Monday, January 14, 2008

Hillary, Obama, Sanford and the Politics of Race

Two major events occurred last week which were reported by the news media as having racial implications.

First, on the national level, Barack Obama lost the New Hampshire Primary after leading in the polls, leading reporters to speculate that some New Hampshire voters had voted against him for racial reasons.

Second, here in our state, Governor Mark Sanford appointed an African-American to South Carolina’s top law enforcement post: Chief of the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).

The national media acted surprised to learn that race might play a part in anyone’s decision-making process, as politically incorrect as it might be. Interestingly, this year’s presidential contest might be an exercise in political incorrectness, as race, religion and gender are all center-stage.

Ironically, if this were a job interview instead of an election, it would be illegal to use race, religion or gender as the basis for any hiring decision. But, I assure you, millions of Americans are letting those three items factor into their individual decisions to vote for or against certain candidates.

I have spelled out in this column, over the last couple of weeks, solid reasons to vote for each of the leading contenders, because I happen to believe they each deserve consideration from the voters based on their individual strengths and attributes.

As for race and ethnicity, I’m sure that neither Mr. Obama nor Bill Richardson have been surprised to discover that various voters have used those factors in making decisions, rightly or wrongly, during this process. Like most others actively involved in politics, I have long understood that race, religion and gender frequently enter into the process. I probably learned it at an earlier age than most. I was exactly two years old in 1956 when my father, the late Ryan Shealy, then a candidate for re-election to the S.C. House, became perhaps the first Deep South elected official to publicly denounce the Ku Klux Klan (see newspaper headline at And it was nearly a quarter-century ago that I first worked to try to elect an African-American to State Senate, the late Earl Middleton, about whom I wrote here a few weeks ago.

The reality, I believe, is that it’s okay to acknowledge that race plays a part. Voting tendencies based on race, gender, ethnicity, or religion do exist, and no one should be condemned merely for acknowledging these facts.

The problem, I believe, occurs when race (or religion or gender) is intentionally used to divide or polarize the population. To their credit, neither Hillary nor Obama have been guilty of this thus far, as far as I know.

Our own Governor, however, may be a different story.

Mark Sanford, it turns out, is a master of PR. If he knows anything, it’s how to make himself look good to the public.

Last week, he employed a master stroke of PR when he chose an African-American, Reggie Lloyd, as the new Chief of SLED. Sanford, of course, knew that by doing so, he would be widely credited with helping to bridge the racial divide in our state. It would make him look very good -- even courageous -- to the public (and very progressive at a time when he might possibly be considered for the Veep slot on somebody’s Presidential ticket.)

Were it not for Sanford’s recently revealed history of hypocrisy, we might have bought it. But we are all too familiar with his “say-one-thing, but-do-another” track record: he has made political hay out of beating up on the legislature – always a popular way to get votes – but has not lifted a finger to work cooperatively with them to actually try to make an impact; he blasted the legislature for their competitive grant program, which he called “pork”, but never mentioned that he had privately helped himself to a $150,000 grant for his own piece of pork… and diverted the leftover funds to his friends, instead of giving it back to the taxpayers; and, for years, he lashed out against special interest “bobtailed” legislation, but seems to forget that he himself, in his final hours as a Congressman, attached such an amendment to force a $1 million, taxpayer financed bail-out of his politically-connected friends.

Let’s analyze Sanford’s SLED appointment. He leapfrogged many, many well-qualified, long-serving law enforcement professionals, in order to make a non-law enforcement attorney, who was already our state’s first African-American federal prosecutor, our state’s first African-American chief law enforcement officer. Who really benefits most from this courageous act? Is it Lloyd? Is it our state’s African-American community? Is it law enforcement?

Nope! It’s Mark Sanford, the master of PR, who put another PR feather in his cap. Like the rest of us, he understands that race does play a role in politics, and he’s taking advantage of it to promote himself. And, as we’ve already stated, no one should be condemned for merely acknowledging the role of race in politics.

But questions lurk. Has Mark Sanford also gone beyond this PR tactic to use race to intentionally polarize or divide? You be the judge…

-- Last year, a number of political groups who follow Sanford’s lead mounted the most aggressive campaign in history to try to block the election of an African-American, Judge Don Beatty, to the S.C. Supreme Court. Never before in history had a TV ad campaign been launched against a Supreme Court candidate. The TV ad, of course, showed clearly that Beatty was African-American. Virtually every Sanford ally was united in their efforts to stop Beatty, using political threats and intimidation to try to influence votes. In the end, Beatty was successful.

-- In the last month, a political group supporting Sanford’s efforts to defeat Republican legislators was discovered using negative push polls which suggested that voters should oppose an incumbent merely because he had supported Beatty.

-- Last year, as a part of Sanford’s effort to defeat Republican legislators, one of Sanford’s closest allies attempted to spread an untrue rumor against a Midlands State Senator that the Senator had fathered a black child. The rumor was posted on a political website with close connections to Sanford.

-- Last summer, when the state legislature was required to hold an election to fill a vacancy in the office of State Treasurer, Sanford approached a number of African-Americans about seeking the post, widely regarded as an attempt by Sanford to divide the legislature along racial lines. Sanford ultimately endorsed an African-American for the post who failed to receive a nomination, or get even a single vote… not even from Sanford’s small group of legislative allies. Sanford, however, “played the race card” and publicly criticized the legislature for failing to choose an African-American… even though he had also given a secondary endorsement to another ally -- a white State Senator who also lost.

-- Last summer, in a legislative election in Sanford’s hometown of Beaufort, an internet rumor was spread suggesting that Sanford opponents had made fake phone calls from a “black-sounding voice identifying herself as Shaniqua”. Although the rumor was widely circulated -- after ironically being first published on that same Sanford-connected website in Columbia -- no one ever in Beaufort ever reported actually receiving the calls. The rumor, it turned out, seems to have originated from Sanford’s own relatives! (His sister is married to the current Mayor of Beaufort!)

Reggie Lloyd is a highly-regarded and respected individual who will make a fine Chief of SLED, and his nomination should be confirmed by the Senate. But the people of South Carolina should keep a wary eye on our Governor and his allies, who have already proven that they are not above racial divisiveness in the name of promoting Mark Sanford.

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