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African-American vies for S.C. attorney general

By Sasha Johnson
CNN Washington

(CNN) -- The historic race for Sen. Strom Thurmond's open seat might be getting all the attention, but South Carolina voters could make some more history when they choose the state's next attorney general.

Stephen Benjamin, former director of the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, is poised to be the first African-American elected to statewide office since the Reconstruction era.

"It's not lost on me that this is a historic opportunity for my family and for the state of South Carolina," he said. "But I'm not running to make history, I'm running to make a difference."

Benjamin, 32, has deep roots in South Carolina and enjoys support from the business community and the wide legal network across the state. He has raised more than $500,000 so far and plans to raise over $1 million for the November election.

He has also caught the eye of national Democrats as well, picking up financial support from Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, and fiscal promises from other 2004 presidential hopefuls. South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle's political action committee's Web site also declared Benjamin one of February's "Democratic Leaders."

"He has a very good chance to win," said Lee Bandy, political reporter for The State newspaper in Columbia.

But he wonders whether South Carolina, a state historically divided by race, is ready to elect a black attorney general. "Race will certainly be an underlying issue," he said.

However, Bandy added, the climate in South Carolina has changed for the better since U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, an African-American, ran for secretary of state in 1978 and 1986, losing both times.

Benjamin's pro-death penalty position and focus on increasing resources for law enforcement make him attractive to more conservative voters, observers say.

The controversy over the Confederate flag in 2000 and the subsequent economic boycott by the NAACP drew national attention to racial tensions in South Carolina.

Benjamin said he hopes his campaign will help everyone "understand that this state is a whole lot better than people think."

Benjamin has no primary opponent and his Republican challenger will be decided in the state's June 11 primary.




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