Forum to explore causes and cures of SC political corruption

May 17 • 6-9pm

Marriott, 1200 Hampton, downtown Columbia

Free and open to all.

Is political corruption endemic, or can it be treated? That’s the question at the center of a public forum on Wednesday that will offer three panel discussions with some of the state’s experts.

As yet another political scandal threatens a growing number of South Carolina lawmakers, it is clear that we have a problem. The bad news is that our system is broken. The good news is that we believe reform is possible if enough people demand it.

The SC Progressive Network has been working on reforms to reduce the causes of corruption for more than 20 years. We’ve concluded that unless we can make serious structural and cultural changes in the way we practice democracy in South Carolina, we will keep repeating the same patterns of abuse that will only further erode public trust.

It is no surprise that money and power are the interrelated causes of our lack of representative democracy and the resulting corruption.

Historically, our incumbent legislators, who win office with the existing rules and voters, have been disinclined to change a system that is working fine for them. They have resisted efforts to make it easier to vote, and ahve ignored legislation that would create a system of public financing for the General Assembly. A young Sen. Clementa Pinckney and Rep. Joe Neal were the bill’s prime sponsors, which has been introduced every session since 2000 but has yet to make it to the floor.

While voter participation continues to shrink, bills for universal voter registration have likewise languished without hearings. Last November, fewer than 14 percent of registered voters elected 77 percent (131) of the 170 members of the SC General Assembly. The winners in 94 of these districts faced no opposition at all, yet raised over $4 million. What did they do with all that money?

The purpose of the forum is to initiate an honest discussion about the state of our democracy in South Carolina. How did we get here? Whose interests are now being served? Can we reduce the influence of money in politics? Join us for a timely conversation. The event is free and open to all. RSVP/Share on Facebook.

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Welcome and statement of purpose: Marjorie Hammock and Kyle Criminger, SC Progressive Network Co-chairs

Panel I – Modern History of Political Corruption

Moderator: Jack Kuenzie, WIS-TV

Rick Bundrett, The Island Packet

John Monk, The State

John Crangle, SC Progressive Network

Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, Ret.

Panel II – Causes of Corruption

Moderator: Ken W. Gaines, USC School of Law

Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, Ret.

Cassie Cope, The State

Lynn Teague, League of Women Voters of SC

Ashley Landess, SC Policy Council

Brett Bursey, SC Progressive Network

Panel III – Reform is Possible!

Moderator: Brian McConchie, WACH-TV

Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, Ret.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, Ret.

Rep. James Smith, D-Richland

Octavia Williams-Blake, Florence City Council

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg

Missed our spring gathering? Here’s the next best thing

South Carolina grassroots activists from across the state met in Columbia on April 15 for the SC Progressive Network‘s 21st annual spring gathering at Francis Burns United Methodist Church in Columbia. The turnout was tremendous, reflecting the collective anxiety since the election and the newfound energy of those ready to mobilize in defense of this country’s core democratic values.

See more photos in our album on Flickr.

It was a productive and inspriring day, thanks to our invited speakers and energetic participants. We left feeling proud of our organization and excited about the new leadership emerging to take us to the next level.

If you weren’t able to join us, here are some highlights.

Sunday Social series invites public to deeper dive into South Carolina history

As part of its commitment to broadening the study of history in South Carolina, the Modjeska Simkins School invites the public to its Sunday Socials, a series of presentations by some of our state’s finest teachers and writers. The free events are held 4-6pm at the Seibels House, 1601 Richland St., downtown Columbia.

The Modjeska School is a project of the SC Progressive Network.Call 803-808-3384 for details.

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April 23: 4-6pm – Revisiting SC’s Civil Rights Movement. USC professor and noted historian Bobby Donaldson will present film and photos tracing the 20th Century’s movement for civil rights in South Carolina.

Bobby Donaldson

April 30: 4-6pm – Labor and SC’s Vanished Union History. Screening of the documentary The Uprising of 34, followed by discussion led by Dr. Hoyt Wheeler. He will talk about the bloody history and lingering legacy of SC’s anti union laws. Katheryn Silva will talk about  race and labor in the 1900s.

Hoyt Wheeler

May 7 – 4-6pm – Screening of Orangeburg Massacre documentary. As a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, Jack Bass was in Orangeburg that terrible night in 1968, and wrote the definitive book on the killings. After the film, Jack will offer comments and take questions.

