Race continues to shade and color party politics in South Carolina. For Republicans, it is the glue that has held their party together. For Democrats, it acts in other toxic ways.
Racial profiling the parties can be tricky. Tim Scott is black. He is also in a good position to win the 1st District House seat and become the only black Republican in Congress.
On the Democratic side, things are even more complicated. In their gubernatorial race, state Sen. Robert Ford, an African American, faces two white candidates, state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and state Sen. Vince Sheheen.
Ford is a rough-hewn, bombastic, old-style politician and veteran of the civil rights movement. He has about as much chance of being the next governor as I do, but he has an excellent chance of winning the Democratic primary. If he does, it will be a disaster for the state Democratic Party.
Of course, this state has been electing rough-hewn, bombastic, old-style politicians for generations. But the vast majority of these old cranks have been white, reflecting this state’s rural, rustic demographics. In the 1950s, there were members of the General Assembly who had a reputation of not being able to read a newspaper. Needless to say, they were white. There was no shame in having inarticulate and semi-literate members in the General Assembly. They were a proud reflection of their constituency.
Likewise, blacks have elected their share of unsophisticated politicians, though to the best of my knowledge no one has ever said Robert Ford is illiterate. However, he is not very articulate or polished. In the May 2 debate with Rex and Sheheen, Ford demonstrated a total inability to grasp figures, claiming that he would bring 100,000 new jobs to the state thanks to the film industry and sell a casino license in Myrtle Beach for $1 billion. His performance at the debate in Charleston last week was even worse.
On primary day, he will draw a huge majority of the black vote but almost no white votes. Whites will split between Rex and Sheheen; there will probably be a runoff between one of these candidates and Ford. How this will end, I cannot predict from this vantage point, but Ford has a good chance of winning the nomination if he can bring black voters out for a second round. And if he does, the state Democratic Party can fold its tent for the next four years.
I have witnessed this scene play out before. In 1990, state Sen. Theo Mitchell, a black candidate from Greenville, faced Charleston Sen. Ernie Passailaigue for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Mitchell was a lawyer with well-cut suits, but he had a snarly, racially charged manner guaranteed to alienate white voters. He also had some highly publicized run-ins with the law and was eventually expelled from the Senate after a conviction for tax evasion. In short, there was little to recommend him for the office of governor — except the color of his skin. And on primary day, that’s all that mattered. Blacks came out in record numbers and gave Mitchell the nomination. It was all downhill from there.
It’s doubtful any mortal could have defeated Carroll Campbell, the very popular Republican incumbent, in 1990. But Mitchell did not even make a respectable showing. Early on, some black ministers saw which way the wind was blowing and cast their support to Campbell. Mitchell famously called them “house niggers,” setting the tone for the ugly little campaign.
On Election Day, Mitchell took 27.8 percent of the vote against Campbell, accelerating the Democratic Party’s long decline in South Carolina. Robert Ford is not as offensive in character or behavior as Mitchell. Nevertheless, he is an unappealing and unelectable candidate. His nomination would be a disaster for the party.
The irony is that the one black candidate who does appear in a position to win a major office this year is a Republican — Tim Scott. This seems to suggest that some white people — even Republicans — can look past pigmentation when a candidate has enough personal and political appeal. Of course, the problem with Scott is that beneath that pigmentation, he is just another GOPer, and the GOPers are the ones who have wrecked our economy and made our state a laughing stock.
It is far more encouraging to remember that in 2008, Barack Obama received 45 percent of the total vote in South Carolina, carrying a lot of white votes along with black votes. With that in mind, it is possible to dream of a day when people can elect smart and progressive candidates without regard to race. When enough people become politically colorblind, perhaps we can break the stranglehold that racial politics has held on this state for generations.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.