COLUMBIA, SC — Its not every day you see a U.S. congressman getting involved in county elections.
But U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., has stepped forward to become a prominent defender for embattled county elections chief Lillian McBride, whose offices mismanagement of the election caused an unknown number of Richland County residents to lose their right to vote Nov. 6.
Thats just one of several odd political dynamics roiling the Richland County Legislative Delegation of four senators and 11 representatives as the controversy continues over McBrides handling of what is widely believed to be the most bungled county election in modern state history.
Other dynamics are:
• A split in part along generational lines among African-American Democrats that pits some prominent state lawmakers supporting McBride against younger lawmakers who want McBride to resign or step aside. The most prominent senior members defending McBride are Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, a 20-year Senate veteran, and Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, an 18-year House veteran. Among those arguing McBride should go are Rep. Mia Butler Garrick, a two-year House member and Rep. Joe McEachern, a four-year House member.
Breaking from that trend is Rep. Chris Hart, a six-year member, who in public statements has been somewhat supportive of McBride.
• The usual Republican-Democrat split. Two of the three Republicans on the delegation Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, a 26-year veteran, and Rep. Nathan Ballentine, an eight-year House member, have prominently called for McBride to leave.
The third Republican, newly elected Rep. Kirkman Finlay, said Wednesday that he wants the elections process fixed and if McBride stays in the same position, it would not be easy to have confidence the next election would be well run.
• The fact that longtime Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, has a brother-in-law that McBride hired as her top aide just after she was installed in her job, in July 2011. Lourie has expressed concern about the election matter but has not recused himself from discussing the matter with other delegation members.
Lourie said Wednesday that if the election controversy directly involved my brother-in-law, of course I would recuse myself. But as the matter now stands, I have an obligation to my constituents to discuss this and find a solution.
• Intense emotion about McBrides situation. Her defenders point out that she has apologized profusely and say they dont want her to be, as they say, lynched.
But a former delegation member, Democrat Anton Gunn, has made it clear that McBrides saying shes sorry is not enough.
Gunn, now a federal official in Washington for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Sunday evening by telephone on On Point, the radio talk show on WWDM hosted by Cynthia Hardy, that we should be outraged at the long voting lines and that McBrides apology wont do.
Gunn underscored his point referring to the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in which his brother and 16 other sailors were killed.
The commander of my brothers ship didnt do his job and said he was sorry and wanted everybody to move on, but my brother and 16 others lost their lives, Gunn said.
Im about complete accountability, Gunn said. We make ourselves look worse as a community when we are not willing to hold ourselves accountable.
Howard, also on the radio show, criticized Garrick publicly, saying she was just out to get McBride fired.
Firing Mrs. McBride, and bringing her head to the public on a platter, and have a public lynching, will not correct the problem. What we want to do is get to the bottom of this, Howard said.
Garrick replied that Howard and Jackson, who also had criticized her, were mischaracterizing her position and minimizing McBrides responsibility.
The whole day from beginning to end was an absolute disaster, Garrick said of Nov. 6, citing a preliminary county election commission that placed much blame on McBride for a marked lack of planning.
Garrick told Howard and Jackson, Its wrong for you to ... come in here and say, Oh, well, you-all just want to see her head roll.
Clyburn, too, was on the show, also speaking by telephone.
He criticized local media for repeatedly referring to McBrides salary, which now stands at $89,124.
That is always an attempt to inflame people, to drive wedges, Clyburn said.
On Wednesday, Clyburn declined a request for an interview. His staff released a statement saying he hasnt intervened in the matter, and at this point, His only interest is in maintaining civility and preventing a rush to judgment.
On the same show, Jackson echoed Clyburns criticism of repeatedly referring to McBrides salary, saying the media was bringing up the matter as if it were despicable for a black woman to make mistakes who makes that kind of money.
Jay Bender, a USC law professor and S.C. Freedom of Information expert, said its appropriate to mention McBrides salary, especially since that kind of taxpayer-funded salary is paid for top performance. Bender works for the S.C. Press Association; The State newspaper is a member.
If you buy a car and you pay $2,000 for it, and pieces fall off, you might think thats okay. But if you pay $80,000 for it, you want it to run. And you want it to do the job, Bender said. Its relevant are we getting what we are paying for?
The election was marked by missing ballots, lines of up to seven hours long, an unexplained shortage of voting machines and numerous people dropping out of voting lines rather than wait. The county election commission has hired attorney Steve Hamm to investigate what went wrong. But Hamms preliminary findings announced last week say McBride and her staff bear the main responsibility.
In 2011, without advertising for job candidates, the delegation hired McBride as director of the Richland County Election and Voter Registration Office.
Ballentine said whatever happens to McBride, she doesnt need to supervise county elections.
If she is still in charge of that office next time we vote, no one in Richland County is going to have any confidence in the election, Ballentine said.
Delegation members said behind the scenes, Jackson has been discussing a solution to the matter with other delegation members and county officials.
Jackson declined to comment for this story.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.