File photo | Credit: Sean Rayford file

South Carolina’s Republicans are pressing legislative advantages like never before with legislative victories long dreamed of by their right-wing and corporate bases.

Just this week, they passed a years-long effort to thwart almost all abortions. Gov. Henry McMaster signed the measure into law Thursday. It’s already been challenged in federal court.

Ahead are other GOP goals:

  • Allowing the open carry of handguns, a proposal opposed by many in law enforcement;
  • Limiting business liabilities, particularly for pandemic-related issues;
  • Restructuring some agencies; and
  • Selling a public utility to a privately-held conglomerate that’s fuelled political coffers.

Sure to come: Creating more partisan legislative districts, relaxing environmental rules, using more public money for private educational purposes and more.

It’s happening in large part because Republicans picked up three seats in the S.C. Senate, giving the party a 30-16 majority. When the GOP controlled 27 seats, it was easier for united Democrats to pick off one or two votes to shut down debate on issues that had been dreams for years.

The abortion debate is a telling example of what’s to come. In prior years, the House typically debated something on abortion after it finished the annual budget, only to run into a yearly roadblock in the Senate. This year, though, the newly-emboldened GOP Senate leadership made a ban on abortions six weeks after conception as its top objective, numbering the bill as “S. 1.” The 2021 twist: The House rubber-stamped a Senate effort on abortion.

With legislative movement on GOP initiatives, now comes two questions: What are the Democrats going to do to make a difference? When are they going to go on offense?

“That’s what I’ve been saying all along,” one activist said. A state representative agreed. As did a Democratic party leader: “You are correct and it has always been more difficult to get the free-thinking Democrats to all come together to get on offense,” said Trav Robertson, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party.

Robertson

“We are getting on offense as it relates to redistricting. We are getting on offense as it relates to voter registration. Please keep in mind that what occurred in Georgia started 10 years ago.”

In other words, it’s going to take awhile. It took Georgia 10 years and a lot of sweat and hard-core grassroots organizing to flip its two U.S. Senate seats from the GOP to Democrats and to turn the presidential election from red to blue.

A little pushback

Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, pushed back on the notion that Democrats have been playing only defense in recent years, despite the GOP controlling the House since 1994 and the Senate since 2000.

“I would point to lottery, First Steps, expansion of 5K and 4K (education), removal of the Confederate flag (twice), the roads bill, Charleston [International African American] Museum, free technical college, expansions of CHIPS (Children’s Health Insurance Program), and the siting of Boeing, Volvo and Amazon in Democratic districts,” he said, adding that Democrats were key in teacher pay increases, children-related health and safety issues including ATV safety, child safety seats and HPV vaccines.

Hutto

“We will continue to advance progressive ideas and policy.,” he said.

Hutto blasted Republicans for wasting time through the years on divisive issues, such as efforts to erect barriers to voting and abortion and to open access to guns.

“These are what I call sorta screw-ups versus positive things for South Carolina,” he said, also pointing to property tax reform with Act 388 that he said “backfired.”

“How many years have we spent most of our session on abortion and guns? Wasted time not addressing what moves South Carolina. Anybody remember all of the income tax brackets and voucher schemes they promoted and we thwarted?”

What’s ahead

Progressive advocates say the way to push their proposals is to get better offense through better grassroots organization, much like was done in neighboring Georgia to turn it from red to blue. But it’s not going to be easy.

“This work has always been difficult but the only choice we have is to work for inclusion, equity and all the people of our state,” said Sue Berkowitz, head of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “We will also utilize all tools available to ensure that checks and balances protect everyone in South Carolina.”

Longtime Columbia activist Brett Bursey of the S.C. Progressive Network said a key to progressive reform was to fight for fairly-drawn maps in the redistricting process, which starts later this year with the results of the U.S. Census.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to departisanize our democracy — a way of doing this that is doing something that is run by a grassroots campaign outside of the existing system that’s rigged,” he said.

Bursey pointed to a citizen campaign to end gerrymandering that has been called Fair Maps SC Coalition, but is expected to be rebranded this year. The effort would focus on creating competitive voting districts by transferring power to draw them from legislators in office to an independent panel of state citizens. Such an effort would take county-by-county organizing to get a referendum on the ballot to amend the state constitution, he said.

“We want to see competition. Gerrymandering is the opposite of competition,” he said, later adding that thanks to computer programs “it’s not hard to do fair maps; it’s hard to do gerrymandering.”

Frank Knaack, head of the ACLU of South Carolina, agreed grassroots organizing was integral for change. His group is starting small in Charleston to educate leaders “to recognize that true public safety comes from ensuring folks have a roof over their head, comprehensive health insurance, meaningful public transportation, and real access to mental health and substance abuse services. And, also to educate folks about the true legacy of our historical and current policies that destroyed and continue to destroy Black lives and communities, including how the racial wealth divide was created and is perpetuated.”

Later, he said, “We’re looking at this as a campaign to change culture so that we can start to move these issues regardless of who is in power.”

This story was published originally on Statehouse Report, City Paper‘s sister publication.