Originally created 06/03/04

Incumbent's advice led to opposition



AIKEN - The lone Aiken County Council election Tuesday pits an 18-year veteran against an opponent he once encouraged to become an active participant in the mechanics of government.

District 8 incumbent Willar Hightower faces substitute teacher Gwendolyn Conner in the Democratic primary, his first challenger since the 1996 election.

Ms. Conner took Mr. Hightower's advice, and now she says it's time for new blood.

"I will in no way make light of what he's done for the past 18 years, but it's important for there to be change," said Mrs. Conner, who has three daughters and works with Habitat for Humanity and Helping Hands.

"Change can be healthy. ... Sometimes a politician is in office so long they forget why they went there," she said.

If elected, she said, her prime areas of focus will be education, government services in Aiken County's far-flung rural areas and economic development aimed at replacing anticipated job losses at Savannah River Site with equally high-caliber employment.

Mr. Hightower said he is still eager to make his district a better place.

The former SRS worker has lobbied hard in recent years to build new recreational facilities on the north end of Aiken, an economically deprived area that he says needs an influx of new businesses.

There are plenty of family businesses, he said, but none of the Home Depots or Wal-Marts found on the city's southside.

Mr. Hightower's support of District 8 has been almost inflexible recently.

On Tuesday, he abstained from a vote on the county's 2004-05 budget, which he has said doesn't include enough money for his district.

He also declined to vote on a motion to put forward a 1-cent sales tax referendum in November. The councilman made waves in late April over the tax by saying he would campaign against it if revenue from the levy didn't help fund a proposed black history and cultural center.

He said his stance had nothing to do with campaign politics.

"I make a decision based on the merit of the issue. Period," Mr. Hightower said.

Ms. Conner said she is more focused on helping all of the county.

"I don't think growth on the northside needs to be limited to the benefit of one group or community - it has to be taken as a whole," she said.

Reach Josh Gelinas or Jim Nesbitt

at (803) 648-1395.

Willar Hightower, left, faces teacher Gwendolyn Conner in the election. He encouraged her to get involved in politics.