In the wake of an election that saw Beaufort County vote overwhelmingly in favor of Donald Trump, CNN political analyst and former Democratic South Carolina lawmaker Bakari Sellers walked a thin line during a speech Thursday between calling for unity and critiquing the new president-elect’s conservative policy positions.
Sellers gave the keynote address before about 800 local government officials and members of the business community at the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the Region luncheon on Hilton Head Island.
He noted Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote and said Trump will not be governing with a mandate from the nation’s voters.
Because of the slim margin of victory and relatively low voter turnout, Tuesday’s election “wasn’t a revolution or anything like that,” Sellers said.
The attorney who served as a state representative from 2006 to 2014 said the “circumstances over the past few days would not be what I would call ideal.”
He cited polls that suggest many voters — including Republicans — continue to hold unfavorable opinions of Trump and view him as unqualified for the presidential office.
Sellers criticized opposition from Trump and other Republican leaders to universal background checks for gun purchases, legalization of medical marijuana, minimum wage hikes, public assistance programs for poor families, and immigration reform.
He read a tweet recently posted by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke which praised Trump and celebrated his election victory.
“Does that mean that everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a bigot or a xenophobe or a racist? Absolutely not,” he said. “... But that dark undercurrent of dog-whistle politics was there throughout the election nonetheless.”
Despite his criticism, Sellers called for the country — Democrats, Republicans and independents — to come together after a campaign season that “deeply fractured and divided the country.”
A democracy “is ugly, it’s messy, it’s infuriating, it’s loud,” he said. “But what we have seen in our country over the past 72 hours is what I call freedom.”
After Sellers’ roughly 25-minute speech, video presentations from local government leaders were played for the audience inside a conference room at Hilton Head Marriott Resort and Spa.
Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka, Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett and Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville each spent 10 minutes addressing issues facing the county and its municipalities.
Sommerville’s remarked on the county’s over-reliance on property taxes to balance its budget.
“Our percentage of revenue that comes from homeowners is disproportionate to (the amount of revenue) that comes from industry or commerce,” he said.
The property “tax burden is becoming pretty intolerable,” particularly for owners of second homes who pay a higher tax rate, Sommerville said.
Sulka spoke about Bluffton’s recent population explosion.
“We have had a 34 percent population increase since 2010,” she said. “With the influx of visitors, some days our population expands to 40,000 or 50,000.”
With all of the newcomers, town leaders must focus on managing growth and recruiting high-paying employers, she said.
Bennett, leader of a town hit hard by Hurricane Matthew, spoke about storm recovery efforts on the island.
He said building damage assessments are complete.
“What’s next?” he asked. “Complete removal of debris from every area of the island with the exception of commercial areas, successful beach renourishment, and ... (making) the required repairs and upgrades as a result of the storm damage and destruction.”