S.C. political culture
keeps flag up,
By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
RECENTLY, I said state lawmakers refuse to find the time to deal with the Confederate flag’s implications for our state.
I was wrong. They’ve saved so much time by not reforming the Department of Transportation this session that they managed to take off a whole day Thursday to honor the flag and all that it stands for. They also paid state employees several million dollars to do the same.
They know just what they’re doing. They don’t declare state holidays for every failed insurrection that comes along. There’s no Stono Rebellion Day, for instance. That was when some black South Carolina slaves rose up violently to assert their right to live as they chose, and lots of people died horribly, and the rebels suffered much and gained nothing. Whereas the War Between the States was when a bunch of white South Carolina slave owners rose up violently to… OK, well, the rest of it’s just the same.
But you see, we have a Confederate Memorial Day holiday because the General Assembly had to do something for white people after it gave black folks Martin Luther King Day.
It was a tradeoff. Our leaders think in those terms. Something for you people in exchange for something for us people. The idea that Martin Luther King might be worth a nod from all of us just didn’t wash.
The Legislature’s refusal to reform the Department of Transportation is actually related. That agency is governed according to the principle of something for you people in exchange for something for us people, leaving out the needs of the state as a whole.
The power lies in the Transportation Commission. The governor appoints the chairman; the other members are chosen by legislators. Not by the Legislature as a whole: Each member represents a congressional district, and only the legislators who live in that district have a say in choosing that commissioner. Therefore the people in a position to set priorities on road-building have parochial notions of what roads need to be built — all except the chairman, who can’t vote unless there’s a tie.
So how are priorities set? Something for you people in exchange for something for us people — the balancing of narrow interests, rather than a statewide strategy.
Lawmakers as a whole aren’t even seriously considering giving up that commission. Even the idea of giving greater power over the commission to the governor — who in almost any other state would be running that executive agency outright — is utterly shocking to some of the most powerful legislative leaders.
“This Senate would rue the day that you turn that billion-dollar agency over to one person,” said Sen. John Land, who represents a rural district.
The scandal at the Transportation Department didn’t arise from former Director Elizabeth Mabry being a bad administrator. She was a bad administrator, but she was part of a system. A job for your relative, commissioner, in return for indulging the way I run my fiefdom ….
Something for you in exchange for something for me. It didn’t even have to be stated.
When I say the “Legislature” is like this, it doesn’t apply to all lawmakers — just to the decisions they make collectively.
There are some who want to fix the agency, and others who want to take down the Confederate flag. But the status quo runs right over them without breaking stride.
Sen. John Courson proposed to do away with the commission and put the governor in charge. He got support, but not enough; the idea was dropped.
After I wrote about “the Legislature” not wanting to talk about the flag recently, Rep. Chris Hart called to say he wants to talk about it, and that he and Reps. Todd Rutherford, Bakari Sellers and Terry Alexander have a bill that would take the flag down — H.3588. But it’s sat in committee since Feb. 27.
My grand unifying theory is not a simple matter of good guys and bad guys. Sen. Glenn McConnell is a champion of the monument for you, flag for me system. But he’s pushing the plan to give the governor more say over the Transportation Department.
What matters is how it comes out, after everybody votes. This legislative session will end soon. Significant reform of the Transportation Department is looking doubtful, while action on the flag is politically impossible.
Rep. Rutherford has some hope for next year on the flag, especially after recent comments from football coach Steve Spurrier, and the protest by United Methodist clergy. If that blossoms into a movement of the breadth of the one that moved the flag in 2000, H.3588 could have a chance.
But he warns that if it does start to gain support, a moribund proposal to declare a Confederate Heritage Month will likely be revived. Something for you people, something for us people.
The Transportation Department won’t be reformed until the culture changes, until the notion that there is such a thing as statewide priorities replaces the traditional balancing of the interests of narrow constituencies.
The flag won’t come down unconditionally until the notion sinks in that it’s not about whether your ancestors were slaves, or slaveholders, or neither. This is the 21st century, and the Confederacy hasn’t existed since 1865. “I’m not trying to disrespect anybody’s heritage,” Rep. Rutherford said on Confederate Memorial Day. “It just shouldn’t be there.”
That’s true no matter who your kinfolk were, and no matter what day it is in the year 2007.