Will it be Close?
BY TOM TURNIPSEED
In the race for Strom Thurmond's Senate seat, it's not going to be Close unless challenger Elliott Close musters the political courage to raise as a campaign issue the senior senator's voting record, which has consistently worked against the vital interests of most South Carolinians.
South Carolina's poverty level is one of the highest in the country, even rising over the past two years while the national poverty level declined. Thurmond's votes against middle-class and poor working families while supporting tax breaks for the rich have directly contributed to a diminished quality of life in South Carolina.
The senator has voted against education by opposing Head Start and student loans; against the elderly by seeking to reduce Medicare and Medicaid; against working families by opposing the family medical leave act; and against the working poor by opposing a raise in the minimum wage.
To win, Close must energize an electorate that has suffered from Thurmond's votes.
If Close really wants to "Give 'em Ell," he must pressure Thurmond to explain to African-Americans why he fought against their right to vote, their right to equal employment opportunities, affirmative action and against every civil rights bill during his Senate tenure.
Thurmond has the incumbent advantage. Close, on the other hand, is an unknown businessman. An heir to the Springs textile fortune, Close surprised the political establishment by entering the race after muscling out Rep. Jim Hodges, a Springs attorney who had been planning to run against Thurmond.
Close won over reluctant family members who preferred that family members stick to running the family business and the many progressive and liberal causes it has long supported. One family member describes Close as being a bit stubborn, a common trait in powerful Southern families.
Close has done a great job of retail campaigning, traveling tirelessly to every little town and crossroads in the state, but Thurmond has been a master at that game for more than 50 years.
Close also has done fairly well in seeking out and meeting with the Democratic and progressive leadership in South Carolina. He has taken a courageous stand against flying the Confederate Flag over the State House.
But Close's first big ad, which describes him as an "independent conservative," leaves progressives wondering about his commitment to their interests. The ad focuses on Thurmond's age as the main issue, and praises Thurmond's constituent service with Close vowing, like a young Strom, to provide good constituent service, too.
Thurmond's constituent service is legendary. I, for one, have personally benefited from help with government agencies by his competent staff, but I have concerns about excesses and costs. For instance, my wife and I received a copy of the New Testament, inscribed by Strom, commemorating the birth of our daughter 24 years ago. We also received a personal sympathy call from the senator on the occasion of my mother's funeral. Bibles and phone calls cost money; guess who foots the bill?
President Bill Clinton is consistently doing better than Close in South Carolina polls. Close, perhaps miffed that the Clinton campaign isn't running ads and devoting more of its resources to South Carolina, told reporters that he doesn't know whether he could manage to schedule an appearance with the president if he came to South Carolina. This represents yet another missed opportunity.
All summer I've pressed Close to challenge Thurmond to explain his votes against the things South Carolinians think are important: better education and health care, improved working conditions, higher wages, continued support for the elderly and a clean and safe environment.
The Thurmond campaign has declined repeated offers to debate Close, claiming that everyone knows the senator's record. But many of his critical votes have been cast since last time Thurmond ran, in 1990. What's more, voting rolls have increased by 28 percent since then.
South Carolina desperately needs political leadership that stands strong on issues important to South Carolina. Thurmond has failed to provide that leadership, but unless Close finds the courage to challenge the senator on his failed record in these final, critical days of the campaign, it won't be Close.
Tom Turnipseed is a lawyer who works in Columbia.
Elliott Close's ad, which describes him as an "independent conservative," leaves progressives wondering about his commitment to their interests.