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Dems give vulnerable Joe Cunningham a gift: A chance to deliver a top campaign pledge

Is offshore drilling good for SC? McMaster weighs in

SC Gov. Henry McMaster said he is against drilling and seismic testing off the state’s shores and plans to take appropriate steps.
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SC Gov. Henry McMaster said he is against drilling and seismic testing off the state’s shores and plans to take appropriate steps.

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham won his seat in Congress in 2018 in large part by promising to fight to ban offshore drilling. As the Charleston Democrat enters a tough fight for re-election in 2020, his party leadership is giving him a political gift: the chance to lead that effort.

Cunningham has been picked to be the lead sponsor of the offshore drilling ban proposal that House Democrats have committed to advancing in the months ahead. He was chosen among a number of other colleagues who also have expressed an interest in promoting legislation to prohibit the practice.

That means Cunningham’s name will appear first on the bill when it is formally introduced later this week. The freshman congressman will be the face of the whole effort, helping to drive the messaging around the legislation in the lead-up to eventual debate on the House floor.

In an exclusive interview with McClatchy on Monday, Cunningham said he was chosen to be the bill’s de facto spokesman because leadership understood this was the issue he cared about most.

“They recognized I’m a leader on this issue and this is a big issue for South Carolina, big for the South,” said Cunningham of Democratic leaders. “They knew how important it was to me, and they wanted me to champion this issue.”

But as Republicans eye Cunningham as one of their top targets to defeat next year, there is a clear political advantage to giving Cunningham a major legislative win within the first months of his first term in office — and a prominent platform to help drive that victory.

In another sign Democratic leaders are paving the way for Cunningham to show voters he is delivering on his promises, Mayor Jimmy Carroll of Isle of Palms — in Cunningham’s district — was invited to Washington on April 2 to testify in support of Cunningham’s bill at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing.

Carroll, a Republican, notably crossed party lines to endorse Cunningham in the 2018 campaign because of the Democrat’s outspoken opposition to offshore drilling.

From the start of this Congress, Democratic leaders have wanted to block the Trump administration from proceeding with plans to allow oil drilling in most waters of the United States, including off South Carolina’s coastal 1st District.

As a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, Cunningham was quickly looped in on strategy sessions for how best to proceed. And as one of a handful of members to introduce a bill that would ban the practice — in Cunningham’s case, impose a 10-year moratorium — he was also early on in the mix of lawmakers who could see their bills picked to move through the legislative process.

Ultimately, House leaders, including Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., concluded the offshore drilling bill should be an outright ban, not a moratorium. Cunningham, chosen to be the lead sponsor, agreed to put his name on the stronger measure.

“The moratorium was the one similar to the one (Mark) Sanford had introduced,” Cunningham said, referring to his Republican predecessor who lost last year’s primary election to then-state Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Dorchester. “The thought was that (Sanford’s bill) was better known and it would be more broadly accepted. The goal has always been a ban.”

The bill should have support in the House, which is controlled by anti-drilling Democrats and many Republicans who represent coastal areas that could be affected by drilling.

But a stronger drilling ban could face challenges in the GOP-controlled Senate, where even approving a moratorium might have been a dicey proposition for lawmakers who don’t want to cross President Donald Trump.

A permanent ban could also peel off some House Republicans — like U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who recently said he’d support a moratorium but stopped short of supporting a full prohibition.

Republicans have tried to paint the centrist Cunningham has beholden to the outspoken liberals in the Democratic Caucus. They might try to diminish Cunningham’s win in the House by pointing out he made the bill more hardline to appease his progressive colleagues.

Cunningham said he isn’t concerned, insisting there would be bipartisan support for his bill.

One of the original cosponsors of the bill will be ultra-conservative U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. On the opposite end of the political spectrum will be U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a self-professed Democratic Socialist.

Cunningham argued he was the first Democrat in decades to win South Carolina’s 1st District seat because “we stepped up and started talking about an issue that brought people together rather than one that divides people.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she reports on the South Carolina congressional delegation for The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.


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