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Politics: Ray Cleary won’t run for fourth Senate term

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

State Sen. Ray Cleary won’t run for a fourth term next year. “I’ve a term limits bill every year,” he said. “If one talks the talk he should walk the walk.”

The Murrells Inlet Republican mailed a formal notice of his decision to constituents this week after speaking with the Senate leadership. Cleary said last year when he launched a mid-term fundraising campaign that he wouldn’t decide about another run for the District 34 seat until this November. But he said his decision really came at the end of the last session.

“I’ve been asked to handle the roads for the last three years in the Senate and during the last three years we failed to even have a debate on the issue. They don’t even want to talk about the issue,” Cleary said. “I don’t want to be part of the problem. I got elected to solve problems.”

This year, Cleary proposed a plan to fund infrastructure improvements with an increase in the gas tax, a cut in taxes for small business and by turning 20,000 miles of state roads over to the counties. That was an alternative to Gov. Nikki Haley’s plan to raise the gas tax and cut the income tax while overhauling the Department of Transportation. Haley threatened to veto any alternative and the Cleary bill died.

“It’s really a full-time job,” he said. “I just don’t have that excitement.”

Cleary, 67, said he will return to working full-time in his dental practice. “I was thinking one more term, but it’s difficult to be gone from your wife and your family,” he said. “I could probably go to two meetings a day for a year.”

State Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, who represents House District 108, is interested in the Senate seat, but said last year he wouldn’t run against Cleary. Goldfinch said this week he plans to make a formal announcement next month.

The Senate district has 59 percent of its voters in southern Horry County, 18 percent in Georgetown County and 13 percent in Charleston County.

“It’s very similar to my district,” said Goldfinch, who lives in Murrells Inlet and is in his second term in the House. “It’s a pretty good district for me. I’ve got good family and business connections in Horry County.”

He is reluctant to be considered the front-runner, citing the fate of Jeb Bush in the crowded GOP field for the presidential nomination.

“Stephen is the logical successor to Sen. Cleary,” said Tom Swatzel, a political consultant who worked on the first Goldfinch campaign. “He has a good relationship with Gov. Haley and he’s popular.”

The Waccamaw Neck has a strong Republican base and whoever succeeds him will have to serve the area well, Cleary said. “I don’t think you’ll be losing anything,” he said.

To win the Senate seat, “you have to win the Waccamaw Neck,” Goldfinch said.

Randy Hollister, who chairs the Georgetown County Republican Party, said he hasn’t heard of any other candidates interested in the Senate. Filing won’t open until March.

He pointed out that Mount Pleasant is a growing part of the district and could be more of a factor until the next round of legislative reapportionment. But he added the Waccamaw Neck “will continue to be a strong presence.”

As a senator, Cleary made it a practice not to endorse other candidates. That could change in an election for his replacement. “It’s going to be important to get the right person,” he said.

Cleary long ago got used to being labeled a RINO (Republican in name only) by conservatives. “I’m a fiscal conservative, but I do believe you have to have user fees to pay for certain services,” he said. After he led a field of three candidate in the 2004 Republican primary, Cleary never faced another opponent. “Maybe this is wishful thinking, I think that at least shows I’ve got my finger on the pulse and [voters] are somewhat comfortable,” he said.

“You know you can never make everybody happy,” Cleary added. “I’m sure there are other people who are going, ‘Man, I’m glad he’s getting out.’ ”

Former magistrate considering run for House seat

Alan Walters called a run for House District 108 “a strong possibility” after learning Rep. Stephen Goldfinch will run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Ray Cleary. He is a former magistrate and Georgetown County GOP chairman and is now the school district’s safety director.

“I would be surprised if somebody else didn’t jump in,” he said.

It won’t be Randy Hollister, the current GOP chairman, who considered a run in 2012. “I made that decision three years ago,” he said.

Goldfinch said a few people have asked about the seat, including his law partner, Tom Winslow, now running for Georgetown City Council.

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