Lexington County Coroner's Race Gets Personal
Republican primary contest between incumbent Harry Harman and Frank Barron III has gotten edgy and more than a little testy.
Once upon a time, Harry Harman and Frank Barron III were good friends and professional colleagues. Those days appear over. Indeed, the race for Lexington County Coroner is now, arguably, the edgiest and most intensely personal race heading into the June 12 party primaries.
The 68-year-old Barron, the coroner of Richland County from 1978 to 2001 and a seven-time president of the S.C. Coroner's Association, charged that his 77-year-old incumbent rival, has become coroner in name only, due to Harman's allegedly poor health.
Barron charged that deputy coroner Randy Martin has become the de facto head of the office and that Harman seldom if ever goes to calls, and relies almost entirely on his staff, and in effect has become "an absentee coroner."
Harman has admittedly had numerous health problems, most recently an extended stay in a care facility following back surgery. But, Harman said defiantly, his health is just fine and only getting better. And he vowed, "I am going to win re-election."
"My health is good," Harman said. "My doctors have given me good reports. I think we just deserve more than (Barron) in this office. Frank's off base real bad."
"Harry's desperate and he doesn't want to lose face now," Barron said. There's never been any animosity between us [until now], but they're desperate."
The current rift began when Barron said he called on Harman to let him know he was contemplating running and suggested that it might be time for Harman to retire.
"I felt like he ought to take care of his health and retire, and I told him that," Barron said. "I said, for your health and your family, and the people of Lexington County, you should retire and you should endorse me. I said you know what a good job I've always done, and you and I have been friends for all these years, I could get in there and do a good job for the county for a few years, and I don't want to do it long."
But Harman declined, Barron said. And the race was on.
"Everytime I saw him up until the end of this past year, I walked up to him and shook his hand and said, 'You know Harry, you and I have been friends a long time, and we're both gentlemen, and we're both Republicans, and we're still going to be friends when this is over,'" Barron said. But when he said he saw Harman again, "he was pretty irritated towards me because of the campaign."
"It's Frank -- that's why I want to be coroner," Harman said. "That, and the love of the people and this county. I want to take care of them…. I'm here for Lexington County; I'm here for the people, and we're going to do everything we can to help them anyway we can -- with honesty and integrity."
Asked to give his take on exactly how and when their friendship went sideways, Harman said he wanted "to take the high road," and suggested people read the comments about Barron on the endorsements page of Harman's campaign Web site instead.
However, he said, "I think it got personal because he told me, 'Harry I'm going to run an honest campaign, are you? And I said, yes, I would run an honest campaign. But he started attacking me from the get-go. He started talking about my health, and it's really not true. I'm proving it everyday.
"I can run this office, and I've got the people that can run this office," Harman continued. "People that are good -- and I think [I have] the best staff in this state. They help me in this office, and he's been attacking my people, and telling people he would not have them or hire them. And that would be a great mistake."
Aside from the quality of Harman's staff, Barron has been critical of the number of people Harman employs -- currently six full-time and five part-time employees. Barron said he aimed to trim staff and cut about $100,000 from the office's budget if elected.
Harman said he believes his record as coroner has been noteworthy. Recently the office was accredited by the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners, making it the first coroner's office in the state to achieve that. The association awarded accreditation to the office after it demonstrated compliance with 130 international standards concerning death investigations.
Harman also said he has been instrumental in developing a comprehensive record system, countywide disaster plan, disaster-response team, 24-hour pathologist availability, and an average countywide response time of 28 minutes.
Barron, for his part, said one the main things he will do that Harman has been unable to do since health issues have arisen, is to be an active coroner, showing up in person to investigate death scenes -- though Harman adamantly denied that he leaves death scene investigations entirely up to his deputies.
Further, Barron is focusing a large part of his campaign on "saving lives." Barron points out that the coroner's office can be used for more than determining causes and time of death. The office can also be proactive at saving and improving lives as well, he said.
As Richland County coroner and now, Barron said he has been deeply involved in such issues as seatbelt safety, and child-safety restraints, suicide prevention, safe-driving programs for teens, the creation of a statewide tissue bank, and been instrumental in having speed limits lowered and safety devices and traffic lights installed in high-accident areas locally and around the state at the behest of other coroners.
"When I talk about saving lives, I mean it," Barron said. "I have the qualifications, experience, the health and the passion to serve and to raise the bar for what is expected from our coroner’s office.