U.S. congressional candidates Joe Wilson, Arik Bjorn agree to debate
A political newcomer is hoping to shake up the Republican grip on South Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District.
Long-time incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) has accepted a debate challenge from his Democratic opponent Arik Bjorn, a 43-year-old public librarian from Columbia making his first-ever bid for elected office.
“Congressman Wilson wants to discuss the issues important to South Carolinians, and our campaigns are working out the details” of the debate, Wilson campaign manager Brielle Appelbaum confirmed by email.
Bjorn is pushing for a televised debate, though Appelbaum said Monday that “a televised debate has not been discussed yet.”
Wilson, first elected in 2001, has seldom debated over the course of his seven terms in Congress. His last general-election debate, which was televised, occurred in 2010 against Democratic challenger Rob Miller.
The “handshake” agreement between Bjorn and Wilson to hold a debate came about earlier this month when both men met while campaigning at the annual Pelion Peanut Party in Lexington County, according to Bjorn.
“I think he was surprised to actually see a Democrat out in Pelion,” Bjorn joked about their encounter.
Bjorn, a “fusion” candidate who also is the nominee of the S.C. Green Party, is a relative unknown who barely was able to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination in the June 14 primary. Following a mandatory recount, Bjorn managed a 44-vote victory against former Republican Phil Black.
There is not much incentive for Wilson to engage in a debate. Voters in District 2, which comprises all of Lexington, Aiken, and Barnwell counties; most of Richland County; and part of Orangeburg County, haven’t elected a Democratic congressman in 54 years.
Bjorn, who was emboldened to run for the District 2 seat after being inspired by former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a Columbia rally last year, said he plans to engage Wilson on issues including roads and infrastructure, healthcare access and civil rights for racial minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community, during their debate.
Wilson accepted the offer to debate when confronted by Bjorn, Bjorn’s 8-year-old daughter Kat and a campaign staffer at the Pelion event, Bjorn said.
Appelbaum said Wilson was up for the challenge.
“Congressman Wilson looks forward to any opportunity to discuss his accomplishments and his conservative vision for families in South Carolina,” she said. “A vision that includes continued job growth here in the Midlands, a prepared national defense protecting us here at home and abroad, and a federal government that works for the people rather than the other way around.”
While debate details are being ironed out, Bjorn said a respected news veteran already has agreed to play a major role.
Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Information and Communications and a former long-time Washington and White House correspondent at CNN and ABC News, has agreed to moderate the debate, Bjorn said. Attempts to reach Bierbauer for confirmation and comment Monday were unsuccessful.
“We’re trying to make it as third-party and neutral as possible, and we’ve identified one of the most-respected journalists in the state” to take part, Bjorn said, adding that the League of Women Voters also has offered to assist.
There are no plans or discussion as of yet to include American Party candidate Eddie McCain of Batesburg-Leesville. McCain earned just 18.4% of the vote against Wilson as the sole Republican primary challenger in 2014. Before that, McCain attempted to unseat Wilson as a Libertarian candidate in 2010, but managed just 1% of the vote and polled last in the four-man general election.
Since his election in 2001 to replace the late Floyd Spence, Wilson has won seven re-elections, nearly all of them by comfortable margins. He faced no GOP primary opposition this year. Wilson’s stiffest electoral challenge came in 2008 when Democrat Rob Miller received 46.2% of the vote in the first of two contests between both men.