Jack Bass

Family and colleagues of Rep. Joe Neal endorse House District 70 candidate Wendy Brawley

“The SC Progressive Legislative Caucus has picked Wendy Brawley as the best candidate to shoulder the heavy burden left by the death of our dearest friend and colleague Joseph Neal,” Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter announced at a State House press conference Thursday.

Representatives Cobb-Hunter and Neal worked closely for the 23 years they served together in the State House before Neal’s untimely death last month. The two founded the nonpartisan Progressive Legislative Caucus in 2015 to focus on promoting state policies that improve the lives of working people and their families – not just in rural, black and poor District 70 – but across the state. “Joe was a true and rare servant of the public,” Cobb-Hunter said, “and the Progressive Legislative Caucus is pleased to lend our support to Wendy Brawley, a true fighter and seasoned leader to take up Joe’s work.”

Neal’s older brother and a longtime Columbia physician Dr. Green B. Neal said, “Of all the candidates, Ms. Brawley is the one I saw over the years working with Joe and our community, and doing good without any expectation of reward.”

SC Progressive Network Executive Director Brett Bursey said, “Joe was the heart of our organization. He helped establish the Network, and was our strongest champion inside and outside of the legislature. He cannot be replaced, but we expect Ms. Brawley to keep true to his mission.”

Brawley said she was humbled and honored by the support. “Joe Neal dedicated his life to helping those who were often overlooked and lived in the shadows. He will be sorely missed, but he leaves with us an incredible legacy of servant leadership. I look forward to the opportunity to continue Rep. Joe Neal’s work of caring, compassionate and effective leadership,” she said.

Wendy Brawley

Modjeska School homework is a chance for all of us to get educated

The Modjeska Simkins School invites you to join the spring session by reading and watching from home. Class assignments and video clips are posted at our web site.

Bookmark the site, as material is being added every week. This is a tremendous resource. Please share with those interested in South Carolina history and its perplexing politics.

Here’s a clip of SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey welcoming the incoming class. The man he’s pointing to was stolen from his home in Congo and enslaved by the Taylor family – in whose home the Modjeska School is meeting.

John Crangle: This week in the State House

The SC Progressive Network has instituted a weekly briefing with our new government relations director, John Crangle. (Read about our good fortune in The State.)

The conference calls are open to members interested in keeping up with bills we are tracking in the State House. The calls are every Friday at 5:30pm, and last about a half-hour. To participate, send email to network@scpronet.com, and you will be sent the call-in number and code.

Friday’s call included discussion of these four items, summarized here by Network staff.

1. Legislators Water Down Money Laundering Law
Calling it “one of the more ludicrous events in the past week,” Crangle unpacked a story that involves House Judiciary subcommittee members realizing at the last minute that they were about to pass regulations to a statute that would criminalize legislators taking kickbacks – like those currently being investigated in association with Richard Quinn and Associates (RQA).

The money laundering law originally passed in 2016 with the intended purpose of criminalizing “illegally sourced money,” which the legislators took took to mean money from prostitution and drugs. When the legislature creates a law, the state agency charged with implementing it comes up with regulations to enforce it. In this case, it was Attorney General Alan Wilson’s job to submit the regs to the legislature for approval, but the AG’s office never got around to writing them. Crangle suggested the AG may have been distracted by the fact that he, his father, the former AG and current governor Henry McMaster all have given tons of money to RQA. Furthermore, Wilson appointed the special prosecutor that is digging into kickbacks from RQA to legislators and state agencies.

Rep. Alan Clemmons (R-Myrtle Beach), concerned about prostitutes and drugs on the Grand Strand, proposed an amendment to speed implementation of the money laundering law – before the regulations were written to implement the law. Clemmons’ amendment was on the agenda at the subcommittee meeting when a reporter asked Crangle to comment on the amendment. After Crangle told her that the money laundering bill could apply to legislators taking kickbacks from their consultants, she began asking the subcommittee members if the law could be applied in the current campaign finance scandal. Crangle said legislators were running around like the Keystone Kops when they realized they were about to pass a law to criminalize the redirection of campaign donations into the pockets of their Republican colleagues. Clemmons pulled his amendment, apparently to ensure the new law prevents legislators from being defined as prostitutes.

See story in The State.

