Public invited to join SC progressives for a weekend of politics, strategy and fellowship

Penn Center

The timing couldn’t be better for the SC Progressive Network’s annual fall retreat at historic Penn Center Oct. 19-20, as political gridlock in DC and the mess over South Carolina’s refusal to participate in “Obamacare” has underscored how dysfunctional our political system had become. People are angry and looking for action.

“Our registration is already double what it usually is, and we are looking forward to a spirited and productive weekend,” said Network Director Brett Bursey. “Since the Network was founded, we have been organizing to build a progressive movement in South Carolina that can effectively represent the interests of working families. The dire predictions we have been forecasting have become real. This is no longer just an ideological discussion.”

South Carolina has been at the mercy of anti-government politicians who don’t believe in taxes and who claim that our state is too broke to meet the responsibilities of a civilized society. The truth is, that while South Carolina has the nation’s lowest combined state and federal taxes, and gives away more in special-interest tax breaks than it collects, our leaders claim we are too broke to fund our schools and government at mandated levels. Their refusal to participate in the Affordable Care Act means over 300,000 of our citizens will not get health care.

“We’re not broke; our leadership is morally bankrupt,” Bursey said. “We will take our fight to a new level in 2014, and we’ll be making plans to do that at Penn.”

Months before the threat of government shutdown, Network Cochair Donna Dewitt met US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and invited him to Penn Center. He accepted, hoping to find answers to a question he’d been pondering: why working people in states like ours keep voting against their own interests.

In the past weeks, Sen. Sanders, has emerged as a leading voice of reason in the ideological war raging in Washington. On Saturday at Penn, the public is invited to hear him discuss the shutdown and other matters facing a country in crisis. Registration begins at 9am; the senator will speak at 10, followed by Q&A. This portion of the program is free, but all are welcome to stay for the rest of the day’s program and for the evening’s fish fry.Among the most progressive members of Congress, Sen. Sanders recently introduced the “Democracy is for People” bill for a constitutional amendment to establish that corporations are not people and money is not speech. He’s promoted progressive interests on the Hill since 1991, including Social Security, universal health care and workers’ rights.

Participants who don’t need accommodations or meals can register for $10. The Saturday night fish fry and entertainment is $15.The weekend package is $125, and includes conference materials, all meals, and accommodations in one of Penn’s refurbished dorms. It also covers Saturday night’s fish fry with all the trimmings and entertainment by singer/organizer Jane Sapp and satirist Dave Lippman.

Sapp recorded Carry It On, an album of movement songs, with Pete Seeger. She was a civil rights movement leader, former director of Highlander Center and established the first museum at Penn Center in 1971. She now heads the cultural committee of the Southern Partners Fund. She will be joined on stage Saturday by songster Lippman, who “afflicts the complacent, takes the air out of windbags, and updates worn-out songs with parody.”

The public is invited to come for the whole weekend, a day, or just part of the program. Call 803-808-3384 for details, or see www.scpronet.com.

Progressive Network helps South Carolinians navigate new healthcare insurance marketplace

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The SC Progressive Network is among the nonprofit organizations in South Carolina to receive a grant from the US Dept. of Health and Human Services to train and manage insurance marketplace navigators.

The Network’s navigators  are helping people understand their health insurance options, and purchase an individual, family, or small business plan as required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Network is providing this service because the SC legislature refused to set up a state-run exchange.

People who make between $11,500 and $46,000 are eligible for reduced price policies. But 280,000 South Carolinians who make less than $11,500 will have to pay full price for insurance. The ACA was designed to expand Medicaid to provide free health care to those in poverty.

South Carolina’s Republican leadership refused to take the $1.4 billion federal grant to expand Medicaid and provide healthcare for the poor. Gov. Nikki Haley led opposition to “Obamacare,” claiming that South Carolina couldn’t afford the 10% matching funds ($140 million) it would have to pay beginning in 2020.

We’d remind folks that eliminating just one of the state’s 80 sales tax exemptions could cover the cost of expanding Medicaid. Raising the $300 sales tax cap on luxury cars, yachts and private planes to the regional average would raise $160 million next year. That’s just one of the exemptions that leaves more than $2.4 billion in revenue out of our budget.

For information or help in applying for insurance through the federal health exchange, call the Network Navigators at 803-445-1921 or email navigator@scpronet.com.

 

 

Remembering Modjeska

SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey wrote this tribute to his mentor, Modjeska Monteith Simkins, upon the occasion of her death. It ran in the May 1992 issue of POINT, four years before the newspaper was archived online. Here is a scan of the piece. Click on the image to enlarge.

