Politics & Government

Votes on border security, minimum wage are cracking Cunningham’s progressive support

Joe Cunningham, center, Democrat recently elected to congress, waits in line to vote at St. Andrews School of Math and Science in Charleston, S.C., Tuesday, November, 6, 2018.
Joe Cunningham, center, Democrat recently elected to congress, waits in line to vote at St. Andrews School of Math and Science in Charleston, S.C., Tuesday, November, 6, 2018. The Associated Press

A week ago, national progressive activists called out South Carolina’s Joe Cunningham and other centrist lawmakers as moderate U.S. House Democrats successfully pressured party leaders to pass a bill supporting border security.

But back home in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, Lowcountry liberal activists largely held their tongue and continued to voice support for the vulnerable freshman Democrat.

On Thursday, that support began to crack.

Local Democratic activists criticized Cunningham on social media Thursday for breaking with his party to vote against a bill increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from $7.25 per hour within the next six years.

Some members of Indivisible Charleston argue Cunningham took his “Lowcountry over party” pledge too far by opposing the bill.

Summerville resident Brian Murtagh, 53, said he raised money to help elect Cunningham in 2018 and makes a small contribution every month to his re-election campaign.

“But he will not be getting a raise from me,” Murtagh told The State. “It does lower the intensity of my support, for sure. I also probably won’t phone bank as extensively for him. Jaime Harrison (a Columbia Democrat running to challenge South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2020) will get phone banking time that would have gone to Joe Cunningham.

“I think this is just a very wrong decision. … I think he’s misled,” Murtagh said of Cunningham’s opposition to a $15 minimum wage.

Cunningham voted against the measure alongside four other Democrats, who, like Cunningham, are running for re-election in conservative districts.

The bill now heads to the Republican-led Senate where it faces tough odds.

Cunningham, in a statement, said he supports raising the minimum wage to $12 per hour. But he worried the legislation would harm small businesses and lead to 3.7 million Americans losing their jobs. He also is concerned it would gradually eliminate the “tipped” minimum wage for servers and other workers who rely on gratuities and “make up the backbone of the Lowcountry’s service economy.”

Under the House bill, the federal minimum wage would continue to rise in connection with median wage growth after 2025.

Under that plan, tipped workers would be required to be paid the same as others earning the minimum wage by phasing out the subminimum wages that allow those workers to be paid below $7.25 an hour.

Cunningham said he made his decision after speaking with servers, restaurant managers and small business owners who expressed concerns the bill would result in reduced hours and job losses.

“Hardworking South Carolinians deserve a raise, plain and simple,” he said. “But there is a way to raise the minimum wage without raising prices and putting jobs in jeopardy. We must go back to the drawing board and work together as Democrats and Republicans to find a compromise that involves buy-in from the business community.”

Increasing the federal minimum wage would boost earnings and family income for most low-wage workers, which would lift some families out of poverty, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. But other low-wage workers would become jobless, per the CBO.

Economists, however, say new studies cast doubt on the long-held theory that a higher minimum wage would lead to job losses.

The federal minimum wage has not increased in a decade, the longest stretch without an adjustment since the wage floor was first enacted during the 1930s, according to the Associated Press. Many states and municipalities, though, have set their own wage above that level.

“All American workers deserve to earn a livable wage that will provide the basic necessities for themselves and their families,” U.S. Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said in a statement after voting in favor of the measure. “In my district, this landmark legislation would increase the earnings of a full-time minimum-wage worker by $3,900 annually lifting many households out of poverty.”

All five Republican members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation opposed the measure.

“I think he’s pandering to conservatives,” Indivisible Charleston co-chair Katie Preston said of Cunningham. “It’s a reasonable proposal, with a six-year time frame.”

Preston and other Lowcountry Democrats concede that in a district President Donald Trump won by 13 percentage points in 2016 — and which hadn’t sent a Democrat to Congress since 1981 until Cunningham’s 2018 election — progressives are unlikely to succeed in getting a representative more liberal than Cunningham.

But at the same time, he cannot afford to alienate the progressive base of the party, Preston said.

“We have all supported Joe and stood up for him when everyone said he was too moderate,” she said. “We understand we are in a very red district, and we are very lucky we got him, but we still need to hold him accountable.

“He didn’t vote the way we hoped for the immigration bill. We said, ‘OK, we’re going to ride it out (and give him the benefit of the doubt).’ A week later, and I just don’t know. There’s a lot of shocked responses.”

For now, they say Cunningham has their support, but they will pay close attention to his future votes.

“Our best course is to call him out when he makes questionable decisions, and that’s our plan,” Preston said. “He needs to look out for both parties, I get that. But a $15 minimum wage will benefit everyone.”

Not all Lowcountry progressive groups, however, are upset with Cunningham’s vote.

“While we strongly support the bill to raise the minimum wage to $15, we also respect that Joe Cunningham was elected to represent the best interests of this diverse district as a whole,” said Anne Dickerson, a steering committee member for Beaufort SC Indivisible.

“Although we may sometimes wish he would vote differently, we are happy with his representation,” Dickerson told The State in an email. “He is a leader on environmental issues, and he works hard to listen to and consider voter concerns from all segments of our population.”

Republicans — who oppose the bill — also took swings at Cunningham.

“On top of raising the minimum wage, I believe we should focus on making sure folks make a MAXIMUM wage,” Cunningham wrote on Facebook. “That’s possible through improving our public schools, increasing access to a good job, and creating a path to affordable higher education. We also must address the affordable housing crisis that exists in the Lowcountry, especially in Charleston.”

National Republican Congressional Committee used the post to continue to lob accusations of Cunningham’s alignment with “socialists” in his party.

“After calling for a maximum wage, there is no denying that Joe Cunningham has gone full socialist,” NRCC spokeswoman Camille Gallo said.

Cunningham, on Facebook, pledged to continue to lead with “an open but independent mind.”

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.