2. Independent Redistricting Commission (H-3339: Funderburk, Cobb-Hunter)
This would establish an independent body of seven non-legislators to draw new political districts. The current 170 legislative districts and seven congressional districts have been drawn by the majority party of the legislature, and have resulted in the nation’s least competitive elections. The current districts established a majority-white, Republican rule that insures that Republicans will draw the new districts in 2020. It’s a good guess that the Republicans will not draw competitive districts that would require them to address the concerns of all the people in their districts. Our politically gerrymandered districts result in 78 percent of South Carolinians having only one candidate to chose from in general elections. The current situation allows the majority party to chose who votes for them, rather than giving the citizens a choice.

The chances of the bill passing are slim to none. But the Network is using the bill to help people understand the true gravity of our broken democracy. The Network’s spring conference on April 15 will focus on this problem. (As they become available, details will be posted on our web calendar and Facebook event page.)

3. Special Election Restitution Act (S-533)
New state senator, Progressive Legislative Caucus ally, and longtime Network member Mike Fanning introduced this bill less than a month after taking office. It requires elected officials who are removed from office due to a criminal conviction to pay the cost of the special election to replace them. The bill has gotten national attention, as it appears that no state has such a provision. Crangle got the idea for the bill after state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel was busted for cocaine and a special session of the legislature was called to replace him. Crangle convinced federal Judge Joe Anderson to add $28,000 to Ravenel’s sentence to cover the session’s costs. Crangle has lined up Judge Anderson to testify in favor of the bill. The only opposition to this reasonable bill will be legislators fearing indictment or planning a criminal enterprise.

4. Dark Money Bill
This was introduced by Sen. Hugh Leatherman this year after he was targeted by the deep-pocketed political action committees of the Koch Brothers. The Kochs dumped money into primary campaigns of Tea Party candidates to oppose Republicans who supported increasing SC’s gas tax. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that corporations have free speech rights and SC doesn’t require disclosure of donations to independent advocacy organizations, liberals are being swamped by right-wing money. In a turn of the screw, Koch front groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth have been targeting Republicans who dare to suggest a tax increase of any kind. Leatherman, arguably the most powerful politician in SC, was in a tight race against a dark-money fueled opponent. Sens. Wes Hayes and Larry Martin both lost their seats to dark-money candidates because they dared to support a gas tax.

It was bizarre theater at the hearing. The cast of characters included Koch-supported veteran organizations, Tea Party representatives, and anti-choice activists who testified that their supporters would be afraid to donate to their organizations if their names were disclosed.

Rep. Jeff Duncan stops payment on memorial to Rep. Joe Neal

When Rev. Joe Neal died unexpectedly on Feb. 14, his family asked that any donations in his memory be made to the SC Progressive Network, which he co-founded and led for 21 years.

Congressman Jeff Duncan‘s office sent a $25 check, as the two had served together in the SC House. But when Duncan became aware that the donation was going to the Progressive Network, he stopped payment. Adding insult to injury, the Network was charged $20 in bank fees.

Network Director Brett Bursey called Duncan’s office to clarify whether the congressman was indeed that petty. For the record, he is.

When Joe’s sister, Wilma Neal Garren, was told about the incident, she said, “Anybody who touched Joe’s life knew that, as a founder of the South Carolina Progressive Network, that the organization was near and dear to his heart. To step forward to honor Joe and then take the donation to Joe’s favorite charity back is the height of hypocrisy, and shows that he didn’t know Joe.”

The check came from Duncan’s 2016 campaign account, which spent $715,207 to beat Democratic opponent Hosea Cleveland, who spent $9,166. Duncan’s campaign ended with a balance of $65,285. Duncan is a member of the Freedom Caucus, a collection of the most conservative lawmakers in DC, and was most recently in the news defending his bill to make it easier to buy gun silencers.

Government watchdog John Crangle joins Network’s legislative team

The SC Progressive Network‘s strategic plan to educate, agitate, and legislate is off to a great start in 2017. The timing couldn’t be better to welcome John Crangle to our team.

Crangle just retired as Director of Common Cause-SC after 30 years, and has signed on to be the Network’s Director of Governmental Relations. He was instrumental in writing the state’s ethic law that was passed after the FBO’s “Lost Trust” 1990 sting busted 17 state legislators for taking bribes. He recently published Operation Lost Trust and the Ethics Reform Movement, a 607-page book about the case and the long road we are still traveling for ethical government in the Palmetto State.

