A record seven black candidates are running for statewide office in 2014. Some could be eliminated in June’s primary elections, but it appears at least three African Americans will be on the ballot for November’s general election. S.C. is assured to elect its first black statewide official since Reconstruction in one U.S. Senate race, where all three announced candidates are African American.
The late state Sen. Marshall Williams pulled aside two freshmen senators in 1993 to offer them some encouragement.
“One day, you can be governor,” he told Luke Rankin, a white lawmaker from Myrtle Beach.
Then, Williams turned to Darrell Jackson, a black Democrat from Richland County, and said: “One day, you can take Jim Clyburn’s place,” referring to South Carolina’s lone African-American congressman, elected in the state’s single congressional district where black voters are a majority.
“People had glass ceilings,” Jackson said, recounting the story. “They said, ‘If you are African-American, you can only go this high, as far as your political career. And that’s it.
“I just hope that that (ceiling) gets shattered.”
This November, it could.
A record seven African-American candidates are running for statewide office in 2014. Some could be eliminated in June’s primary elections, but it appears at least three black candidates will make it to November’s general election. (That would be one more than in 2002, when two black candidates – both Democrats – ran statewide and lost). South Carolina also is assured to elect its first African-American candidate in a statewide race since Reconstruction in one U.S. Senate race, where all three of the announced candidates are black.
The last time South Carolinians elected an African-American to statewide office was 1872, when Richard Howell Gleaves was elected the state’s second – and last – black lieutenant governor. The black community’s political influence was squashed in 1895 when then-Gov. Ben Tillman rewrote the state’s Constitution – still in place today – to virtually eliminate all black influence in state politics.
Now, 142 years later, that influence appears the be returning – albeit it in small steps.
From 1984 to 2006, the percentage of white voters casting ballots in S.C. elections increased while the percentage of black voters decreased. But in 2008 – the year Barack Obama became the country’s first African-American president – that trend reversed. From 2008 to 2012, the number of white voters decreased while the number of nonwhite voters increased.
All told, from 1984 to 2012, the number of white voters declined by 5 percentage points while the number of nonwhite voters increased by 5 percentage points.
“That’s a lot. Ask Nikki Haley how valuable 5 percent is,” state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, who is trying late this year to become the state’s third black lieutenant governor, said in reference to Gov. Nikki Haley’s 4.5 percentage-point margin of victory in 2010.
So far, black candidates for statewide office include:
• Tim Scott, a Republican, running to remain in the U.S. Senate. Haley appointed Scott to the Senate in 2012 when Jim DeMint stepped down.
• Rick Wade, a Democrat, running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Scott. Wade is a former candidate for S.C. secretary of state and worked on both of President Obama’s presidential campaigns.
• Joyce Dickerson, a Democrat, running for the Senate seat held by Scott. Dickerson is a Richland County councilwoman, representing the Saint Andrews and Blythewood portions of the county.
• Sellers, a Democrat, running for lieutenant governor. So far, Sellers is the only Democrat running for the seat.
• Meka Childs, a Republican, running for superintendent of education. She is a former deputy state schools superintendent.
• Montrio Belton, a Democrat, running for superintendent of education. He is a former state Department of Education employee.
• Gary Burgess, a Republican, running for superintendent of education. He is a member of the Anderson County board of education.
But not everyone sees progress.
Scott, a congressman when fellow Republican Haley appointed him to succeed DeMint in 2012, has the advantage of incumbency and a well-funded campaign account in his race, and many political observers expect the Republican to win in GOP-dominated South Carolina in November.
But if Scott does become the state’s first African-American politician elected statewide since Reconstruction, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, says that win will come with an asterisk.
“The color of his skin certainly is not representative of the way that he votes on the policies that he seems to side with,” Rutherford said. “But he is African-American. You can’t take that away from him. But I don’t think you will find more than about five African-Americans that say, ‘Yes,’ he represents their interests.”
Specifically, Rutherford said Scott is “constantly fighting the president,” a black president who, Rutherford said, “97 percent of African-Americans here voted to support” in 2008 and 2012.
Scott dismissed Rutherford’s comments as typical election-year talking points.
“The theory that there is some monolithic group of thinkers, called the black community, is just not consistent with reality,” Scott said. “I hope that what you will see, with having candidates on both sides of the aisle that are from the black community, is that folks need to make a decision on not which party they are connected or committed to, but what issues are they committed to.”
Jamie Harrison, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, agrees with Republican Scott, adding he hopes “this (Senate) race can be a model for the nation, in terms of how we can start to address the issues that matter and how they impact people and get away from the red herring as it relates to the problems with race.”
“I am not naive to think that race doesn’t matter,” said Harrison, who is black. “I do see that we are making progress as a society, and I think that, in and of itself, is something that we should be proud of.”
Clyburn: Barriers remain
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn – who in 1992 became South Carolina’s first African-American congressman since Reconstruction – said he was not surprised by the influx of black candidates in the state, calling it “a sign of the times and people are becoming more politically astute.”
But he said barriers remain in South Carolina to prevent black candidates from winning statewide office. One of them, he said, is the state law that requires a candidate to win 50 percent plus one of the votes cast in a primary election. Often, that requirement forces black candidates into runoff elections that are harder to win, he said.
That is why, Clyburn says, he lost his bid to become S.C. secretary of state in 1978. Clyburn was the top vote getter in the Democratic primary, getting nearly 43 percent of the vote. But he lost in the runoff election to a white Democrat.
“That 50-percent-plus-one rule was put in in order to negate or minimize opportunity for African-Americans to win the primary,” he said. “It’s a very slick way to dilute the impact of the black vote.”
Clyburn said he wants S.C. law changed so a candidate only needs to get 40 percent of the vote when there are three or more candidates in a primary to win the nomination.
Most of the black candidates running for statewide office this year downplay the historic nature of their candidacies, saying they were focused on the issues involved in their campaigns.
But most also said history never is far from their mind.
“My hope is that I’ll be able to interrupt people who say what can’t be done by doing it,” said Meka Childs, a Republican running for state superintendent of education.