The article is among the research materials being assembled for the Network’s latest project, establishing the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights, set to launch Dec. 5, on what would have been Modjeska’s 114th birthday. Follow the progress of the project on Facebook. For more information, contact the Network at 803-808-3384 or network@scpronet.com.

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SC Progressive Network launches Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights

To preserve the fighting spirit of Modjeska Monteith Simkins, the SC Progressive Network is establishing a school to teach a new generation of activists the skills to be effective leaders in their communities and in their government.

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Modjeska was the larger-than-life matriarch of South Carolina’s progressive movement. She spent her long life (1899-1992) acting on her belief that civil rights were just part of a larger human rights struggle. She was ahead of her time, often the only black woman at the table, and was never shy about speaking her mind.

The Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights will be based in the home she lived in for 60 years, where she entertained friends such as Thurgood Marshall and others not welcome in the white-only motels of the day. The home, at 2025 Marion St. in downtown Columbia, now serves as the Network’s office and meeting space.

A generous grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission is being used as seed money. An advisory committee has been meeting to outline a curriculum, to oversee the research and production of course materials, and to map out a funding plan to sustain the project.

The school will launch on Dec. 5, on what would have been Ms. Simkins’ 114th birthday. Mark your calendars and plan to join us for a big party. The Network has celebrated Modjeska’s birthday for many years, but this one promises to be truly special. See photos from last year’s gathering, and the year before.

To follow the school’s progress, join us on Facebook. Donations for the project are always welcome, as are your ideas. Contact the Network at 803-808-3384 or network@scpronet.com.

Register NOW for Network’s most fabulous gathering of the year! Satisfaction guaranteed

Maybe the only thing better than seeing historic Penn Center as a tourist is to experience it as a grassroots activist, in the true spirit of the place. You can do that at the Network’s fall retreat Oct. 19-20.

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Started as a school for freed enslaved people in 1862, Penn later became a conference center and meeting place for movement organizers. At our retreat, we’ll gather in the same hall where Joan Baez once sang to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was also in that hall that the Network was founded in 1996. Over the years, the Network has returned many times to map strategy and talk politics.

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“It’s been four years since we’ve been to Penn Center, and I’m looking forward to going back,” said Network Co-chair Donna Dewitt. “It is a special place with such a rich history, and the setting always inspires us.”

The weekend is a unique chance for the Network’s members, friends and allies get away to the beautiful Lowcountry for a chance to recharge, reconnect, and refocus.

Knowing that sometimes the most valuable part of the retreat is time spent talking to each other one-on-one, there will be down time for that.

“The weekend will be a mix of workshops, strategy sessions, and taking care of in-house business,” said Network Director Brett Bursey.

“We’ll also be working on current Network projects, with a special focus on the mass action we’re planning for the legislature when it reconvenes in January. We’re putting a lot of thought and effort into the event, and we need all hands on deck to make it as powerful and broad-based as we believe it can be.”

Vermont Senate

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I – VT) will fire up the crowd on Saturday morning. Among the most progressive members of Congress,  he recently introduced the “Democracy is for People”  bill for a constitutional amendment to establish that corporations are not people and money is not speech. He’s promoted progressive interests on the Hill since 1991, including Social Security, universal health care and workers’ rights.

Network member groups will be invited to share their victories and challenges in the past year, and to solicit support for projects and campaigns they’re working on now.

The weekend package is $125, and includes conference materials, all meals, and accommodations in one of Penn’s refurbished dorms. It also covers Saturday night’s fish fry with all the trimmings and entertainment by nationally known singer/organizer Jane Sapp and satirist Dave Lippman.

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Sapp recorded Carry It On, an album of movement songs, with Pete Seeger and Si Kahn. She was a civil rights movement leader, former director of Highlander Center and established the first museum at Penn Center in 1971. She now heads the cultural committee of the Southern Partners Fund, which helped fund our retreat.

She will be joined on stage Saturday by songster Lippman, who afflicts the complacent, takes the air out of windbags, and updates worn-out songs with parody. Song samples: All We Are Saying is End Corporate Crime, and I Hate Wal-Mart.

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Come for the whole weekend, a day, or just part of the program. Overnight space is limited, so make your reservations now. If you need a ride or can share one, call 803-808-3384.

