As we spoke on the phone today, I kept hearing bubbling, crackling sounds in the background, like something wildly boiling over. I asked Rep. Russell Ott what was going on.
Oh, he said, that was people applauding during the signing ceremony for S.1, the abortion bill that The State describes thusly:
S. 1 requires doctors to perform an ultrasound to detect a heartbeat before performing any abortion. If a heartbeat is detected, the doctor would be prohibited from performing an abortion unless the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or could cause severe harm to her health, if the fetus has a detectable anomaly that is not compatible with life or in cases where the woman reports being the victim of rape or incest. If a woman reports to a doctor that she was the victim of rape or incest, the doctor would then be required to report the crime to the local sheriff with or without the woman’s consent.,,,
Apparently, Henry just couldn’t wait to sign that one.
As it happened, this was what I had called to talk to Russell about. He thought he had found a quiet place where we could speak. But for him, there is no quiet place on this issue.
Back in December when he was re-elected as assistant leader of the Democrats in the South Carolina House, he had looked forward to working on sentencing reform, hate crime legislation, rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine, and trying to get relief and support to small business owners.
“At the end of the day, that is what it means to be a Democrat,” he told the Times and Democrat. “To look out for the working families, to make sure they have everything they need, and our support as much as possible.”
Some days, it’s easier to be a Democrat than at other times.
It turns out that once the legislative session began, the party that actually runs the State House had another priority in mind, one that led Rep. Ott to put this on Twitter yesterday:
My statement on S.1 – the fetal heartbeat abortion bill pic.twitter.com/bStu2h3ecc
— Russell Ott (@reprussellott) February 17, 2021
That led to a lot of warm responses from his fellow Democrats, such as “Disappointed is a gross understatement,” and “Yeah you should definitely be primaried. Shame on you.” Someone called him “American Taliban.” So far, there are 25 replies. Of course, that’s not so bad when you consider that at the same time, there are 131 “likes.”
So I reached out to him in a text, noting that the reasons he cites as to why he’s a Democrat are the reasons I support Dems such as James Smith and Joe Biden. But abortion is one of the main things that keeps me from being a Democrat myself, so I could sympathize. So I wanted to chat with him before putting his statement on the blog.
He called and we spoke. I noted that it seemed he was having a rough day. He said he’d “probably had some easier ones, but it’s OK.”
He’s not bothered too much by the Twitter stuff. “Twitter’s not even real, Brad. You know that.”
“Come into my district,” he said. “People are not upset.”
Not that he dismisses the concerns of those commenting on Twitter. He respects their views. He respects everyone’s views, as he indicated in his statement. Having gotten into the habit in recent days, he asked me what mine were. I told him that might take years to relate (as y’all know), but I got to talking a bit about some of my problems talking with people who agree with me on so many things, but not on this. And while I’m not a party member, I touched on the problems I’ve had as a Catholic, in light of the fact that about half of my coreligionists voted for Trump over this very issue — setting aside everything else it meant to be pro-life.
He’s a Methodist, but he seemed to understand. Similarly, he wishes some of his more critical fellow Democrats would look at the big picture of what it means, and has long meant, to be a Democrat.
“I put up the amendment that led to the flag coming down” at the critical moment of the House debate in 2015. He’s fought for public education. He’s pushed for expanding Medicaid. “And I certainly have been applauded for that.” But for the moment, at least on Twitter, “That was all gone.”
“But that’s OK,” he says. “There’s a lot of people out there that acknowledge like I do that this is not an easy issue.”
A lot of Democrats maintain their position is not only the right one, but not to be questioned. Ditto among the Republicans, as we know. “Let’s not ignore the hypocrisy on the other side,” he emphasized. As he said in his statement, he’s a Democrat because he cares about babies after they’re born, as well.
“I’m the representative of people who sent me here to … address each issue, as they come,” he said. “I know that the opinion that I hold is not unique. A lot of people that vote Democrat a majority of the time agree with this.”
But that’s because they’re not the professional Democrats, the ones on Twitter. While many of those are fine people, ones Russell gets along with most of the time, sometimes they can be kind of like the Republicans: “Both parties weaponize this issue, and I just reject that position… If that’s the way that person feels, then fine… But if you believe that’s a human being, it’s a baby…” You have to do what you think is right.
“We shouldn’t have a litmus test in this party.”
Russell isn’t alone, of course. I just reached out to him because of the statement he had posted. Democratic Rep. Lucas Atkinson voted with him. I should probably reach out to him, too. I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me, but I found out the other day that we’re related. He’s… hang on; let me go look at the tree… my 3rd cousin, once removed.
But they’re a small group.
There’s nothing new about pro-life Democrats in South Carolina, though. Remember Vincent Sheehen, Democratic nominee for governor in 2010 and 2014? Pro-life Catholic, and one of the smartest and best people in the Senate? Yeah, he got dumped by the voters for the sin of being a Democrat — fer bein’ one a them libruls, you know.
When I brought up Sheheen, Russell pointed out how close Vincent came to being governor in 2010. He said it seems like more Democrats in the state would look and notice how well a pro-life Democrat did. And also note the fact that Jaime Harrison ran as a conventional, pro-choice Democrat, and was easily defeated in spite of having raised more money than any Senate candidate in American history.
But never mind political calculation. Russell voted the way he thought was right. And he expects others to do the same, whether they agree with him or not…