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March 26, 2010

Rutherford: USC fans' anger misdirected

University of South Carolina sports fans have trained their anger on black lawmakers who vowed to warn the school's athletics recruits about the state's poor racial climate, state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said Thursday.

The warning to recruits - Rutherford and other legislators would not say which recruits have been contacted or who, specifically, was contacting them - comes as it appears increasingly likely the university's lone black trustee will not be returned to that position when the General Assembly votes next month.

"Gamecock fans should not be calling and threatening black legislators," Rutherford said. "Call the Republican leadership."

Rutherford said black legislators warned the Legislature's Republican leaders that they would not sit by silently if Leah Moody, a black Rock Hill lawyer who was appointed to USC's 20-member board of trustees last year, is defeated by her white challenger, Alton Hyatt Jr.

As the April 14 vote nears, Hyatt's support seems to be consolidating, moving USC closer to being the only school in the 12-member Southeastern Conference without a member of a racial minority on its governing board.

A day after some black legislators said recruits will be called, Rutherford said fans reacted angrily on talk radio and called black legislators' offices.

He would not say which legislators have been threatened or detail the nature of the threats. But he did say fans on talk radio called him a "terrorist" who is trying to "extort" the General Assembly.

The prospect of having recruits dissuaded from attending USC has struck a nerve in football-crazy South Carolina.

Many fans make the same point Hyatt and his supporters in the General Assembly make: Race should not be a factor in determining who is appointed to USC's board.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, came down on that side Thursday.

"What everyone should be thinking about is who's the best person for the job, regardless of race?" he said.

Asked whether House leadership should promote diversity on boards, Harrell said, "It's important to have everyone involved."

For her part, Moody, 39, said Thursday she did not ask anyone to call recruits.

"I didn't authorize it, and I didn't know anything about it," she said.

Asked specifically whether she wants lawmakers or anyone else to call recruits, she said: "The race is in the General Assembly."

Moody said she is running for a full, four-year term on her merit.

"I bring something to the board," she said. "I work hard. I can do the work. I have been doing the work."

Hyatt, a Rock Hill lawyer and pharmacist, said he first learned of a possible campaign to call USC recruits Wednesday.

"I was a little surprised," said the former lawmaker. "I don't think that the athletes should be brought into this political matter."

Hyatt said he would bring diversity to the board as its only pharmacist.

Asked how he would feel about serving on a board with no black members, Hyatt said that's not up to him.

"That's for the Legislature to decide," he said. "That's not for me to decide."

Rutherford doesn't buy that.

"We didn't draft him to run," he said. "He decided to run."

If Moody is not reappointed, USC would be the only one of the state's three research universities not to have a black board member.

Samuel Foster II, USC's first black board member, resigned in July, when he faced federal bank fraud and tax charges.

Gov. Mark Sanford appointed Moody as his replacement.

During her brief time on the board, Moody has drawn praise from at least one board member, longtime trustee Eddie Floyd, who described her Wednesday as a "wonderful" candidate for re-appointment and a "wonderful friend."

But Floyd questioned the tactic of calling recruits, which could hurt the university's sports programs even though no one at the university has any say in who is elected as a trustee.

State Rep. David Weeks, a Sumter Democrat who is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the caucus has not adopted a formal strategy of discouraging athletes from playing for USC, though certain members of the caucus may be doing so on their own.

"The general thought is such a strategy isn't necessary," Weeks said.

State Rep. Anton Gunn, a black Democrat whose district includes parts of Richland and Kershaw counties, made clear Thursday that he was not among those who would be calling recruits.

A former USC football player himself, Gunn denied earlier reports he had contacted recruits and urged them not to attend the school.

"I have not in the past nor will I in the future call any USC Gamecock recruits for any reason," Gunn said. "I will not play political games with trustees, recruits or with my vote in the South Carolina House of Representatives."

Gunn said he does think USC's board should be diverse.

"This diversity should be reflected in the classroom as well as the boardroom," he said.

In reiterating his support of Moody, Sanford's spokesman, Ben Fox, made that point, too.

"Our belief is fairly straightforward," Fox said. "We believe in diversity on this or any other board, and our appointments over the last seven years reflect that belief."

Fox, however, said it is inappropriate for the governor's office to call lawmakers to push for Moody's re-appointment.

Asked what he thought of a campaign to call USC recruits, Fox said: "We're not commenting on the ins and outs of any of that."

Trustees hold unpaid positions, but the seats are coveted because they offer an opportunity to shape one of the state's largest, most influential institutions.

Members serve four-year terms, but there is no limit to the number of times a trustee can be reappointed.

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