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PROGRAM

Saturday, Oct. 19

9 am – Registration, Frissell Hall
10 – Welcome and introductions. Who’s at the table?
10:15 – US Sen. Bernie Sanders, followed by Q and A
11:15 – The SC Progressive Network: Who we are, why we are, how we win
11:45 – Current policy priorities: voting rights, ethics reform, Medicaid expansion, moral budget
12:30 – Catered lunch and free time for networking, policy caucuses, or sight-seeing
2pm – Network member organizations report on what they accomplished last year and what’s ahead
2:30 – Mass action planning, plenary session
4:30 – Breakout caucuses, to be decided by retreat-goers. Possible topics: public transit, labor organizing, gay rights, homeless policies, reproductive rights, animal  welfare, immigration reform, environmental protection
6:30 – Fish fry; music by Jane Sapp and Dave Lippman

Sunday, Oct. 20

8 am – Breakfast in cafeteria
9  – Sunday service. The proletarian vanguard, spiritual seekers, peace warriors, the curious are all welcome
9:30 – Cultural workshop with Jane Sapp
10:30 – Network business: elections, treasurer’s report, new Network chapters’ form and function
Noon – Lunch in cafeteria
1pm – Homework assignments, action plan recap and caucus reports

Adjourn c-3 portion of program

2pm – Progressive Voter Coalition update, projections and election strategies
3 – Adjourn

And the real work begins…

REGISTRATION

FULL WEEKEND package: $125

Day registration, no meals: $10
Saturday w/lunch & dinner: $35
Fish fry and entertainment: $15
Sunday registration and lunch: $20
If you want to come early, add $50 for Friday night room and Sat. breakfast.

Mail check to SCPN, POB 8325, Columbia, SC 29202. Or call 803-808-3384 to pay by credit card. To join the Network or update your membership, include $25 ($10 for students and seniors) in your fee.

Network and SC Equality to show film Aug. 27 about unsung hero of 1963 March on Washington

Public invited to Aug. 27 screening of film about Bayard Rustin, the gay organizer and unsung hero of the 1963 March on Washington

Find out how SC Sen. Strom Thurmond played an unwitting role

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The public is invited to learn a bit of history they likely know little about at a screening of the documentary Brother Outsider Aug. 27 at Conundrum Music Hall in West Columbia.

The film documents the life of Bayard Rustin, who had been in the trenches of the civil rights struggle for decades when he was called on to organize the historic August 19 63 March for Jobs and Freedom. Not only has the demand for economic equality and jobs been lost from stories of the march, but Rustin himself has been overlooked by history.

Rustin was considered a master organizer, a political intellectual and a pacifist. He organized protests against WWII and served time in prison for refusing to register for the draft. He created the first Freedom Rides, and was a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. For 60 years, Rustin fought for peace and equal rights — demonstrating, organizing and protesting here and abroad.

Rustin has been called “the unknown hero” of the civil rights movement. He dared to live as an openly gay man during the fiercely homophobic 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

In 1953, Rustin’s homosexuality became a public problem after he was found having sex in a parked car with two men. He was arrested on a morals charge. Later, when he was chosen to organize the 1963 march, some civil rights activists objected. In an effort to discredit the march, segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond took to the Senate floor, where he derided Rustin for being a communist, a draft dodger and a homosexual. Ironically, D’Emilo says, it became a rallying point for the civil rights leaders.

“Because no one could appear to be on the side of Strom Thurmond, he created, unwittingly, an opportunity for Rustin’s sexuality to stop being an issue,” he says.

The trailblazing strategist will this year be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Brother Outsider,” an 84-min. award-winning film about Rustin, will be shown Aug. 27 at 6pm at Conundrum Music Hall, 626 Meeting St. in West Columbia. The screening is sponsored by the SC Progressive Network and SC Equality. The film is free and open to the public. Snacks and beverages available for purchase. There will be a discussion after the screening.

For more information, call the SC Progressive Network at 803-808-3384.

Federal court judge throws out Republican lawsuit to close South Carolina primaries

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Federal Judge Mary Lewis dismissed the Greenville County Republican Party lawsuit against the State Election Commission Wednesday, ruling that the party did not have standing to bring the case to court. The state and Greenville County Republican parties filed the complaint in 2010, seeking to require primary voters to register as Republicans to cast a vote in that party’s primary.

The state party withdrew from the suit before the case was heard, contributing to the judge’s determination that the Greenville County party did not have standing to change statewide election laws. Voters in South Carolina do not have to register by party.

The SC Progressive Network  – along with 13 members of the SC Black Legislative Caucus, the SC Independence Party, the Constitution Party and the Columbia Tea Party – were defendant/intervenors in the case.

