S.C. Democrats are divided over a decision by their leaders to drop the party’s founding members from the name of Democrats’ annual fundraising dinner.
Renaming the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner discounts the significant historical impacts of former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the only South Carolinian ever to be president, critics say. The move also creates a distraction from the party’s ultimate goal — electing Democrats during the Nov. 8 election, they add.
Supporters said the Democratic Party must change with the times to ensure it remains the party of inclusion.
“It makes sense to me in 2016 that the Democratic Party should have a conversation about honoring people with history that we are not so very proud of a century later,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, a member of the party executive committee that voted Tuesday night for the change.
The state party is not acting alone.
In recent years, Democrats in Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Missouri have renamed their Jefferson-Jackson events to distance themselves from the country’s third and seventh presidents.
Both Jefferson and Jackson owned slaves. Also, Jackson infamously forced Native Americans to move west on what became known as the “Trail of Tears.”
S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison said Democrats today “are sensitive to the historic nature, and really the historic pain” associated with the Jefferson-Jackson era.
But some prominent Democrats see the move as unnecessary.
Jim Hodges, South Carolina’s last Democratic governor, said historical figures should be viewed in the context of the era that they lived in.
Revered political figures in the modern era may be seen as backwards in 50 or 100 years as society evolves and standards change, he said.
“They’re two incredibly important figures to the history of the Democratic Party, warts and all,” Hodges said.
Former Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian agreed, calling the decision “a somewhat ridiculous cosmetic change.”
“It’s much ado about nothing,” he said. “It’s a waste of time.”
Scott Buchanan, a political science professor at The Citadel, said the decision could become a slippery slope, especially when considering candidates to replace Jackson and Jefferson in the dinner’s name.
Many past Democratic leaders have baggage “when it comes to race and race relations, certainly from a 21st century perspective,” Buchanan said. “Who do you replace them with? You can replace them with a modern-day Democratic politician. But in 50 years, does that change?”
Harrison said former Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy are likely candidates for the dinner’s new name. So are prominent S.C. Democrats including former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings or state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who died last year in a racially motivated shooting at a Charleston church, he added.
“(Pinckney) is a tremendous representative of who we are as a party,” Harrison said.
Some, including state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, suggest leaving names out of the dinner altogether. The S.C. GOP’s annual fundraiser is the called the “Silver Elephant” dinner, for example.
“It’s so dangerous in 2016 because of the Internet to start naming people and then realize there’s something out there that you didn’t know,” he said.
Some Democrats Thursday worried the name flap could take the wind out of the party’s sails, adding Democrats should focus instead on the Nov. 8 election.
Amanda Loveday, former executive director of the S.C. Democratic Party, said it is unfortunate the Jefferson-Jackson decision Tuesday night overshadowed a poll, released by the party that same night, that found Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tied with Republican Donald Trump in South Carolina.
“This has now become the story, where the story should be that the election is closer than expected (in South Carolina),” she said.
S.C. GOP chair Matt Moore said is happy for the Democrats to be debating dinner names. “If Democrats want to focus on a dinner name just 77 days before the election, that’s their business. We won’t stand in their way.”
Cobb-Hunter, though, said S.C. Democrats can multitask.
“I don’t see it as a distraction at all,” she said. “I see is at the S.C. Democratic Party finding some political courage for a change and addressing an issues that a lot of people don’t want to deal with.”
Replacing Jefferson and Jackson?
S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison said he will appoint a subcommittee to review proposed changes to the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner’s name and present an alternative in January. Here are a few names that Harrison said could top the list:
▪ Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States’ 32nd president
▪ John F. Kennedy, the country’s 35th president
▪ Fritz Hollings, U.S. senator, S.C. governor and S.C. lieutenant governor
▪ Clementa Pinckney, state senator, slain last summer in a racially motivated shooting in a Charleston church
▪ No one: Some Democrats have suggested not naming the dinner after anyone. S.C. republicans, for example, call their annual fundraising dinner the Silver Elephant Dinner.