COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - This week’s race for Richland County Coroner had several historic outcomes.
Voters chose the county’s first African American and first woman coroner, Naida Rutherford, who defeated longtime coroner Gary Watts. It’s a shakeup this coroner’s office has never seen before.
The incumbent has held the position for the last 20 years and has been serving the county for a total of nearly 40 years.
As coroner-elect, Rutherford told WIS she believes, “that in the wake of the social unrest that we are experiencing in our country, that people are looking for change.”
Rutherford is originally from Bartow, a small town in central Florida, but she moved to the Midlands as teenager and has called Columbia home ever since.
She graduated from Benedict College as an athlete with honors in biology, then went into nursing and obtained three more degrees, eventually becoming a nurse practitioner.
“I’ve worked in ER, hospice, end of life care. I’ve worked as a legal nurse expert in medical legal death investigations. I’ve helped collect forensic evidence for sexual assault victims. I’ve done wound care, ostomy care – just a number of things across the life spectrum from birth to death and I have a passion for advocating for people who often don’t understand the system,” Rutherford said.
She says it’s thanks to grassroots and community efforts that she became determined to run for coroner, ultimately winning the seat this week.
“Obviously, it’s not the way I wanted things to end Tuesday night,” Watts told WIS. “I would have loved to have served four more years, but obviously that’s not what God has planned for me and I’m really A-okay with that.”
His background is in law enforcement like many other coroners before him.
Rutherford’s medical background will be another first for the Richland County Coroner’s Office.
Watts says he thinks people can be confused as to what coroners do.
“This is an investigative office,” he explained. “We don’t determine the medical cause. We determine the manner of death. The real work here is investigative. It’s not medical.”
When asked what she intends to do differently as coroner, Rutherford stressed the importance of the agency working independently and she criticized Watts for campaigning alongside the Richland County sheriff.
“When you have a coroner who is running a dual campaign with the sheriff and he’s supposed to be independent of that department, I think that right there in itself is a time for change,” Rutherford said.
“Because I think that, obviously, to understand what we do here, we have to have working relationships with law enforcement agencies,” he said. “A good working relationship in this office with other law enforcement agencies just ensures the citizens of this county, they’re getting the best that they can get.”
Watt also addressed complaints that he gave out campaign fliers misrepresenting several endorsements.
“I’ve spoken to those people, majority of those people that said they didn’t endorse me and a lot of them said that they changed their mind once Naida got into the race,” he said. “I certainly don’t have any problem with someone changing their mind about who they’re going to support or who they’re going to endorse. However, I did feel like once they told me they were supporting me, if that changed, it was up to them to call me and tell me they had changed their mind.”
Rutherford says she’s thankful to the voters who stood in long lines and chose to put their faith in her.
“Thirty-thousand people thought I was qualified and I’m going to rally to get the other 20,000 that maybe had their doubts so that we can all be on the same page because we’re all in this county together,” she said.
As for her plans as coroner, Rutherford says she wants to modernize the coroner’s office, and incorporate more social media and more community involvement to offer more transparency as to what actually goes on inside the coroner’s office.
Watts still has six more months as coroner and says he still intends to do his job to the best of his ability. He said that it’s truly been an honor to serve the people of Richland County and he intends to continue doing that, though it’s not clear in what capacity.