Local News

Jeffrey Zell: State Senate, District 36 candidate


TMT: Please tell us about your hometown, education, family life, hobbies, etc.

JZ: I am a father of one, a husband to a wonderful woman, a veteran, and a retired U.S. Air Force member with 20 years of service, retiring from Shaw Air Force Base. As a teenager, I traveled to fairs in Central Ohio and Southern Michigan. I worked as a “carnie,” (food concessions) all summer long for many summers, which was some of the hardest work of my life, but it instilled in me a relentless work ethic. My family and I have lived in Sumter for about eight years, and we are putting down roots here. Most importantly, I am a man of Christ and believe to the core of my being in the teachings of Jesus Christ. I believe the greatest deed you can do on this earth is to serve one another despite the many divisions, just as Jesus did. Remember, He served both the faithful and the faithless. This belief in service is what drives me to run for State Senator, to serve the people of the 36th district. My commitment to service is unwavering, and I am dedicated to making a positive impact on our community.

My upbringing was in a family that, despite their deep love for me, faced their own challenges. These circumstances instilled in me the value of self-reliance and the significance of faith. Through my own efforts and the grace of God, I was able to achieve the American dream.

My educational journey has been a testament to my commitment to learning and growth. I hold an associate degree in Munitions Systems Technology, a field that taught me precision and attention to detail. More recently, I earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, equipping me with the knowledge and understanding of our political system. These qualifications, combined with my life experiences, have prepared me to serve as your State Senator.

I enjoy cooking, traveling with my family, mentoring, shooting, debating, conversing, and working on cars. These activities have not only brought me joy but also taught me valuable lessons in patience, communication, and problem-solving. I adore my canine family, Baire and J. Calvin Coolidge, who have been constant companions in my life.

TMT: Why are you running for State Senator?

JZ: This area of South Carolina is facing very high levels of violent crime, struggling public schools, and slow economic growth compared to other parts of the state. We are dealing with the beginnings of urban sprawl in some parts while others are in economic deserts. But I am optimistic about our future. It’s important that the person representing the 36th district is dedicated, honest, and puts the community’s needs first. I’ve always tried to live by strong values like honesty, helping others, and doing my best in everything I do. I believe that by working hard, being determined, and caring for others, we can help the most vulnerable people in our community to live with dignity and stability. Our neighbors and their communities are going through tough times affecting us all. It’s time to make tough decisions, bring people together, and move the district forward in real and meaningful ways. I firmly believe that by uniting as a community, we can overcome these challenges and build a better future for all.

TMT: Who encouraged you to run?

JZ: My wife and family, and some very good friends around the district.

TMT: How would you describe your political ideology and affiliation?

JZ: I fully embrace Locke’s philosophy and classical liberalism, which encompasses the principles of libertarian conservatism. I firmly uphold the inherent and inalienable rights of every individual as outlined in our constitution, especially in the Bill of Rights. I strongly believe that these rights are inherent and exist independently of any constitution. This means that every person has the right to lead their life and pursue their own version of life, liberty, and happiness as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. In this context, I believe that the government’s main role is to protect individuals from having their rights infringed upon by others. It’s important for the citizens to be educated and prepared to resist any tyrannical tendencies of the government. Each person should be willing to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of being a citizen.

The liberties and freedoms we enjoy today have been obtained through the blood and efforts of real people in our past. That’s what motivates me. Not serving is a disservice and dishonors their legacy.

TMT: How have you been involved in the community?

JZ: As a current member of the School Board in Sumter Schools, I also recently held the position of 2nd Vice Commander at the Sumter American Legion Post 15. Previously, I served as the Committee Chairman of Americanism at Post 15, American Legion. Additionally, I am involved as a mentor in various capacities, such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters; I try to sponsor and work with local non-profits like Team Perseverance Athletics in South Sumter and Full of Faith Life Coaching, etc. I will be participating as a contestant on 2024 Dancing with the Palmetto Stars, which is a Miss South Carolina Scholarship fundraiser. I also serve as a school board liaison for Carolina’s Academic Leadership Network.

TMT: What endorsements have you received?

