This year the Democratic ticket for U.S. House District 1 is a primary battle between Joe Cunningham, a newbie to the political scene, and Toby Smith, a former Charleston mayoral candidate.
Smith, who was born locally but grew up in Philadelphia, returned to the area to graduate from Middleton High School and later University of South Carolina.
Today she works as a nonprofit and cultural consultant and is also an ordained associate minister at Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Union Heights. Smith also serves on the advisory board for the Jenkins Institute for Children, an orphanage based in North Charleston. Smith ran but lost in the Charleston mayoral race in 2016.
“I am the best candidate for this seat,” she said. “I view issues and seek to find solutions through a lens that's based on building a consensus that can be sustained. Community challenges can usually be broken down into bite-sized pieces, and that's a great place to start looking for workable solutions.”
Should she win the Congressional seat, Smith said she would utilize her role “to serve constituents with strength, compassion, and empathy.” She said she would also be a fiscally responsible politician and “ensure that every hardworking South Carolinian” is heard on the issues that most affect “their pocketbooks and at their dinner tables.”
Smith’s opponent grew up in Kentucky but moved to the Holy City in 2000 to attend College of Charleston. Cunningham said he moved to Florida to complete his degree and work in ocean engineering for four years; he then moved even further South—all the way to South America to study Spanish. But he couldn’t help but feel the pull of the Lowcountry and after a year returned to the area to transition to a career in law, working now in construction law for Lyles & Associates, LLC, in Charleston. He and his wife Amanda also co-own a yoga studio.
The couple currently resides in West Ashley with their first child, Boone, born earlier this year, and their pup Teddy.
Cunningham’s run for office is based on his belief that the country needs new leadership “now more than ever.” As a new father he said he felt the urgency of that belief, which struck him one day when considering his newborn son.
“One day he’s going to look me straight in the eye and ask me what I did at this pivotal moment in American history,” Cunningham said. “I want to be able to tell him that I stood up for what was right.”
Smith identified six top issues she said she intends to focus on if she wins the Congressional seat. They include school safety and common sense gun safety, like strengthening background checks for gun purchases; educational access and equality, because she said, “a quality education is a basic right of all Americans” and there’s a need for universal pre-K; finding a pathway to citizenship for immigrants; gender equality; racial and social justice; and veteran support, because to her it’s “unacceptable” that many go untreated with mental health illness and wind up homeless on the streets.
Smith said she’s an advocate for gun legislation to keep gun owners responsible and children safe; she’s also a strong advocate for the Sandy Hook legislation, which pushes for better advocacy and community training, “closing dangerous loopholes and working to keep weapons of war off our streets.” She also backs groups like Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America and Mt. Pleasant-based Arm in Arm, which also demands better background checks.
Regarding immigration, Smith supports DACA and wants citizenship for law-abiding families.
She said she is a fourth-generation descendant from slavery on her mom’s side; her great-great grandmother Idela came to America at age 8.
“We cannot ignore our heritage...which is broad and comprised of immigrants, Native Americans and the formerly enslaved,” Smith said.
In addition, the Democratic candidate is ready to fight to end domestic violence against women and advocate for better access to women’s healthcare and ownership of their reproductive rights.
“For too long, we've been taught to be silent and hope that someone else will speak,” Smith said.
Fighting for racial justice is also a prime issue for Smith, who expressed her view that racism has “blatantly and subconsciously” infiltrated many aspects of society, from the criminal justice system to affordable housing to access to capital for minority entrepreneurs.
“Racial inequality is a scourge on the beliefs that our nation was founded,” Smith said. “I want to fight for and support ways that we can all have access to the American Dream, no matter what your race or ethnicity.”
Cunningham promises to serve only three terms, should he win this election, taking a strike against Republican incumbent Sanford.
“Unfortunately, our current congressman made that same pledge back in 1994. Twenty-four years later, he’s still up there. I won’t break my promise.”
Sanford served in the House from 1995 to 2001. He then served as governor from 2003 to 2011, and was again elected to the House seat in a special election in 2013.
Cunningham said he’s only seeking the Congressional seat because it needs leadership that “champions the middle-class.”
“My wife and I are cut from the fabric of the middle-class and personally experience the same issues as you and your family,” he said. “I will listen to you and work with other leaders in Congress to deliver results for the Lowcountry.”
Like nearly every other candidate seeking political office, road repairs are a top focus of Cunningham’s campaign.
“Here in Charleston, we have bridges literally falling apart,” he said.
Cunningham explained, again calling out Sanford, how vital it is to secure more federal resources for the state and region and as a “fighter” he will push for improvements in toward infrastructure, education and healthcare.
“I won’t turn away resources for infrastructure, hurricane relief, or improvements for school safety like Mark Sanford,” Cunningham said. “Instead, I will fight to bring home every federal dollar I can to bring the Lowcountry’s infrastructure into the 21st century. ...We pay our fair share in taxes; we deserve to see some of those resources coming home—especially when it comes to fixing our traffic and flooding problems.”
Cunningham targeted growth as a problem on the local level—and that it can only be fixed by first looking at traffic.
“We have some of the worst roads in the country and we get stuck in traffic every single day, which means less time with our families. I want to reverse that,” he said. “We face complex problems that require critical thinking, problems that I have faced and conquered.”
Cunningham boasts membership with the American Bar and Charleston County bar associations, Charleston Lawyers Club, South Carolina Association for Justice, American Association for Justice. When not working he said he can often be found with family and on the water—boating, fishing, surfing—or touring a local brewery.
The primary is June 12.