By Barney Blakeney
The rumor mill had been buzzing for weeks about a political upheaval in North Charleston. The word was that S.C. House Dist. 113 Rep. Seth Whipper would be stepping down from the seat he’s occupied the past 23 years. I was a little conflicted. As far as I can tell, the North Charleston attorney has been among the most productive of Black state legislators. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But I’m also a proponent for term limits. I think 20 years in an elective position is too long.
I guess I’m conflicted about a lot when it comes to Black folks and political offices. I became politically aware in the 1960s as a teenager in high school. My partner Lonnie had me reading stuff like Franz Fanon, Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, Claude Brown and James Baldwin. I developed the sense that things had to change and that my generation could change them. My generation saw the first widespread election of Black officials since Reconstruction. It was exciting, encouraging and optimistic times. That excitement and optimism has been tempered over the past 45 years.
In that time Black folks have accrued a fair amount of political capital. I won’t say that we’ve used that capital most effectively, but we’ve got a good bit of skin in the game, enough to enable us to make a few deals. The folks at the state level will tell you it’s all about making deals. I don’t know that Black elected officials at the municipal and county levels do that so much.
Recently someone noted that Black political representation in North Charleston includes one U.S. Senator, one U.S., congressman, three state representatives, two county councilmen and five city council members in addition to two of the region’s largest Black church congregations. That’s a lot of juice in a city where the annual per capita income is about $20,000 and the median household income is about $40,000. According to one data source a lot of Black folks in North Charleston earn $16,000-$30,000 annually. So the foremost question on my mind is how much economic bang have we gotten for our political bang?
It’s always been my contention that politics drives everything else – social, economic, you name it. And of course, there’s been a recent argument that the Black agenda over the past 40 years has been more about social advancement than economic advancement. I think they’re both equally important and that neither is mutually exclusive. What’s the point of having the money if you can’t eat at the best restaurants, and vice versa? I think economics determines how we live and I’m convinced politics sets the rules of engagement for economics.
So when I heard that Whipper was stepping down I said, “Oh snap! We’re about to lose one of our most talented proponents!” He’s one of the five representatives who make up the contingent of seven Blacks on the Charleston County Legislative Delegation. The two Black senators and five House of Representatives members on the 22-member delegation always have had to fight hard and long to make anything happen. They each have earned their respect on the body, but they’ll tell you it’s been a struggle to bring home the bacon.
That’s why it’s infinitely important for Black folks to pay strict attention to local politics. Yeah, Donald Trump and crew merit our attention, but we’d do well to keep a close check on what’s happening right here in the Lowcountry. The issue of Whipper’s departure – whether he leaves politics or not – is a signal we need to be looking ahead. Our political structure creates a domino effect when the position of any one of the pieces changes. Right now several moves are being made on the state’s political chessboard that ultimately will affect our local community.
I haven’t even focused on the Fifth Congressional District special election. The 5th Congressional District of South Carolina will hold a special election June 20 to replace Republican Mick Mulvaney who was confirmed as director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The district is a safe Republican district, but Democrats are espousing their usual fundraising jargon. I think Black folks ought to be more concerned with the sixth Congressional District! We all love Jim Clyburn, but he ain’t gonna be there forever.
I’m thinking the way the gerrymandering thing goes, white folks will give us the Sixth Congressional District. They’ll let us have one of the seven congressional districts in the state. Still, even that’s no given considering today’s political climate. Clyburn has held the seat since 1993 and has risen to become one of the most influential Blacks in the Democratic Party. Some would argue that his service to his constituents in the massively impoverished Sixth District is debatable. Be that as it may, the guy is 76 years old! How much longer will he serve?
The line of candidates to succeed Clyburn is long and will get longer until his term ends in 2019. Closer to home we’d do well to look at some local offices. The three Blacks on Charleston County Council – Anna Johnson, Henry Darby and Teddie Pryor – all have enjoyed significant support in their majority Black council districts, but the racial demographics in those districts are changing.
Johnson’s sea island district is almost unrecognizable from the district she was elected to in 2010. The same goes for S.C. House Dist. 116 Rep. Robert Brown from the sea islands who was elected to a Black majority district in 2000, but now occupies the seat that has flipped to a slightly majority white district. As the City of North Charleston redevelops the racial demographics will produce different representation never mind that both 27-year incumbents Dist. 6 Dorothy Williams and Dist. 7 Sam Hart are closer to the end of their service than the beginning. The same thing’s happening in Charleston where gentrification could push James Lewis in Dist. 3, Robert Mitchell in Dist. 4 and William Dudley Gregorie in Dist. 6 out of office in their next elections.
I think the 2015 North Charleston municipal elections heralded a new era in local politics. Some young guns got beat at the draw when it was time to vote. Fewer than 30 percent of registered voters took the time to cast ballots overall and in some majority Black districts the count was fewer than 10 percent. But I see more strategy being implemented as a new wave of public servants emerges. Hopefully those strategies will be duplicated across the county.