Former York County solicitor Tommy Pope will run for the state House seat held by Clover Democrat Herb Kirsh – a contest that would pit a nationally known prosecutor against the oldest and longest-serving member of the General Assembly.
The race marks a return to public life for Pope, who gained fame in the 1990s for his prosecution of confessed child killer Susan Smith.
Almost as soon as Pope retired as 16th Circuit Solicitor in 2006, political watchers began wondering when he would get back into politics.
Pope seeks to unseat Kirsh, an institution in western York County over three decades of public service. First elected in 1979, Kirsh earned the nickname “Representative No” for his penny-pinching ways.
Pope faces Clover businessman Brett Boyd in a GOP primary for District 47, which covers most of north-central York County, including Clover and parts of York and Lake Wylie.
Boyd filed Saturday for his first run for public office, said York County Republican Party Chairman Glenn McCall. Pope plans to file next week.
Differences in age, style
In an interview with The Herald, Pope, 47, was careful to avoid criticizing the 80-year-old Kirsh, though he used the term “active representation” to describe what he’d bring to the seat.
“No disrespect to all the work Mr. Kirsh has done – sometimes ‘No’ is not enough,” Pope said. “Sometimes it’s harder to come up with answers beyond a yes or no. That’s what I think I excel at, trying to get to the meat of the issue.”
Kirsh has run unopposed in the past five elections. A conservative Democrat, Kirsh often votes with Republicans and has rebuffed invitations to switch parties.
Kirsh said he has no problem running against a Republican.
“If you want somebody that’s frugal, you’ve got one – me,” he said Monday night. “I vote with Republicans more than I do the Democrats.”
The race will be a new experience for Boyd, 65, owner a small publishing company that puts out a magazine called The Single Shot Exchange for antique gun collectors. Boyd owns the old Yorkville Enquirer building in downtown York.
“I don’t believe people should run for 35 and 40 years,” Boyd said. “I’m not sure the public is well served by that. That’s not the citizen government that was formed at the beginning of this country.”
A Pope-Kirsh contest would be a contrast in styles and backgrounds.
Pope rose to fame in his pursuit of the death penalty for Susan Smith, the Union woman who drowned her two young children by letting her car roll into a lake. The case riveted the nation and made a celebrity out of a young prosecutor from York.
For years after the trial, Pope was a regular on TV talk shows looking for a spokesman who mixed small-town charm with political muscle. Pope joined Rock Hill’s Elrod Law Firm in 2007.
Republicans never stopped viewing him as a promising candidate for statewide or national office. Many thought he would run for attorney general.
“Tommy Pope has an unlimited political future if he chooses to get back in,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham told The Herald when Pope retired in 2006.
The state House makes sense, Pope said Monday, because he can continue living in York and won’t have to spend long periods away from his family.
A test for Kirsh
At 80, Kirsh is the oldest member of the S.C. House. He has been a longtime member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which decides spending plans for the state.
The son of a Jewish immigrant father and a Jewish mother from New York, Kirsh graduated from Duke University and won his first race for Clover Town Council in 1970. He became mayor in 1975.
The past year has been difficult for Kirsh, who lost his wife of 59 years, Sue Kirsh, to an apparent heart attack in February 2009.
Kirsh said he remains unfazed in his desire to remain in the Legislature. His goal is to surpass the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who served until he was 100, leaving office just before his death in 2003.
“I don’t think I’m going to get there,” Kirsh said. “But I might.”