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Published on September 14th, 2014 | by Millennium Magazine Staff


Sen. Marlon Kimpson turning heads as rookie legislator

Pictured above South Carolina State Senator Marlon Kimpson of Charleston.

Written by Cynthia Roldan

It’s a hot August morning in Charleston, and Sen. Marlon Kimpson is scrambling to find someone at city hall to help him.

He just got a call from the “Ready for Hillary” staff, who asked for help in finding a permit for their bus to park downtown – that afternoon. Kimpson, who just finished his first legislative session in June, is doing his best to follow protocol and find the right people.

“The everyday citizen has to go through channels to accomplish their objectives,” Kimpson said. “I don’t believe I should be given any special privilege because I am a state senator. It allows me to experience firsthand what the average citizen experiences when he or she requests things from our system of government.”

His approach to being a legislator has led to praise from his colleagues. Kimpson, they say, is aggressive and articulate, thoughtful and deliberate. But most importantly, he respectfully works with everyone across the board.

“I hesitate to call him a rising star because I believe that he’s already there,” said fellow Democratic Sen. Joel Lourie of Columbia, who joked the last day of session that Kimpson should be named “Rookie Lawmaker of the Year.”

Getting started
During his first weeks at the Senate, Kimpson defied a veteran senator’s request to stop questioning then-acting Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling. Kimpson would later become the first Charleston senator to call for the resignation of Lillian Koller, the embattled director of the Department of Social Services who eventually stepped down in June.

Kimpson also pushed for a boost in funds from $250,000 to $5 million for the Charleston African American Museum and was part of an effort that yielded North Charleston a $275,000 anti-crime initiative.

Most recently, Kimpson asked a Senate panel to review the policies of the Charleston Police Department to determine whether it violates constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Kimspon’s path to the Senate did not prove as difficult as it could have been. As the former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, he received significant financial backing, more than all of his opponents combined.

He ran in a special election following the resignation of Robert Ford in May 2013, after Ford was accused of violating state ethics laws. Ford backed the man Kimpson would beat in a runoff, former Charleston City Councilman Maurice Washington.

At least 10 people, including seven Democrats, ran for the seat. Despite the numbers, Kimpson’s victory was widely expected after showing the ability to raise more than $177,700.

Since arriving in the Senate, Kimpson has earned the reputation of being a consensus builder and very knowledgeable, said fellow Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston.

Most freshmen senators tend to take more of an observatory role during their first year or two in office. And Kimpson sat back enough to see how senators in the chamber operated before starting to speak up, Grooms said.

“He’s smart enough to sit back and try to understand personalities,” Grooms said. “He made more of an impact than others coming in their first year.”

Plus, Grooms said Kimpson didn’t do anything that could potentially alienate himself from other lawmakers, a critical component needed in a Republican-dominated Senate. An effective legislator has the ability to develop relationships, Grooms added.

Paying attention
But what set him apart was Kimpson paying attention to the debate on the floor, said former Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who spent more than 30 years in the Senate before stepping down over the summer to become the president of the College of Charleston.

As the former presiding officer of the Senate, McConnell said he got to see a lot of what was going on with senators in the chambers; who worked behind the scenes; who left the floor often to answer telephone calls.

“Here you see a senator who has the interest to do the work,” McConnell said. “He will know what he’s voting on because he pays attention.”

And that’s important to constituents because Kimpson is serious about what he’s doing, McConnell said. He’ll earn a good reputation, which will lead to appointments on noteworthy subcommittees, where legislation is drafted.

“He’s come not just to be heard,” McConnell said.

Nevertheless, Kimpson has been outspoken, most notably in May when he called for the resignation of Koller. Kimpson acknowledged that making such a request was extreme, but insisted the lives of children were more important.

He also stood to potentially burn bridges with local public officials when he questioned the policies of the Charleston Police Department after the death of 19-year-old Denzel Curnell. Kimpson brought up the concern of racial profiling. As a lifelong member of the NAACP, said he was “duty-bound” to raise the question.

Kimpson, noted McConnell, also plays by the rules. And even after a successful first term in office, on that hot August morning, Kimpson called every number he could in city hall to find the right staffer that could help him with permitting for the “Hillary” bus.

He spent about five minutes on hold with a city staffer, who fruitlessly tried finding the appropriate colleague. The operator suggested a series of names Kimpson was transferred to, where he left messages seeking help to no avail.

As a last resort, he picked up his cellphone and begrudgingly scrolled through his contacts. He had tried his best to go through the appropriate channels instead of using his political weight to call the person at the top.

But he was running out of time. Kimpson’s full-time job beckoned his attention. As a partner at the Motley Rice law firm, he represents a number of state and local pension funds all across the country as a securities litigator. He was recently recognized as one of the best lawyers in America in his field.

Kimpson finally found the contact he was looking for in his list, leaned back and took a deep breath just before the other party answered the phone.

“Hey, Mayor Riley …”


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