Scoppe: Lillian McBride and the politics of race

Associate EditorJanuary 17, 2013 

Editor’s note: An early version of this column included claims that were incorrectly attributed to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.

THE NEWS that Lillian McBride would get what is essentially her old job back, at a much higher salary, rekindled public outrage over the way the former Richland County elections director bungled the November election — as it should have.

It also revived the questions about race that have been on many people’s minds — and that’s not as it should be. In fact, it’s terribly self-defeating, because it diverts our attention from the larger problems that begat this mess, reducing the already-slim chance that we might be able to correct those problems.

Which is the sort of thing we in South Carolina seem to be experts at doing.

I received an email last week from a reader who asked me to consider an elaborately constructed role-reversal scenario, which had the county legislative delegation controlled by conservative white guys, Ms. McBride as an incompetent white guy and her deposed predecessor a highly competent black woman.

That’s a new twist — accompanied by a bizarre suggestion that our editorial board has condoned Ms. McBride’s performance — but the general theme isn’t new. I’ve heard from people since the day after the election fiasco who insisted that the only reason Ms. McBride got the job as director of the recently merged county elections and voter registration office, and wasn’t immediately ousted after overseeing what was probably the worst voting debacle in modern state history, was that she was a black woman.

Such assertions were only fueled by charges by McBride defenders that the only reason people were attacking her was that she was a black woman.

That would be great fodder for stand-up comedians if this weren’t such a serious matter. Since it is, it’s insulting.

Has the criticism been more intense in some quarters because Ms. McBride is a black woman? Absolutely. Just as some of her strongest supporters would be calling for her head if she were a white man, especially one with close ties to Republicans.

But it is indisputable that she failed spectacularly at her central duty — to run the county’s elections — and that her central duty is the cornerstone of our free society. That is why she has been pilloried.

The race-based charges against her are a little more complicated, but still off-base. Ms. McBride got the job because the county legislative delegation decided to treat this vital position as political patronage. She was politically aligned with the majority on the delegation, and the only other person considered — the white guy who had successfully run our elections for decades — was not. She kept it as long as she did, and now apparently will go back to her old job overseeing voter registration, with a 12 percent pay raise, for the same reason.

Did race play a role in her being hired? Absolutely. In much the same way that race plays a role when Republicans appoint white people.

The fact is that there’s a dangerously close correlation between race and party in our state. The overwhelming majority of black people are Democrats, and black people constitute a growing majority of Democrats. The overwhelming majority of Republicans are white people, and a growing majority of white people are Republicans, or at least vote consistently Republican.

So when Democrats engage in back-scratching politics, black people tend to be the beneficiaries. And when Republicans engage in back-scratching politics, white people tend to be the beneficiaries. And people in both parties are more than willing to do such things. And do. Routinely.

And what do the rest of us do about it? We focus on race.

The problem isn’t that black people benefit from partisan decisions when Democrats are in charge and white people benefit when Republicans are in charge. The problem is that partisan, patronage decisions are being made — with our government. To our detriment.

We have an intolerable situation that has existed in varying iterations throughout our state’s history — when Democrats were all white and they were in complete control and now that Republicans are all white and they are in complete control, except in those pockets of the state, such as Richland County, where Democrats, increasingly black Democrats, are in complete control.

This isn’t about race. It’s about power and patronage. It’s about a system of government that allows a small number of state legislators to control our state — from executive decisions to local matters — through personal relationships. A government of men rather than of laws. A government that works just fine when highly qualified people happen to have the right connections and accidentally land in the important positions they are qualified to fill. A government that results in Lillian McBride-sized disasters when they don’t.

As long as we insist on making this about race, we don’t talk about the root problem. And as long as we don’t talk about the root problem, we don’t correct it. We don’t even correct the immediate problem.

Yes, getting Ms. McBride out of the job she so clearly wasn’t qualified for was a good first step. But now what? Another political appointment?

The fix to this disaster is to get legislators out of the business of making appointments — in this case, to the board that oversees the county election office. If that office must be controlled locally, the board should be appointed by the County Council, whose members are elected to run local government. But voting isn’t a local matter, and it shouldn’t be run at the local level. The State Election Commission needs to control the county offices.

But legislators don’t want to give up their power over the mechanism that puts them in office. And putting the state in charge of elections means the state has to pay for them, which forces legislators to make difficult decisions. The kind of decisions we elected them to make.

Here’s the pathetic thing: Normally it’s the politicians who try to divert our attention from the actual problems — and relieve themselves of any responsibility to fix those problems — by getting us to focus on race or party or whatever other shiny distraction they can think up. And usually, we’re stupid enough to fall for it.

This time, we’re so stupid that we don’t even make them engineer a diversion. We’re doing it to ourselves, by insisting that race plays anything more than a bit part in this tragedy.

So rather than fixing the problem — rather that putting the state in charge of running our elections and governors in charge of administering our state laws and county councils in charge of running our counties and accepting their own responsibility to write laws and serve as a watchdog to make sure those executive officers are executing them properly — our legislators get to keep holding on to their unaccountable, inappropriate, outsized powers.

And our state stays mired in the mud.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com.

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