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Rock Hill NAACP: USC should keep Moody on board of trustees

Rock Hill's NAACP chapter wants Leah Moody reappointed to the University of South Carolina board of trustees, saying she has earned the opportunity to continue serving.

Chapter president Melvin Poole sent an e-mail Monday to 40 local pastors and community leaders, urging them to contact the York County legislative delegation to support Moody.

The request comes a week after the controversy burst into the spotlight when the Legislative Black Caucus threatened to contact prized recruits and encourage them to rethink playing for the Gamecocks.

Black leaders in the State House are concerned Moody will fail to get reappointed in favor of Rock Hill attorney and pharmacist Alton Hyatt Jr., who is white.

If Moody loses her seat, USC would be the only school in the Southeastern Conference and the only one of the state's three research universities without a black board member.

"She is serving on the board now, and he's not," Poole said in an interview. "She's well aware of the ins and outs of the Columbia scene. She knows her way around."

Poole added, "You would think if two governors selected her, she would have the qualifications that are required."

Moody served as deputy legal counsel to former Gov. Jim Hodges and was appointed to the board by Gov. Mark Sanford.

Rock Hill is at the center of the dispute. Moody and Hyatt each practice law in town and are seeking the board's 16th Circuit seat, which represents York and Union counties.

Hyatt is the choice of Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, a senior member of the York County delegation who was first elected in 1992. Legislators typically defer to the colleague whose district is affected or who has seniority.

Simrill has said the Upstate post on the USC board isn't a "black" seat.

"Diversity needs to come among those 16 seats" appointed by the Legislature, Simrill said Monday. "For the Black Caucus to assume the 16th Circuit is designated as the black seat, that's a racial quota that should not be there."

Simrill said he has commitments from every member of the York County delegation except Rep. John King, who holds the District 49 seat formerly occupied by Bessie Moody-Lawrence, Leah Moody's mother.

Hyatt brings diversity to the board as an attorney, pharmacist and businessman, said state Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill.

"It's a crying shame that it's happened the way it has, that they're bringing race up," Norman said. "Race shouldn't be a part of this. You've got 20 seats. If they wanted to put minorities on, they've had a chance."

He expressed confidence that Hyatt would get the needed votes.

"It's looking real good," Norman said. "That's why they brought race into it. If they had it won, they wouldn't have brought up race."

Race isn't the reason why Moody should keep the seat, King said.

"Leah is doing an excellent job," King said. "It's not based on race or her being a female. I'm voting for her because she's the most qualified."

Poole: Move got attention

Asked about the decision to contact recruits, Poole said he would not have chosen the strategy but understands the thinking of those who did.

"They're using the only leverage they have," he said. "You have to admit, because they took the measures, they are being listened to. In the past, they'd just be ignored."

In 1984, Samuel Foster II was elected the board's first African-American member. He was in line to become the board's first black chairman but resigned in July. In August he pleaded guilty to federal bank fraud charges, leaving the board with no black member.

Sanford appointed Moody to finish out Foster's term. She applied for a full term in elections that would be held next month by the Legislature's 170 members.

"Nobody had anticipated Moody having any opposition.... We were blindsided," said Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg.

Simrill contends Hyatt's candidacy should come as no surprise. He says Hyatt wanted to run for the seat after Foster resigned. However, Sanford appointed Moody before anyone from York County got a chance to weigh in.

"I told Alton, 'The seat will be open in the first quarter of the year for the full term. Run at that time,'" Simrill said. "He was planning on doing that anyway."

Simrill and Hyatt are longtime friends, though they once ran against each other in a special election for District 46. Both men attend Westminster Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill.

Candidates apply for the trustee jobs; they aren't nominated. While they are being screened for the positions, they can't enlist help from legislators. Lawmakers who know a candidate wants the job are barred from helping them until after a screening report is released.

The door opened for legislators to begin helping candidates two weeks ago. By last week, Simrill said he had nearly enough votes to elect Hyatt. The Legislature returns to session April 13, with the election set for the next day.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.