Upcoming elections may shift council’s balance of power

The political balance of the Greenville County Council is delicately poised with six Republicans and six Democrats, but the upcoming elections could easily shift the share of power.

In November, the Democrats could find themselves defending five of their six council seats against efforts by the Republicans to recover the majority.

The Republicans lost their upper hand on the council in November, when Democrat Jim Patterson won District 19 from Tom Boone in a special election.

In spite of the odds against Democrats this year, the prospect of a new council make-up doesn’t concern the Rev. E.D. Dixon, vice-chairman of the council and the only Democrat not up for re-election.

“If I were the only person on that council, as far as party lines were concerned, I would feel just as comfortable working for the county as I would if I were in the majority,” he said.

But Billy Webster, chairman of the Greenville County Democratic Party, said keeping the party’s newly won share of power on the council will be important in this election year.

And his job got tougher in the past week.

Democratic councilmen James Arrowood and Mann Batson announced they wouldn’t seek third terms of office. Incumbent Jim Bennett also said he may be ready to close the door on his 14-year career on County Council.

Past health problems, including a four-month bout with pneumonia, had kept Bennett, 81, at home during most of 1989.

“It depends on how I get along between now and then,” Bennett said. “I got sick the last go-round, and that’s hard to get over.”

Already, two Republicans have said they plan to run for Bennett’s District 28 seat.

The Democrats’ prospects are brighter in Arrowood’s seat, District 26, where three Democrats and one Republican are lined up. In Batson’s seat, District 17, one Democrat is running.

The remaining two districts are reasonably safe, Webster said. Patterson and Fletcher Smith joined the County Council midterm after winning vacated seats.

Smith, an eight-month councilman, filled Ennis Fant’s seat when he left County Council to take the state House District 23 seat.

County government is a place for budding politicians “to cut their teeth,” Webster said, but ideally, the council’s business should be non-partisan.

“Roads aren’t Democrat and roads are Republican,” he said. “They’re just roads and they need to get paved and water is the same way.”

Even so, some issues are historically decided by partisan voting, Webster said.

For instance, he said, when the Republicans had the majority last year, they sought to change voting rules to take advantage of their 7-5 majority on the council.

Democrats tried to maintain the rules requiring eight votes to pass an ordinance and nine members to constitute a quorum. They finally settled on a seven-member majority and a seven-member quorum, but not before a walk-out by three Democrats.

Another example of a politically-flavored issue is the vote for a chairman because he’s the person who sets the tone for the entire council, said Joey Hudson, chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party.

In 1984 and 1986, chairman elections resulted in partisan deadlocks that stalled county business and created ill-will among the councilmen.

Despite these past divisions, Hudson and Webster said they could see no partisan votes on the council’s horizon. But at any time, party activists could call on their council representatives to defend particular issues they’re interested in, Hudson said.

“It is important to us as a party to try to regain a majority,” he said.