Rifle Clubs, Racism, and Real Talk
A very important dialogue took place last week at Mount Zion AME Church, steps from the College of Charleston. Members of the community from different races and backgrounds were there to hear a discussion between Dr. William Melvin Brown III and Dr. Andrew Savage, high school and medical school classmates who discussed their role in the recent controversy involving the Charleston Rifle Club. Brown, who is African American, is a respected physician and Navy veteran who was denied admission into the all-white social club in downtown Charleston.
The incident made local and national news as an example of how institutional racism stubbornly persists to this day, and that blacks with impeccable academic and professional credentials are still routinely excluded from social and economic opportunities solely on the basis of race. The dialogue was hosted by the Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative, convened by the Sophia Institute, which has offered a series of forums on “truth, racial healing, and transformation.” The collaborative is comprised of a racially diverse group representing over 40 local organizations and nonprofits of all backgrounds who seek to promote racial equity and justice in the wake of the Emanuel massacre.
The group has conducted similar forums involving dialogues between community leaders such as: Judge Alex Sanders, who previously led CofC and served as a Court of Appeals judge; Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, civil rights and state NAACP leader; Darrin Goss, CEO of the Coastal Community Foundation; S.C. Sen. Marlon Kimpson; S.C. Rep. Peter McCoy; Judge Arthur McFarland, co-president of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry and former municipal judge; former S.C. Rep. Lucille Whipper; educator and civil rights leader Millicent Brown; Mayor John Tecklenburg; Metanoia founder Bill Stanfield; and several others. Each dialogue pairs one African-American community leader with one white community leader who in turn, share their personal backgrounds and experiences with racism in frank and open discussions on how our community could become more inclusive and less discriminatory.
The vision of the Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative is to contribute to a just, equitable, and thriving community where people of all races are empowered to fulfill their potential. Part of that mission is to develop culturally competent leaders who understand the rich and complex racial history of our community and are empowered to act in a fair manner while promoting social justice. Perhaps the consortium’s most significant accomplishment to date occurred last year when the Charleston City Council approved a resolution apologizing for the city’s role in the slave trade. The apology resolution was championed by the Sophia Institute with the leadership of Melissa Maddox-Evans, part of the group’s senior leadership and general counsel for the Charleston Housing Authority. The resolution’s passage was proof that like-minded, positive individuals of all backgrounds can come together to make symbolic and concrete changes that will improve our discourse on difficult racial issues.
The tremendous success of these ongoing events is also further evidence that the collaborative’s strategies, methods, and programs are having a significant community impact. Founder and director of the Sophia Institute and co-chair of the Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative, Carolyn Rivers, notes that over 1,200 members of the community have attended the forums since they began in May 2017.
Melvin Brown and Andrew Savage’s conversation was an example of how this works. As the two men discussed their personal backgrounds and the circumstances leading to Brown’s rejection from the Rifle Club, the overall spirit was not one of condemnation or criticism, but one of problem solving. Audience members asked questions, and a frank and open discussion followed about how institutional racism can be elimi—nated and how the community might move forward after an ugly and painful incident.
Forums that dare to tackle the ideas championed by the Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative will always face stiff headwinds, particularly on racial issues. Social change is hard to accomplish, especially in a community where old attitudes and traditions die hard. This community is better off because of the work of the Sophia Institute and organizations like it. If our community can come together to discuss solutions to difficult racial problems rather than ignore them, we will be better off.
Charleston is officially a Democratic county. A look at the results from the past few election cycles shows why Republican incumbents running countywide have an uphill climb these days.
Going back to the 2008 general election, Republican John McCain soundly defeated Democrat Barack Obama statewide in the presidential election. In Charleston, however, Obama edged McCain with a 53-45 percent margin. That year, 57 percent of Charleston voters who voted straight ticket voted Democratic, while only 40 percent voted straight-ticket Republican. The trend continued in 2010. In a midterm election year, Charleston County still had more Democrats voting straight-ticket (49.5 percent) than Republican (46.6 percent) according to the S.C. Election Commission.
In perhaps one of the most dramatic contrasts for S.C. elections, in 2012, Republican Mitt Romney beat incumbent Obama by 10 points statewide. Still, Obama narrowly won Charleston County (50.4-48 percent). That year, an even higher percentage of straight-ticket voters cast ballots for Democrats (53 percent) than Republicans (44 percent).
Same story in 2014. A whopping 56.8 percent of straight-ticket voters supported Democrats in Charleston County that year, while only 40.6 percent voted straight-ticket Republican. Statewide, as then-Gov. Nikki Haley throttled Democratic state Sen. Vince Sheheen by nearly 15 points, Sheheen defeated Haley in Charleston County 48.5 to 47.8 percent.
These trends continued into the last presidential election. While Republican candidate Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by almost 15 points statewide, Clinton won Charleston County by a margin of 50.6 to 42 percent. Again that cycle, 52.7 percent of county straight-ticket voters voted for Democrats as opposed to 42.9 percent who voted straight-ticket Republican.
The takeaway from these recent elections is that any Charleston Democrat running countywide has a built-in cushion of about 8 to 10 percent among those voting straight ticket. Republican candidates must be strategic if they want to neutralize that advantage, and some GOP incumbents have been able to do so. The most notable recent example is Charleston County Probate Judge Irv Condon, a Republican incumbent who narrowly defeated Democratic challenger Stephanie Ganaway-Pasley by a slim margin in 2018, despite most other countywide races breaking for Democratic candidates.
The outcome of that race was the mirror image of the race for Register of Deeds, for instance, where the Democrat Michael Miller defeated Republican Tommy Hartnett by the same margin.
If a Republican incumbent wants to defeat the Democratic headwind, especially in a presidential election cycle, that candidate must appeal to a much broader base than that which is usually targeted by statewide Republicans. Local candidates have the ability to distance themselves from controversial topics such as abortion and immigration, focusing on personal connections, experience, and bipartisan appeal.
To the extent that candidates show that they can do a great job regardless of party affiliation, they may find that voters care less about party title and more about electing someone they know and trust.
Charleston Probate Judge Irv Condon’s victory last year shows that an incumbent Republican can win in a Democratic county with the right message and campaign strategy. The most recent race for Charleston County Register of Deeds offers the opposite lesson as a cautionary tale. In that race, voters rejected Republican candidate Tommy Hartnett in favor of a Democrat who campaigned more actively and enjoyed significant name recognition.
The message to Republican incumbents is this: You can win in Charleston County in a countywide election, but cannot do so by relying only on Republican voters for support. If candidates emphasize their experience, community connections, and non-partisan appeal, they will still have an uphill climb, but it is one that is eminently achievable.
This article, written by Dwayne Green, first appeared in the Charleston City Paper on May 29, 2019. View Dwayne’s full archive of articles at the Charleston City Paper as a guest columnist. Photo by Antenna on Unsplash