JZ: Congressman Russell Fry, SC-7 State Representative Stewart Jones, HD-14 Trustee Joe Trapp, Richland 2 School District

Trustee Angela Nash, Richland 2 School District Trustee Christina Rucker, Lexington 2 School District Trustee Daniel Palumbo, Sumter School Board Richard Harrington, Sumter Pet Sitters Ashley McDuffie, Tennis Coach of the Year John Sellar, Retired Educator and ASVAB Tutor Bryan Tkacs, Retired Chief Master Sergeant, USAF Matthew Bowers, Retired Capt, Army, Current Educator Marie Hardy-Dukes, Retired Educator, Turbeville.  Chris Hirak, Retired Master Sergeant, USAF Roger Busse, Retired Master Sergeant, USAF and Teacher Chris Patten, Retired Master Sergeant, USAF and Owner Master’s Auto Group (Dalzell) Chris and Brittany Rooks, Owners of Rooks Small Engines, Sumter.

TMT: How are you funding your campaign?

JZ: Self and individual donations

TMT: What are the three most common issues voters are bringing up to you in your campaign?

JZ: The district has diverse needs that are evident in every corner. From significant economic growth in Orangeburg and reducing crime to urgent concerns about urban sprawl and over-development in Calhoun County, the community’s priorities are varied. Sumter is particularly focused on infrastructure, education, and economic expansion, and I believe they are doing a great job in these areas. However, residents of Clarendon County share these concerns, with a particular emphasis on holding corrupt local politicians accountable and demanding transparency. Common threads also emerge, such as the increasing costs of essential goods, rising crime rates, and failing school systems.

TMT: How do you plan to address income inequality and promote economic growth in your district?

JZ: I support bringing high-tech and manufacturing jobs to the area by having a well-educated workforce. I believe that a fair and proper education is the key to reducing poverty and increasing economic mobility. However, it’s important for people to be motivated to pursue education; it cannot be forced upon them. I strongly believe that if we implement strict accountability and transparency in our school systems, and prioritize academic achievement while also making education appealing, we can bring prosperity to parts of the district that are currently struggling. A well-educated population plays a major role in companies deciding where to establish their businesses.

TMT: How will you work to improve access to quality healthcare and affordable education in your district?

JZ: We need to address the problem of high out-of-pocket costs creating a barrier to accessing healthcare. Some solutions include advocating for price transparency to reduce costs, expanding Medicaid coverage, controlling drug prices, and supporting community health centers. In the midlands, there are very rural areas that deal with extreme transportation barriers. We should further develop transportation assistance programs, expand telehealth services, and collaborate with local transportation providers. We need to promote health insurance coverage by ensuring funding for CHIP, expanding Medicaid coverage where necessary, and advocating for policies that increase insurance affordability and accessibility.

If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’, we must focus on prevention and early intervention, as delayed care worsens health conditions. We should invest in preventive services and screenings, educate the public about early intervention, and encourage regular check-ups. To address the uneven distribution of healthcare facilities, we should expand telehealth services, promote mobile health apps, and invest in digital health infrastructure.

Affordable education, like everything else, is driven by two things: necessity and demand. Education is no different. Public education is often expensive because the bureaucracy and administration are highly inefficient and held to a low standard. We need to introduce competition into the education system to encourage innovation for the lowest cost and best service, ultimately leading to well-educated young citizens. Our focus should be on funding children and their education, rather than maintaining massive and inefficient bureaucracies. However, I still believe we need a strong public school system, as many people rely on it. We cannot allow it to fail, so we must save and extensively reform the education bureaucracy.

TMT: Describe an ethical dilemma you’ve faced. How did you resolve it?

JZ: I strive to always do right, no matter who’s listening and watching. There are far too many to name to just pick one, but anyone who knows me knows that I strive to always do the right thing, and you’ll learn this about me, as I serve humbly as your next Senator.

TMT: How would you handle situations where your party’s leadership takes a position that conflicts with the interests of your constituents?

