Wednesday, Sep. 23, 2009

Still Waving the Same Flag

With all that good-neighbor agreement on stage, viewers of Tuesday’s gubernatorial debate saw very little with which to differentiate between the five Republican candidates.

All five want to bring the state lower taxes and more jobs. They all want to give tax credits for students who attend private schools, and they’re all plumb full of classic South Carolinian disdain for the federal government, with one even giving a nod to the pre-Civil War doctrine of "nullification" of distasteful federal laws.

Of course, playing to the farthest-right-wing voters who cast ballots in Republican primaries, all five said the debate over the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds is a done deal – a compromise on the flag has already been struck, they said, so there’s no need to reopen the debate. And on this one issue, all five were just wrong.

Republican gubernatorial candidates sought to prove their conservative credentials Tuesday in a wide-ranging debate that invoked stock GOP principles and included even a few kind words for the fiscal conservativism of embattled Gov. Mark Sanford.

They closed the door to dealing with an old wound: removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds. And they vowed to lower taxes, increase school choice and bring jobs to the state. Paramount for the group was getting South Carolina’s sputtering economy back on track.

Three of the candidates – Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and state Sen. Larry Grooms of Bonneau – have all said Sanford should resign.

The South Carolina NAACP has chosen Charlotte, N.C., for its annual meeting, continuing the boycott of the Palmetto state because of the Confederate flag at the Statehouse in Columbia.

The Herald of Rock Hill reported that NAACP officials announced Monday that Charlotte had been selected for the Oct. 8-11 meeting.

It’s the ninth year the South Carolina NAACP has met outside the state to honor its own tourism boycott aimed at getting the Confederate flag removed.

South Carolina’s candidates for governor took on jobs, education and Gov. Mark Sanford in their first debate Tuesday.

The candidates – Attorney General Henry McMaster, state Rep. Nikki Haley, state Sen. Larry Grooms, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett – were largely cordial and agreed on many of the issues.

But hanging over the candidates was the future of Sanford, who has been under fire since leaving the state for a secret five-day trip to Argentina in June. Sanford later admitted an extramarital affair. Lawmakers have said they are preparing to impeach Sanford when they return to Columbia in January, if not sooner.

Here’s the compromise they spoke of: In 2000, the black caucus in the S.C. legislature agreed that the flag be moved from its place flying over the Statehouse to a massive monument to Confederate soldiers in front of the building. Prominent still, but at least no longer sovereign. At the time, the black lawmakers said it was the best deal they felt they could get from the flag supporters who dominated the legislature.

Unlike the black caucus members, who must work with those flag supporters on a regular basis to make any progress for their home districts, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had no need to play nice, and thus launched a boycott of the state over the issue. Just this summer, a major college baseball tournament moved itself from Myrtle Beach to North Carolina because of the boycott. A few weeks later, the mostly black Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) heard a presentation from the NAACP that persuaded it to likewise move its 2010 convention away from South Carolina.

We know the state’s reputation for fighting with the NAACP over the flag precedes us around the country, but we have no idea how many other family reunions, conferences, tournaments or investments we’ve missed out on due to it. Put simply, the boycott – and the flag – are bad for business.

Ignoring an issue doesn’t make it go away, so several candidates attempted to dismiss it with a cheap cliche: Those who aren’t yet satisfied are "looking to divide this state," more than one said, stereotyping anyone who disagrees with them as a rabble-rouser.

On the contrary, consider Bennie Swans, a local activist who has recently challenged the Myrtle Beach political leadership to initiate statewide negotiations that could lead to a compromise on the flag. Swans and the African American Heritage Foundation hosted a "Gospel at the Beach" concert earlier this month specifically intended to increase black tourism in the area – to the betterment of the overall economy, but in defiance of the NAACP boycott.

This group and others that desire a positive solution to the flag-boycott standoff are hardly seeking to "divide the state." Nor are they demanding outright concession to the NAACP’s harsh demands that every Confederate flag be removed from every public space in the Palmetto State – Swans simply believes the flag conversation should be re-opened with an eye toward solving it, as do we.

Thus far we’ve not listed the gubernatorial candidates from the Newberry debate, as they expressed their opinions on the flag with such striking sameness that there was no need to name them individually. But of the bunch – U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, state Rep. Nikki Haley, state Sen. Larry Grooms and Attorney General Henry McMaster – Barrett perhaps earns special mention for disingenousness. At the beginning of the debate, Barrett said he would be "willing to discuss" the issue with the NAACP, but when pressed later, he admitted he wouldn’t be open to moving the flag – making for what would seem to be very short negotiations. In fairness, however, Barrett was the only one lobbed that initial softball about "discussions," and we doubt any of his competitors would have shied away from a similarly convenient circumlocution if offered.

The long campaign between now and the primary election next June will provide ample time for voters to learn the nuances that separate the five Republican candidates for governor. What seems clear already is that, on one key issue for South Carolina, all five are content with pandering for primary votes instead of exhibiting pragmatic leadership.

On The Web:   www.thesunnews.com/opinion/story/1084118.html