Analysis: Post Traumatic Electoral Politics in SC Senate Runoff

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By Jason Johnson

While most of the nation remains locked on the presidential campaign, they may overlook one of the most important elections in America in decades: the South Carolina State Senate runoff.

After the brutal assassination of Reverend and State Senator Clementa Pinckney and 9 other parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17, a special election was held Tuesday to replace Pinckney in the State Senate.

When the polls closed only two candidates remained: Kenneth Hodges, a state representative from the district for 10 years and close friend of Senator Pinckney, and Margie Bright Matthews, a local attorney who received the endorsement of the Pinckney family for her run.

State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney was among the nine victims of a shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17.Allen University

Because neither candidate earned 50 percent of the vote—they received 34.5 percent and 37.4 percent respectively—there will be a runoff election on September 15th.

The runoff will be a fascinating array of contrasts in backgrounds, styles and strategies, and a sign of what post traumatic electoral politics in America can look like.

Hodges is an incumbent and the long-serving member of the state legislature has a slew of endorsements from sitting lawmakers.

Bright Matthews is a political newcomer, having never served in any elected position before, but she secured the endorsement of the Pinckney family and has raised over $80,000 for her campaign, more than all 12 other candidates—including the lone Republican—combined.

“I feel like I haven’t even grieved,” Bright Matthews said in an interview with NBCBLK. "He [Senator Pinckney] was working very hard on so many issues. After I got over being angry and stunned.... I knew I had to be a strong and different kind of voice than what we had.”

Once the cameras were gone and the think pieces were written most of the nation forgot that an entire community had lost its most powerful voice in a state legislature that had often left it poor and defenseless.

If elected Bright Matthews would be only the second woman in the current 46 member State Senate and the sole female Democrat. (Republican lawmaker Katrina Shealy is currently the only woman, serving District 23.)

The Charleston Shooting was a tipping point in the Obama era and the special election speaks volumes about where this country could and should be headed. The pending debate, and the issues brought to the table about American healthcare, poverty, jobs and violence should be required viewing for anyone running for president in 2016.

What brought about this election was horrific; Clem Pinckney, a young pastor, husband and father of two had faithfully represented the citizens of South Carolina’s 45th district for over 15 years and was gunned down by a young white supremacist who admittedly targeted Pinckney and his church because of their combined political influence and might.

The simmering hate barely bubbling beneath the surface from many white Americans about having an African American president has seeped out for years in the form of voter suppression, increased hate crimes and racist attacks on President Obama.

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But the explicit assassination of an African American political leader demonstrated a new depth of rage and hatred that had heretofore been overlooked or underestimated by the political right and left alike.

Following the massacre presidential candidates wrestled with whether to acknowledge white supremacy as a threat to American safety. Thought leaders battled to keep the narrative focused on the political as well as religious aspects of the attack. And the entire nation mourned the loss of these men and women during President Obama’s heartfelt eulogy.

But once the cameras were gone and the think pieces were written, most of the nation forgot that an entire community had lost its most powerful voice in a state legislature that had often left it poor and defenseless. The Lowcountry of South Carolina needed more than condolences and speeches after Clementa Pinckney’s death, it needed representation.

The Lowcountry is one of the poorest parts of South Carolina if not the American south. Due to Governor Nikki Haley’s refusal to expand Medicaid over 40 percent of the district remains without basic healthcare coverage, according to one local politician.

The median income for a family is around $32,000 a year and the poverty rate is above the national average. Pinckney was a staunch advocate for expanding Medicaid coverage for the state’s poor, and for requiring body cameras for police in the wake of the Walter Scott shooting in North Charleston. He was known to many as the “Conscience of the Senate” and his death left a huge political vacuum in the state.

District 45 is staunchly Democratic so the Democratic primary is essentially the entire election. It is ironic that a white supremacist assassin who lashed out against America’s diversity ended up encouraging an incredibly diverse set of candidates for the Democratic Primary. Men, women, old and young, lawyers, elected officials, and clergy joined the race. Out of the 13 candidates most had never served in public office before and all but two raised less than $3,000 for the campaign.

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Despite being a new to politics, Bright Matthews cites her widespread community connections as advantages and examples of a base she can count on: She’s president of her local bar association. She coaches mock trial. She is active in local issues and her sorority. (She’s a Delta.)

“I’ve been a page for Senate District 45, I've been a law clerk, I can write laws and understand laws on real issues that affect people,” Bright Mathews said expanding on her qualifications. “Who better to champion education, DSS [Department of Social Services] issues, children, and the elderly who are killed in nursing homes. Who better to make sure there’s equal access to the courts than me?"

Sometimes once the last news truck has left the scene of some American horror story, whether it’s Ferguson, Baltimore, or now Charleston, it’s easy to forget that there is a rebuilding process for the residents in those cities.

It’s about more than forgiveness and heartfelt interviews. There are practical real world politics that must be attended to and addressed.

And the elections that are held in these cities after they have been wracked by discrimination and violence say as much about America’s future as how we handled the tragedies that put them on the map to begin with.