“For years now, we have successfully fought Republican-sponsored legislation to close the primaries,” said Network Director Brett Bursey. “They sued the Election Commission to get the courts to do what they couldn’t accomplish in the legislature their own party controls. The state party pulled out of this suit because it didn’t want to argue the merits of a rigged election system.”

Bursey argued against such legislation before the House Judiciary Committee in March 2012. “We presented the committee a list showing that 20 of its 25 members won their elections in the primary, didn’t have general election opposition, and won with around 99 percent of the vote. I think they tabled the bill because they couldn’t defend the current system, much less one that restricted participation in the primaries.”

South Carolina has the least-competitive legislative elections in the nation, with nearly 80 percent of 2012 elections for the State House having only one major party candidate. “This is not what democracy should look like,” said Network Chair Emeritus Joe Neal, an intervenor in the suit. “Today the South Carolina federal court has upheld the rights of voters in South Carolina, especially the minority community, to free and unfettered access to the polls.”

“What passes for representative democracy in South Carolina is a farce,” Bursey said. “It will take at least a decade to fix the mess created by our legislature, which has spent 20 years making ‘safe’ districts that discourage competition.”

The Network is doing its best to educate the public about the serious need to create competitive political districts that encourage politicians to represent everyone in their district, not just the partisan 10 percent that turn out in the primaries. We are working to broaden electoral participation, not narrow it.

Vote suppression is the real voting fraud

By Brett Bursey
Director, SC Progressive Network

When I saw Rep. Alan Clemmons’ guest column in The State, “Voting problems continue to haunt us” (July 21), I was hoping he’d explain his part in peddling the myth of dead people voting in South Carolina, and apologize to the people he misled. He did neither.

Instead, he again claimed an “undeniable presence of election fraud in South Carolina,” and took a cheap shot at the S.C. Progressive Network to make his point. He referenced an instance years ago when bogus forms were turned in by someone the network hired to do voter registration in Florence County. I caught the fraud myself and called SLED and the County Election Board the day the forms were submitted.

No fraudulent votes were cast. I testified against the perpetrator, and he went to jail. The system worked.

Clemmons’ column goes on to call the photo ID law he championed “a good first step” and said, “Now, to cast a ballot, you are required to prove who your are and that you are eligible to vote in that election.”

The truth is that Clemmons’ bill was interpreted — essentially rewritten — by the federal appeals court, which ruled that “South Carolina’s new law … does not require a photo ID to vote.” The state spent $3.5 million on private attorneys to defend a law against a problem that doesn’t exist — and lost.

While unable to cite a single case of in-person voter impersonation, Clemmons told the U.S. Department of Justice that “voter fraud in South Carolina is an unspoken truth.” Still today, he conflates absentee ballot and voter registration fraud, neither of which requires a photo ID, with in-person fraud at the polls, of which there is no evidence.

In the nine years Clemmons has chaired the House’s Election Laws Subcommittee, he has killed every bill the network’s legislative members have sponsored to broaden voter participation. He nixed our proposals to establish early voting centers and high school voter registration programs, to reduce the influence of money in elections, to re-enfranchise felons and to adopt voter-verified paper ballots.

Rather than working to make voting more accessible and inclusive, Clemmons has said voting should not be easy.

We do agree on one thing: South Carolina’s election system is dysfunctional. It was established by the 1895 state constitution, which reversed the democratic aspects of the 1868 constitution that empowered black citizens. It delegated authority to 46 county election boards, appointed by local legislators, with no centralized control.

County election boards interpret and enforce election laws differently, and are not accountable to the State Election Commission.

Clemmons proposes to fix the problem by putting the State Election Commission under the partisan office of secretary of state. But in Florida and Ohio, where they run elections, secretaries of state have been accused of disenfranchising thousands of voters.

More partisan control in a state already crippled by it would be a mistake. A better answer would be to empower our independent, nonpartisan State Election Commission to run elections.

The truth is, our democracy is not threatened by voter fraud but by legislators who have rigged the system. Around 10 percent of eligible voters are choosing our Legislature.

If Clemmons was truly concerned about the “sanctity” of our electoral system, he would address the fact that the S.C. Legislature has the least-competitive elections in the nation, with 80 percent of lawmakers elected with no general-election opposition.

Clemmons, for example, got 99.12 percent of the vote in 2012, when he was the only candidate on the ballot. He was swept into office by 6.1 percent of voters in his district.

