State Rep. Russell Ott’s work for the South Carolina Farm Bureau is getting hit in the latest salvo of what’s turning into a contentious District 26 state Senate Democratic primary race.

Ott, a Democratic lawmaker from Calhoun County, is looking to move into the upper chamber and is running against state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland.

Harpootlian was drawn into the same district, which includes parts of Calhoun, Lexington and Richland counties, as state Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, who is not running for reelection.

Before being elected to replace his father, Harry Ott, Russell Ott worked for the South Carolina Farm Bureau where his role included lobbying the state Legislature. Harry Ott is now president of the farm bureau, a role he’s held since 2015.

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In a new television advertisement, Harpootlian hits Ott for earning $800,000 from special interests, pointing to the pay he received from the farm bureau. The ad claims the farm bureau doubled Ott’s annual pay.

“You can advocate for those folks now question about it, but the question is should you be paid $800,000 to advocate for those folks. I get approached all the time, they want me to take a position that I agree is the appropriate position to take,” Harpootlian said. “The question is not whether he agrees with those positions or even his constituents. The question is should he be paid $75,000 a year, $800,000, to advocate those positions. He’s being paid $10,000 a year just like I am.”

In an interview, Harpootlian also pointed to how the farm bureau, in a weekly update to members, touted legislation sponsored by Ott.

But Ott called the ad “more smoke and mirrors, more half truths and outright lies.”

Ott, who worked for the farm bureau from 2004 to 2013, where his role included coordinating a fundraiser for the farm bureau foundation to help pay for scholarships, human resources type work such as writing job descriptions and keeping up with its strategic plan.

“It’s a whole host of things that I have worked on for a very long time,” Ott said.

The job also included lobbying the state Legislature. Groups that lobby the general assembly must disclose how much they pay lobbyists and the farm bureau reported paying Ott about $35,000 a year for the lobbying part of his job, even though his total salary was higher.

Ott left the farm bureau after being elected in 2013 and started Center Hill Consulting to continue his work for the farm bureau. He said his $75,000 a year contract with the farm bureau includes all of his previous jobs with the agency, except for lobbying. Ott says he took a pay cut when he ran for the State House.

According to the Farm Bureau’s ethics filing, the organization discloses it pays Ott for non-lobbying services.

“Representative Ott, a former long-term employee of SCFB and currently an active farmer, serves as an independent contractor and consults on agribusiness development, farm commodities, and agribusiness issues” the farm bureau said in its most recent filing. “He also assists in strategic planning, developing leadership training programs and organizing young farmer groups.”

The ad also criticizes Ott for sponsoring agriculture related legislation.

“It raises questions about who does he work for. The people of his district or for the farm bureau who he lobbied for?” Harpootilian said.

Harpootlian said Ott should recuse himself from all agriculture related legislation.

Harpootlian, who is a trial lawyer, said it’s OK for him to vote on legal-related bills because he doesn’t get paid by the S.C. Association for Justice, which advocates to strengthen the judicial system and was started by a group of trial lawyers.

The ad specifically cites two pieces of legislation: H. 3951 in 2023, a bill that adds the Commissioner of Agriculture, the Secretary of Commerce, and the Secretary of Transportation to the e South Carolina Conservation Bank board, and H. 3539 in 2021, a bill dealing with the transportation of live swine. Both bills passed overwhelmingly and neither bill was sponsored or co-sponsored by Ott. He did vote for both of them in the House, as did Harpootlian in the Senate.

Ott defended his participation on those votes.

“I am 100% clean and clear to vote on any general agricultural legislation, what I would recuse myself on is any vote that impacted (the) farm bureau directly. That’s no different than funeral directors that are in the House voting on issues with morticians,” Ott said. “Or pharmacists that vote on general legislation dealing with pharmacists, or guess what lawyers who are voting on legislation dealing with the law that they then go try cases on.”

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