Senate congressional plan best for state, Beaufort County

July 7, 2011 

Recently, a new congressional plan for South Carolina, pushed by the Myrtle Beach business community in general and by a Myrtle Beach state representative in particular, unraveled in the Senate. Much to their dismay, as reported by The (Columbia) State newspaper, "the state Senate approved a redistricting plan that creates a new 7th District that is centered in Beaufort County."

South Carolina once had a 7th Congressional District, but the 1930 census took it away. The 2010 census, however, showed our state's population had grown at a rate of 15.3 percent, greater than the country as a whole at 9.7 percent. So our state's 7th District was restored.

Wesley Donehue, director of the state Senate Republican Caucus, summarized what happened next: "One of the worst kept secrets in state politics is that (Myrtle Beach) Rep. Alan Clemmons is running for the yet-unrealized 7th Congressional District. Clemmons, as chairman of the House) subcommittee drafting the plan, had the ability to craft himself a district that he could win."

And that's exactly what Clemmons did. The House adopted his plan to create a new district stretching from Myrtle Beach "into the Democratic Pee Dee area ... a district created for a more moderate Republican." (That House-approved plan was developed in conjunction with U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and members of his staff, and it chops Beaufort County into two pieces, gutting its political relevance; more on that later.)

Clemmons is an honorable man; however, drawing a new district to suit the desire of a particular politician is horrible public policy. The Senate Republican Caucus agreed, so it hired John Morgan, one of America's leading electoral demographers, to draw a congressional plan that reflected South Carolina's communities of interest, avoided gerrymandering and had the strongest chance of surviving the inevitable legal challenges in federal court.

Morgan objectively reviewed the data, applied federal Justice Department criteria and drew a plan that, among other things, happened to anchor the new 7th District in Beaufort County. That plan became the state Senate Republican Caucus plan, and attorneys specializing in redistricting law formally recommended it to the Senate's special redistricting subcommittee. That subcommittee then held a meeting to consider it, and that's when power politics reared its head again.

Unhappy that the new district might not be anchored in Myrtle Beach and include the Pee Dee, hundreds of people from that area went to the subcommittee meeting and demanded adoption of the Clemmons plan passed by the House. The subcommittee had no such plan -- none resembling it had even been recommended -- but one was hurriedly prepared that evening and quickly approved.

That hasty action was subsequently corrected by the full Senate, which voted 25 to 15 to approve the Senate Republican Caucus plan. Senators from all parts of the state -- except those from Myrtle Beach and the Pee Dee -- voted for the plan, for the same reason I did: It is the most logical plan for the state, the least gerrymandered and the one with the least number of county splits.

I also supported the Senate-passed plan because it recognizes Beaufort County's growing prominence. There is finally a chance for our county and its surrounding economic region (the counties of Jasper, Hampton and Colleton) to be the heart of a congressional district, rather than the forgotten tail-end appendages of metropolitan-dominated districts to the north (Lexington-Columbia) or the northeast (Charleston).

I did not support that plan for personal reasons. During the congressional redistricting debate, I publicly stated that if the new district ended up centered in Beaufort County, I would not run for the seat. I am making progress as a state senator on things important to me and my constituents, and right now, I can make more of a difference in Columbia than in Washington.

The General Assembly will reconvene July 26 to decide which chambers' plan will prevail. I am convinced the one approved by the House, based on the gerrymandering of raw politics, would be successfully challenged in federal court and result in judge-drawn district boundaries, a nightmare scenario that must be avoided. I will do everything in my power to keep that from happening.

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