Can Democrats succeed in South Carolina ?

By Tom Turnipseed

“Party seeks to redefine itself” was the headline about the state of the South Carolina Democratic Party. The recent article by Gina Smith in The State was an introspective piece that featured opinions by some leading SC Democrats like former SC Democratic chair Dick Harpootlian. Harpootlian was chair in 1998 when Jim Hodges was the last Democrat elected governor. In 1998 Democrats held four of the nine statewide offices after holding all nine in 1986. Besides being more aggressive toward the GOP, Harpootlian asserted that to win again “you’ve got to raise money 24 hours a day”. He said the Party raised and spent $2 million dollars to get the vote out in 1998. The article failed to mention that much of the money spent to elect Hodges came from the video poker industry. Hodges’ subsequent failure to support video poker ended their financial support of him which contributed to his becoming a one term Governor.

In recent years Republicans have successfully appealed to a historic tradition of South Carolinians to rally around a message of racial division, religious fundamentalism, and aggressive militarism. Big money for politics has responded to this message and it’s tough to win against big money. The media and the campaign industry turn political races into money raising horse races. The media makes money running political ads and political consultants line their pockets as well. I ran for several state wide offices against the big money on reform issues, including the 1998 general election when I was the Democratic nominee for Attorney General. The races were close, but I wasn’t elected because I made an issue of how things could be if money did not control every aspect of our daily lives.

Most big moneyed interests do not prioritize or even favor our government providing a good education for all our children, promoting jobs and a living wage for poor and unemployed people, or conserving our natural resources. They want to make as much money as they can as fast as they can, with every tax break they can get. Democrats will not be saved by selling out to large corporate interests, who only want government to help them maximize profits. The Republican Party has been the tried and true champion of corporate America for a hundred years and the enemy of organized labor and better pay for working people. They have been very effective in utilizing divisive issues like race and class.

Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter, a powerful African-American Democrat in the SC House, told The State that working class whites wrongly view Democrats as the exclusive party of African Americans and liberals. She said this has been the legacy of the Republican Southern Strategy which was a planned effort to label Democrats as “tax-and-spend liberals, to say we had no family values, to define us as the party of color ,“ and to spread the word that “…the Democratic Party was not a party that understood or shared white people’s values.” Democrats should be advocates for racial justice. The political power of African Americans was evidenced by Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the SC Democratic Presidential Primary and the overwhelming vote in black precincts for Steve Benjamin, the African-American Mayor-elect of Columbia . African Americans can decide elections in SC and will turn out to vote when they are inspired to do so by good candidates. To the detriment of the Democratic Party , there are no black Democratic candidates running statewide this year.

Phil Noble, head of the SC New Democrats said that education should top the list of political priorities. Not a bad idea, but the SC New Democrats was founded by and has been affiliated with the conservative Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The DLC supported welfare reform and NAFTA and opposed single payer, universal health care. The DLC contended that the Democratic Party should move to the right on national defense and was a strong supporter of the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, calling critics of the invasion the “loony left”. Will Marshall, co-founder of the DLC, says Democrats should distance themselves “from the anti-American fringe”.

For Democrats to succeed they don’t need to raise all the money they can from whomever they can, or shy away from a strong stand on racial justice, or become more conservative on such crucial issues as economic justice and militarism. Democrats should define themselves by working for significant campaign spending limits and by reaching out to everyday people of all races and religions and seeking peace, justice and prosperity for everyone.

Tom Turnipseed is an attorney, writer and peace activist in Columbia, SC. You can read his blog here.

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