Crangle and the Network’s Executive Director will be meeting with the Progressive Legislative Caucus, headed by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, every Tuesday during this session. Crangle will host weekly legislative updates for Network members every Friday, beginning March 10. To be included, please email network@scpronet.com or call 803-808-3384. The time and nature of the briefings (face-to-face or conference call) will be determined by those interested in participating.

Modjeska School graduate talks about lessons learned

Rep. Joe Neal congratulations Kyle Criminger at the 2015 graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights.

As the Modjeska School prepares for its Spring 2017 session, we thought it timely to share Kyle’s thoughts about the school and lessons learned there. The School is accepting applications through March 13. Classes run March 20-June 12 at the Seibels House in Columbia. Some scholarships available; call 803-808-3384 for details.

•  •  •

We got perspective at the Modjeska Simkins School: a big-picture analysis—a Modjeska Simkins analysis—of South Carolina’s history.

We learned that there is a direct line of malice from John C. Calhoun, who defended slavery as “a positive good,” to Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman’s white supremacist state Constitution of 1895 (under which our state continues to operate to this day), to the coded racism of Harry Dent and Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy. Always the substance of South Carolina public policies has shown that black lives don’t matter here.

The imbalance of power in South Carolina is no accident. Because of unprecedented partisan gerrymandering, we have the least competitive legislative elections in the United States. Three out of four representatives faced no major party competition in the 2014 general election.

“Most of our legislators in South Carolina are winning with 99% of the vote,” said Brett Bursey, Executive Director of the SC Progressive Network. “The old Soviet elections we used to make fun of? Well, we now have that here.”

South Carolinians have the lowest combined state and federal tax burden in the country, yet our legislature tells that us we’re broke when we’re not. In fact, we leave more money on the table in special interest tax exemptions than we take in. We get immoral budgets and refused Medicaid Expansion for 250,000 of us because of petty partisan politics.

It’s maddening, but our problems aren’t new. “The names and faces have changed,” notes Progressive Network Communications Director Becci Robbins in Modjeska Monteith Simkins—A South Carolina Revolutionary, “but the political and social dynamics of exclusion, extremism and institutional racism remain stubbornly intact in South Carolina. We share Modjeska Simkins’ frustration and sense of urgency.”

Time and again, South Carolina history shows us how Modjeska Simkins and so many others have resisted. We are not alone, you see. Have you heard of the Yemassee War, or the Stono Rebellion? Denmark Vesey, or the Grimké sisters? What about Robert Smalls and our state’s Reconstruction legislature, which was the only majority black House of Representatives in the nation? The Lighthouse and Informer newspaper, Judge J. Waties Waring, or the Rev. J.A. Delaine?

Maybe you don’t know these names, events and institutions because the “winners” have written our textbooks. Generations of South Carolinians used Mary Simms Oliphant’s infamous history text into the 1980s. The book spoke of “happy slaves,” and was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan. (In the 1920s, as a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, Modjeska Simkins refused to use the Oliphant textbook, deeming it racist.)

So we have on the one hand a state that has lived and died by the Golden Rule. Everybody knows the Golden Rule: regrettably, he who has the gold makes the rules. But beside that Rule, we also have stories of rebellion and revolutionary spirits, a South Carolina “people’s history” of organizing. And the task Modjeska Simkins and so many other South Carolinians like her have laid out before us: we must organize to form a community of shared values.

That is 24-7 work. It’s a process.

Organizing means preparing for opportunities. It entails building an organization that returns phone calls, pays staff, and fosters relationships in the community based on trust and confidence. And it is strategic, a disciplined use of collective energies on effective projects, not by simply being reactive. The best organizers leverage already-existing, well-thought-out organizing tools, and tap into the collective wisdom and experience of those who have come before, just like Modjeska Simkins did.

We must connect the dots to see that there is only one struggle, and it is for human rights. “If you have enough sense in your noggin,” Simkins once said, “you’re going to know a fight is there—and not just for black people, but for all mankind.”

The need for exploring our history has never been more critical. The Modjeska School provides an education like none other in South Carolina, one that benefits not just the students but the larger community, as well. As a graduate, I can attest to its value.

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Kyle Criminger, a Spanish-language interpreter, serves as Co-chair of the SC Progressive Network. He was one of 35 inaugural graduates of the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights. You can support the school by making a secure donation here, or by calling 803-808-3384 or sending an email to network@scpronet.com.