Race likely to play major role at local political forum

With attention toward national politics surging as the primaries draw closer, York County's two parties will face off this week on a host of hot-button issues.

A public forum Tuesday night at the Freedom Center will put the spotlight on the two party chairmen, Republican Glenn McCall and Democrat Jim Watkins, as well as activists from each of their organizations.

The impact of race figures to be one of the evening's recurring themes. That's in part because the setting is the campus of Freedom Temple Ministries, a predominantly black church in downtown Rock Hill.

But it's also because of McCall, who has said he wants to expand his party's efforts to reach out to black voters. McCall is among the first black GOP chairmen in South Carolina history.

Speaking on minority issues

McCall said he plans to contend the Republican Party has "always been at the forefront of improving the lives of African-Americans."

He also will argue that black community leaders should "view party switching as a pragmatic way to gain access to political power in order to advance their constituents' interests."

Watkins says he feels comfortable defending his party's record to minorities.

"If you look at the history of African-American influence in public policy in our country, it's within the Democratic Party," he said. "All parties have not had proud moments, but I will put the history of people like Jim Clyburn, John Spratt and John Kennedy up against anybody the other side has to offer."

Each party will bring other panelists to join in the debate. The Republican side will feature former U.S. House candidate Park Gillespie and newcomer Marvin Rogers, an African-American who plans to run next year for the state House seat held by Bessie Moody-Lawrence.

Watkins said he will bring executive committee members Ernest Gibbs and Dee Camp, both of Rock Hill.

A focus on fixing schools

The speakers are likely to voice strong disagreements over the best way to fix South Carolina's public schools.

In a recent guest column in York County Magazine, McCall described what he called the "educational genocide" facing young blacks in many public schools, particularly in the so-called "Corridor of Shame" along Interstate 95.

McCall favors a school voucher program that would allow children to attend private schools, thereby creating competition that he believes would improve the public system.

Watkins opposes voucher programs, arguing they divert money away from where it's needed most.

"The school system is the bedrock of our Republic, that's the bottom line," he said. "Particularly here in Rock Hill, with our excellent public school system, we know that."

The public is invited to ask questions at the 7 p.m. event.

"We are looking forward to a very robust discussion," said Willie Lyles III, director of the Freedom Center.