Bakari Sellers, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, called Thursday for his Republican opponent, Henry McMaster, to resign his membership at a Columbia country club that has a history of having only white members.
Sellers, who could be the first African-Americans elected to statewide office since Reconstruction, said he decided to make McMaster’s membership at the Forest Lake Club an issue because he wants to move South Carolina away from its past, including bouts with racism.
“What we’re trying to do is what we believe in, which is putting a new face on South Carolina and letting go of those themes of yesterday,” said Sellers, a 29-year-old state representative from Denmark and son of a civil rights activist.
Sellers did not call McMaster a racist.
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“I want him to join me. I’m not castigating the club. I’m not castigating him personally,” Sellers said. “As we stand on the stage for the next two months, I want people to watch two men who believe in tomorrow and who want to heal South Carolina and move us forward.”
McMaster, 67, has no plans to resign from Forest Lake Club, where he has been a member for more than 30 years, said Jeff Taillon, the Republican’s campaign manager.
“It has no policies of racial discrimination, and he would not be a member if it did,” Taillon said. “As U.S. attorney and (state) attorney general, he conducted his offices honorably and without discrimination or prejudice of any kind. He will continue to run his campaign in a positive manner with a spirit of optimism and inclusion for all of the people of South Carolina, and that is how he would fulfill his duties of lieutenant governor if elected.”
McMaster did not say if the club has any African-American members. Sellers said the club’s membership remains all white but did not specify how he knows that. Several sources said an interracial couple is on Forest Lake’s waiting list for membership.
Forest Lake manager Sean McLaughlin said the private club does not disclose anything about its membership, including whether it has any African-American members. But he said the club has “no discriminatory policies or procedures in place whatsoever.”
The club’s membership includes some of the Columbia area’s most influential business and political figures.
At least two Republican members of the Legislature from Richland County – state Sen. John Courson and Rep. Kirkman Finlay – are members of the club. Both said they did not know if the club has added any African-American members.
“I don’t know who’s a member or not,” Finlay said.
Sellers said he was not going to ask for Finlay and Courson to resign their memberships, saying his concern is focused on the lieutenant governor’s race.
Another Forest Lake member happens to be Sellers’ boss.
Pete Strom, the head of the Columbia law firm where Sellers works, said he joined Forest Lake in 2012 after being assured the club had no official or unofficial policies of discriminating, and African Americans were in the pipeline to become members.
“The club (membership) is younger now,” Strom said. “No one is interested in living in the past.”
Sellers said he did not know Strom was a club member until Thursday, when reporters told him. Sellers said he had no plans to ask his boss to quit Forest Lake.
“He’s not running for lieutenant governor,” Sellers said. “Henry McMaster is.”
Forest Lake made news in 1984 when the club did not extend an honorary membership – then, its practice – to the new commander of the Fort Jackson, a Jewish general who had been assigned to lead the Army training base.
Since that time, members have said the club has added Jewish members.
The club also made the news in 2008 when S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson tried unsuccessfully to be elected to lead the Republican National Committee. Dawson resigned from Forest Lake to avoid backlash about his membership in the club, urging it to add minority members.
The club had a now legally unenforceable clause in its 1925 deed saying it must have only white members, according to published reports.
Until Thursday, the race for the state’s No. 2 seat had been relatively quiet.
Thus far, the campaign has been notable for Sellers counting the days while waiting on a response to his call to debate from McMaster and the Republican using his bulldog, Boots, in a television advertisement.
Asked if his challenge to McMaster to quit Forest Lake was an attempt to win more attention, Sellers quipped: “I’m pretty handsome, so I’ve been getting some attention along the way.”
But, Sellers added, McMaster has not wanted to debate new ideas for the state.
If elected, McMaster, a Columbia lawyer and state GOP stalwart, has pledged he would work closely with Republican Gov. Nikki Haley of Lexington.
Haley, who also is seeking re-election in November, has appointed McMaster to the State Ports Authority and to help lead a task force studying ethics reform.
Sellers is considered a rising star in the Democratic Party.
First elected to the State House at 22, Sellers was sought out by then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama to boost his 2008 campaign for president. More recently, a political group pushing Hillary Clinton to run for the White House in 2016 has sought Sellers’ support.
Sellers’ father, Cleveland, was the only person convicted for his role in the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre where three civil rights protesters were shot and killed by police on the S.C. State University campus. Subsequently, the elder Sellers, now president of South Carolina’s Voorhees College, was pardoned.
The lieutenant governor’s job largely is powerless. The main roles of the part-time position are presiding over the state Senate when the General Assembly is in session and heading the state Office on Aging.
This year’s race marks the last time that candidates for lieutenant governor will run for the office individually. Starting in 2018, S.C. voters have approved having the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run on the same ticket, like the nominees for president and vice president now do.