The Democrats running for governor and lieutenant governor said Wednesday it is time for the Confederate flag to be removed from the State House grounds and replaced with the U.S. flag.
The announcement comes about a month before state Sen. Vincent Sheheen challenges Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, and state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, faces Republican Henry McMaster for the state’s No. 2 spot.
Sheheen and Sellers called for the flag’s removal in front of the Confederate soldier monument on the State House grounds – an effort, they said, to thrust one of the state’s most controversial issues over race, history and politics onto the political front burner.
“We are a state that is too often divided, too often separated by race, by region, by party,” Sheheen said. “We know that state leaders in South Carolina keep us entrenched in these divisions so they can stay entrenched in South Carolina.”
With support from eight S.C. mayors, including Democrats Steve Benjamin of Columbia and Joe Riley of Charleston, Sheheen said removing the flag from the State House grounds is the final policy position he will announce in his campaign for governor.
Sheheen has never introduced legislation to remove the flag, but said in his 2010 gubernatorial run that he wanted lawmakers to discuss removing it. It’s an effort best led by a governor, Sheheen said Wednesday, when asked by The State about his legislative record.
Haley’s deputy campaign manager Rob Godfrey called Sheheen’s move, about a month before the Nov. 4 election, “desperate and irresponsible.”
“Vince Sheheen has gone his entire political career — almost a decade and a half — without doing a thing to remove the flag, and now he’s trying to make it an issue 30 days before an election,” Godfrey said. “Vince has run out of things to say about the economy, education and ethics reform, so he’s trying to inject this sensitive issue into the campaign at the last minute.”
The Confederate flag once flew atop the State House dome. Protests organized by civil rights leaders brought thousands of demonstrators to march on the State House grounds in 1999, leading to a compromise in 2000. Lawmakers agreed then to move the flag to the State House grounds, where it flies today.
Godfrey said Haley respects that bipartisan compromise. But if lawmakers want to revisit the issue, it “should be done in a thoughtful bipartisan way and not in the heat of the political campaign season.”
Sellers, 16 years old when that compromise was reached, said that deal does not reflect his values. He and his generation “are tired of those same old ghosts of yesterday” and want to move the state forward.
Sellers introduced a bill in 2007, his first year in office, to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, but it died in committee.
On Wednesday, Sheheen and Sellers said it is time to retire the flag, saying it has hurt the state’s economy.
“Ask the coaches of the major sports teams, ask the presidential candidates who show up here every four years what they think about the Confederate flag on the front lawn of the State House, and we know the answers,” Sheheen said. “I want South Carolina to be celebrated not for the state that left America, but for the best state in America.”
The NAACP has an ongoing boycott of the state, which led to a 2001 NCAA decision not to award the state with some college-level athletic events.
In a 2007 State newspaper article, USC Gamecocks football coach Steve Spurrier said, “I realize I’m not supposed to get in the political arena as a football coach, but if anybody were ever to ask me about that damn Confederate flag, I would say we need to get rid of it.”
The civil rights organizations that helped organize protests that led to the flag’s removal from the State House dome had no speakers at the event Wednesday.
Sellers said that he did not reach out to those groups because he did not want the message to get “bogged down in the racial politics” of the issue.
Sellers has not shied away from talking about race in his campaign for lieutenant governor, calling on McMaster, his GOP challenger and a former S.C. attorney general, to cancel his membership to a historically whites-only Forest Lake country club.
In response to Sellers’ calls to remove the flag, McMaster’s campaign manager Jeff Taillon said the way to move the state forward is not by returning to the past. “We hope cynical efforts by politicians to exploit divisive issues for political gain will not be part of South Carolina’s future.”
‘Last century’s battle’
Political scientists say raising the Confederate flag as a campaign issue could help energize the Democratic base – including African-Americans – to vote in a midterm election when turnout is historically low.
“This gives (Democrats) another issue they care about,” said Furman political scientist Danielle Vinson. “But if they were closer in the polls, I don’t think you would see them doing this. It’s a risky move.”
The returns on the strategy may be limited, political experts said.
University of South Carolina political scientist Bob Oldendick said he does not expect enough voters, angered over the flag, to rush the polls on Nov. 4 to close the gap between the Democrats and Republicans Haley and McMaster. “It's been there 15 years already.”
As for whether lawmakers will revisit the debate over the flag’s removal next session, Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan said, without a complaint from a major industrial prospect, that’s unlikely. “If you touch it, you usually die politically.”
Republican Gov. David Beasley’s 1998 re-election campaign loss was due, in part, to his support for removing the flag from the State House dome.
Removing the flag from the grounds also would be a heavy lift, requiring a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate and the governor’s signature, said state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, an early supporter of moving the flag from the State House dome to the grounds.
Courson said lawmakers’ appetite for that debate has waned since the compromise, especially in the Senate where the issue has not come up. “Most people perceive it as being the last century's battle.”
Reporter Andrew Shain contributed. Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.