina," Elrod told the AP. "That doesn't work to the benefit of any objective that we have as Democrats in this state."


Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.