The real South Carolina
Posted: Monday, June 14, 2010 8:01 pm
By DOUGLAS COHN and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — It’s too easy to stereotype South Carolina as a state that’s out of step with much of the country, a legacy that goes back to before the Civil War, when it was the first state to secede from the union.
In fact, as throughout the South, people of different races have lived side by side for 400 years, sometimes through slavery, sometimes in segregation, but always with interaction that often fostered mutual respect and affection on an individual basis, which is why the recent Republican primary, which surprised outsiders, was no surprise to South Carolinians. It is the difference between bigots who use the Confederate Flag to symbolize their ignorance and the majority who remember the flag as a symbol of suffering, sacrifice, and service.
Last year, Republican Gov. Mark Sanford held a tearful press conference to beg forgiveness for leaving the state leaderless, his wife humiliated and his four sons without their father on Father’s Day. It was all done in the name of love, he explained, his love of a woman in Argentina. An attempt to impeach Sanford failed as did efforts to force his resignation, and on Tuesday, several Republicans competed for their party’s nomination to succeed Sanford as governor when his term ends in January. In a field full of establishment Republicans — a congressman, the attorney general and former lieutenant governor — Nikki Haley, a 38-year-old state senator finished well ahead of the others, though short of the 50 percent threshold the state requires to avoid a runoff.
She’ll face second place finisher, Rep. Gresham Barrett in a runoff on June 22, but the smart money says that’s just a formality. Given the excitement around her strong showing, Haley is almost certain to be South Carolina’s first woman governor, and the first person of color to hold the office as well. She thanked the people of South Carolina for their confidence in her while deploring the dark side of politics that captured the headlines in recent weeks.
Haley, 38, who is married with two children, weathered accusations of marital infidelity from a conservative blogger associated with a rival campaign. She called the charges a lie and said she would resign if they proved true.
The daughter of immigrants from India who settled in South Carolina, she also endured a racial slur from a fellow state legislator, who said, “We already got one rag head in the White House, we don’t need another.” Judging by the results on Tuesday, the voters rejected the negative campaigning and rallied to Haley, with women leading the charge.
The national Republican Party was euphoric that a woman of color had vaulted to the top in South Carolina, giving the party much needed diversity and a potential claim on a rising ethnic group that already boasts Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as an Indian-American slated for stardom. Haley benefitted from two powerful endorsements among women in particular. Jenny Sanford, the wronged wife, is a hero in the state for handling her husband’s infidelity with both spunk and class, moving out of the executive mansion, writing a book to set things straight and resuming life with a new boyfriend. And Sarah Palin early on nominated Haley as one of her “mama Grizzlies,” women who would fight for the public interest as fiercely as a bear for her cubs.
Haley survived a nasty Republican primary in a state known for its dirty intra-party politics. The 2000 primary that pitted George W. Bush against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., featured charges that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock when he and his wife had adopted a daughter, Bridget, from Bangladesh six years earlier. In a state often stereotyped for bigotry, there’s no better indication of the real South Carolina when Haley can present herself as a woman of color and have the voters and the Republican Party regard that as an advantage over her white male opponents.
There’s just one thing she could have done better, and that’s to shut down the inquiries about her personal life with a simple declaration that she’s lived a good and honorable life, and after that it’s nobody’s business.
Published in The Messenger 6.14.10
DOUGLAS COHN, ELEANOR CLIFT