JZ: I will communicate with them and present two options: addressing the problem or facing potential backlash as the voice of the citizen is the singularly most important one. I am not committed to any specific political party; it’s merely a legal structure that aligns with my values. It should be regarded as a small part of the system, not the driving force. Ultimately, the people are in charge. I am willing to hold Republicans accountable when they are being dishonest and playing games. It’s important to set aside political loyalties and vote for individuals best suited to represent us. I am committed to holding myself and all of those around me, despite their political ties, affiliations, color, gender, race or anything else.

TMT: Do you believe that registered Democrats should be able to vote in Republican primaries and vice versa? Why or why not?

JZ: No, the process has undeniably been weaponized, and it’s crucial for anyone of good faith and intellectual honesty to acknowledge that. The will of the people must always be respected and protected at all costs. This is why I’m conflicted. Closing primaries restricts the will of the people through their choices, but leaving them open allows for political gamesmanship, which is a major reason for our current state of affairs. Unfortunately, to preserve and protect as much of the people’s will as possible, we have to close primaries. If everyone were an honest broker, we wouldn’t need to.

TMT: If you were to win the primary, would you broaden your message to appeal to voters outside your party? If so, how?   

JZ: I have been fortunate to have been doing this for a long time by meeting with people, by nature of my position on the Sumter School board and my personality, talking with them, and helping them where I can. I believe that if people were just willing to admit when they are wrong (I am) and actually listen to one another, we can come to meaningful and collaborative conclusions. I genuinely want to help folks rise into better, healthier, safer positions in their lives and extend opportunities to folks in places where it doesn’t currently exist. What I’ve learned while serving on the school board is that broadly, democrats and republics want the same things. Suspend the craziness of national politics and focus on the local, you’ll see that we are far more alike than we are different and we want the same things; a better education for our kids, safer communities for them to grow up in, a community that is proud of its history and heritage and can respect each other’s perspectives and to just be left alone from overreaching inept government.

The division between political parties in Clarendon County seems to be high. How would you encourage unity and collaboration among our county’s elected officials?

To be honest, if we go back to a question posed earlier, I care little for political parties. They are just a legal mechanism for our values to be represented and respected, or in a lot of cases, misrepresented and disrespected and disregarded. I would ask everyone to suspend their partisan loyalties and sit down to have real, hard conversations about real things affecting people every day and come up with solutions that will benefit everyone. But we have to be willing to be wrong. I know I am. I may not like to admit when I’m wrong, but it’s my way of showing great respect to those who helped me see a different perspective. We cannot do enough of that. To answer your question directly, we should try to talk to each other in good faith and work in areas we can agree on and ones we don’t agree on. If we do this, we can get a lot done; I’m confident of this.

TMT: What do you feel sets you apart from the other candidates?

JZ: First and foremost, it’s important to note that I come from a different background, which some may view as a disadvantage. However, this unique perspective grants me the freedom from long-standing political or social loyalties that could sway my governance. I have no interest in pandering to special interest groups or lobbies. While I value the voice of the lobby as it represents citizens, my focus will always be on amplifying the collective voice of communities within my district. I firmly believe that communities should have the autonomy to make their own decisions rather than being dictated to by the government.

I have personally experienced the hardships of poverty, homelessness, foster care, drugs, and neglect, and have triumphed over these adversities to become a strong advocate for those facing similar challenges. I intimately understand the struggle of going to bed hungry in the dark. This isn’t a plea for sympathy, but rather a testament to my resilience and unwavering belief that I can empower others and their families to rise above their circumstances, provided they possess the determination to do so.

I am resolute in my honesty, despite any criticisms from partisans. My direct and sometimes harsh communication style may unsettle some, but it is always rooted in my unwavering commitment to truth. If it’s not the truth, I simply won’t say it. The truth sounds offensive to those who rarely hear it.

Of the four candidates contending for this seat, I have personal knowledge of only one. Nevertheless, I want to extend my sincere gratitude to all of them for their participation in this challenging journey. Running for office can be arduous, and individuals may often misconstrue your words and actions to gain political advantage. I refuse to engage in such behavior. Instead, I will continue to speak with unwavering truth, honor, and integrity and will always represent the good people the way they deserve; with reverence and deep respect.