In 1993, when newly elected state Sen. Darrell Jackson was trying to remove the Confederate battle flag from atop the State House dome, he went to visit fellow Richland County state Sen. John Courson.
“When I first went into his office, I saw more Confederate flags than I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Jackson, who is African-American. “I just didn’t think we could become friends.”
Almost two decades later, Jackson and Courson are friends – to the point where Jackson, a Democrat, publicly is supporting Courson, a Republican, in his bid for re-election to Senate District 20. And, earlier this week, Jackson was one of 18 Democrats – all but one of the members of the Senate’s minority party – to vote to elect Courson as the new Senate president pro tem, succeeding Glenn McConnell who was elevated to lieutenant governor after the resignation of Ken Ard.
The 67-year-old Courson has made a career out of compromise. It is how he won over Jackson – helping marshal enough Republican votes to put an African-American monument on the State House grounds.
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But as Courson prepares to lead the Senate – the first Richland senator to do so in the 147-year history of the post of president pro tem – his brand of Republicanism slowly is disappearing in South Carolina and, more rapidly, in Richland County. In the 2010 governor’s race, Courson’s Senate district voted for Democrat Vincent Sheheen over Republican Nikki Haley – a fact that has Democrats targeting Courson’s Senate seat.
Democrat Robert Rikard, a Columbia attorney, already has filed to challenge Courson in November’s general election. Rikard has raised $39,000 so far, not including a $25,000 loan, according to his ethics report.
Sipping sweet tea in his office recently, Courson said he is not naive about his district or Democrat-dominated Richland County.
“It’s been a sea change in Richland County, politically,” he said. “Ultimately, my district will end up being a Democratic district.”
Just not this year, Courson said, and for one reason: President Barack Obama.
‘Squeeze by four more years’
Courson’s Senate district starts behind the VA Hospital, off Garners Ferry Road, and extends westward to the Newberry County line, picking up slivers of Lexington County along the way.
In addition to voting for Sheheen in 2010, the district voted for Jim Hodges, South Carolina’s last Democratic governor, in 1998.
But Courson never has had to run for election during a governor’s race. Instead, his every-four-year election always coincides with presidential races – when Senate District 20 votes Republican. All of those votes for the GOP presidential candidate make it easier for Republican Courson to win re-election. The last time Courson had a Democratic opponent – former Richland County Councilman Tony Mizzell in 2000 – Courson won with 60 percent of the vote.
Courson said his polling this election cycle shows Obama is so unpopular in his district that he again will benefit in November.
Beyond that, Courson is not so sure.
“I don’t think (District 20) can be held (by a Republican) for any long period of time – maybe can squeeze by four more years, maybe,” he said. “There are three election cycles under the new reapportionment plan. By the third election cycle, I think a Democrat will occupy that seat.”
Democrat Rikard says he can win the seat this year.
“(Courson) was elected to the Senate when I was in the eighth grade,” Rikard said. “I am 40 years old now, and the problems that South Carolina was facing are still the same problems we are facing. I don’t think (Courson is) necessarily a bad guy, but it’s time for some change and some new ideas and new approaches at the State House.”
‘Ronald Reagan’s philosophy’
Courson’s Republican ideology can be traced back to Nov. 22, 1963, when he was awakened from a nap in the old honeycomb dorms of USC to learn President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed.
Courson, originally from Augusta, was an avid Kennedy supporter – but he was not a fan of Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president. A year later, Courson heard Ronald Reagan’s famous speech, “A Time for Choosing,” urging voters to support Republican U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona for president.
In that speech, Reagan asked people to donate to Goldwater’s campaign. Courson took a cigar box and went door to door in USC’s dorms and frat houses. He eventually wired $37.41 via Western Union to the Goldwater for president campaign. Courson and Goldwater were members of the same fraternity – Sigma Chi – and when Goldwater came to Columbia, Courson gave him the Sigma Chi handshake.
Afterward, Courson says he did not wash his hand for three days.
Goldwater lost the election, but he won South Carolina – the first time since Reconstruction that the Palmetto State voted for a Republican, launching the state’s modern GOP.
Courson then threw himself fully into Reagan’s small-government gospel, supporting the former California governor in his 1976 quest to unseat incumbent President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Courson went on to be a Republican Convention delegate for Reagan in 1980 and 1984.
When Courson first ran for the state Senate in 1984, Reagan wrote him a letter, addressing it “Dear John” and commending him for working with U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., saying Courson had “performed brilliantly on behalf of one of our great national leaders.”
“My philosophy would be very, very similar to Ronald Reagan’s philosophy,” Courson said. “That’s the only way I can describe it.”
Courson’s Republican credentials are undisputed.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, who lost the president pro tem race to Courson, said the Richland senator has lots of Republican “street cred.” Courson has won the “friend of the taxpayer” award from the S.C. Association of Taxpayers more than a half-dozen times. And Courson abandoned his beloved Atlanta Braves baseball team in the early 1990s, when then-owner Ted Turner married Jane Fonda, the actress who publicly opposed the Vietnam War.
But Courson’s increasingly Democratic-leaning district has nudged him toward some traditionally Democratic causes over the years, perhaps the best example being environmental conservation issues.
“He is the quintessential establishment Republican of the old model, fiscal conservative first, social conservative second,” veteran Republican strategist Warren Tompkins said. “In modern times, he has sort of mellowed a little to the point he was one of the cutting-edge Republicans in terms of his sensitivity to the environment. For a long time, he was one of the few Republicans that was sort of labeled somewhat of an environmentalist.”
Because of that, many at the State House view Courson as a moderate, pointing to that label as the reason why he won nearly all of the Senate Democrats in the election to be president pro tem.
“People from outside the state, and a lot of people inside the state, assume the State House is led by the more conservative element of the Republican Party,” said Kyle Michel, a lobbyist. “In fact it is led, and has been for a long time, by moderates – which is a good thing for our state.”
State Sen. William O’Dell, R-Abbeville, rejects the labels, saying Courson “thinks for himself.”
“If that’s a moderate, it is what he is and what I am, too,” he said.
Courson scoffs at the “moderate” label, saying he identifies himself as a “traditional Republican.” His environmentalism, he said, doesn’t come from his constituents but from his time in the Marine Corps.
“One develops a respect for nature when one spends a lot of time outdoors,” he said, adding, “The word ‘conserve’ comes out of the word ‘conservative.’”