The Network believes we can do better. We will continue to fight to make our democracy more representative, and invite anyone who shares our goal to join us. Call us at 803-808-3384, email us at network@scpronet.com, or find us Facebook or Twitter.

Network Co-chair Harold Mitchell recognized for saving his community

In a July 15 article in Triple Pundit, a publication promoting ethical, sustainable development as a profitable business model, SC Progressive Network Co-chair Harold Mitchell was recognized as the founder of ReGenesis.

ReGenesis is a 15-year-old community development project in Mitchell’s Spartanburg neighborhood that has gained national attention for it holistic approach to saving a poor and polluted neighborhood. “The most striking example (of community redevelopment).” the article noted, “is an effort led by ReGenesis, a community-based environmental justice organization.”

“Harold is an authentic hero in his community,” said Network Director Brett Bursey, who first met Mitchell in 1995 when he was investigating the health problems in minority communities cause by toxic waste sites. “Harold’s family home was across the street from a toxic waste site, and he started connecting the early deaths and illnesses in his family to pollution from the site.”

Mitchell received the 2009 Environmental Achievement Award from the federal Environmental Protection Agency for his work with the ReGenesis Economic Development project. Charles Lee, director of the EPA Office of Environmental Justice, called ReGenesis “a powerful testament to the vision of environmental justice and healthy, sustainable communities.”

“We owe a debt of gratitude to [Mitchell,]” Lee said. “His vision and passion galvanized the formation of the ReGenesis partnership that has led us on this remarkable journey. Your work is incredible, and you are truly an inspiration to the nation.”

Lee said ReGenesis began with a $20,000 EPA grant in 1998, and since then more than $250 million has been leveraged in public and private funding through partnerships with more than 120 organizations.

Mitchell went from being a college student wondering why he and his family were sick to an activist who identified the problem and posed solutions, to a state legislator representing his community. Mitchell is currently the Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus with 39 members representing a million South Carolinians.

SC deserves new voting machines

By Becci Robbins
SC Progressive Network Communications Director

A SC Legislative Audit Council report released March 27 on the state’s voting machines found serious glitches. “Problems with iVotronic machines that have been reported in elections in other states include vote flipping, candidates missing from screens, lost votes or too many votes, freezing, and batteries,” the report found.

The report didn’t mention that many of those states have quit using the iVotronics, which are no longer being manufactured. While these same problems have been widely observed in South Carolina, every precinct still uses them.”63% of the counties that had problems with the machines have not reported the problems to the State Election Commission (SEC),” the study reported, and recommended the SEC establish a hotline to track problems with the machines.

The SC Progressive Network has helped run a statewide election day hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, in every general election since 2004. Network Director Brett Bursey said, “In the last general election, while all the news was focused on long lines in Richland County, we had calls from five other counties about machine problems causing hours-long waits to vote.”

EP-sign“The SEC has not gathered information about the increasing unreliability of these machines, which are reaching the end of their projected 10-year-lifespan,” Bursey said, and we welcome the LAC report as the start of a serious discussion about what our new voting system should look like.”The Network opposed the purchase of the iVotronic machines in 2004, in part, due to their inability to produce a voter-verified paper ballot that could be used to call a close race. The LAC report concluded, “The audit process in South Carolina is limited by the absence of a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT).” The LAC determined that a VVPAT could be added to the existing machines for $17.3 million.

The 2013 House budget includes $5 million that the SEC has requested to begin saving for a new system after 2016.

“Rather than consider patching up these machines, or buying more used ones as Richland County is planning, we need to be looking at better and cheaper ways to vote — well before 2016,” Bursey said.

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The Network has long advocated a voter-verifiable voting system like the one Clemson has devised.

Dr. Juan Gilbert, Chair of the Clemson School of Computing, Human-Centered Computing Division, has been doing research and development on electronic voting systems since 2003. He got a $4 million grant from the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) several years ago to develop a better voting system. The EAC sets standards for voting machines, and has never approved the system currently used in South Carolina.

Gilbert’s “Prime III” meets federal requirements, and was used in a state election for the first time in January in Oregon. Prime III runs on open-source software, on machines available at any computer store. It’s simple, cheap, reliable, produces a voter-verified-paper ballot, and can be publicly owned. The privately owned system we now use costs $1million in annual licensing fees, more on tech support, and runs on secret codes.

“We see no legal impediments to using a system like Clemson has developed, and tremendous advantages,” Bursey said. “Clemson can provide the software, our technical schools can train technicians, and a whole new statewide system would cost little more than adding a paper trail to our old machines.”