South Carolina Senate Remains Totally White
By Mary Frances Derfner
Vol. 3, No. 1, 1980, pp. 14-15, 22
“It’s about time we elected a Black State Senator,” declared the posters and the handouts on the street. Many South Carolinians, both Black and White, agreed that Bill Saunders, Charleston broadcasting executive and director of the Committee on Better Racial Assurance (COBRA), a human services agency, should become South Carolina’s first Black state senator since Reconstruction. Saunders’s record included voter registration drives in the 1950s, original membership on the State Human Affairs Commission, work as principal mediator in the 1969 Charleston hospital strike, and extensive service on task forces and committees working on problems of youth, the elderly and handicapped, health care, education, economic development and crime. As Director of COBRA, a group designed in part to establish a bridge between Charleston’s Black and White communities, Saunders had worked with all elements of Charleston and Georgetown Counties, and seemed an ideal candidate.
Saunders won the hotly contested June primary and runoff elections and became the Democratic nominee for State Senate Seat 1, Charleston and Georgetown Counties, with the support of what he describes as “one of the best coalitions ever put together in Charleston,” involving “the whole nine yards” of the population. Active in the Saunders campaign were South Carolina Governor Richard Riley, Charleston local businessmen and civic leaders, and, says Saunders, more people who gave $2 and $5 contributions than were involved in any campaign of its size in local history. Despite this broadbased support, Bill Saunders lost to Charleston County Republican Party Chairman Glenn McConnell, receiving slightly less than 46 percent of the district wide vote.
Local Republican and Democratic party officials cite the “coattail effect” of Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory and the mood of the electorate as the main reasons for the defeat of
Democratic candidates, including Bill Saunders, within Charleston and Georgetown Counties. Both parties also agree that the Republicans out-organized the Democrats, particularly in predominantly White, suburban precincts, with a resulting turnout of only 60 to 65 percent of registered voters in majority-Black precincts compared to a turnout of from 70 to 80 percent of registered voters in majority-White precincts.
Bill Saunders concurs that the major reasons for his defeat were “anti-Carter sentiment and the mood of the country,” stating that local Democrats would have stood a better chance had the local and national races been separated on the ballot. Saunders also accuses the local media of ignoring the real issues in political campaigns and stressing irrelevant and irresponsible comments made by opposition candidates. “If you want to talk issues and not run a nasty campaign, you’re out of luck,” says Saunders.
Saunders blames his defeat to a lesser degree on confusion within the Black community. One Black faction urged split-ticket voting while the Democratic Party urged straight-ticket voting. There was also less-than enthusiastic support of Saunders from some traditional sources generated by the fact that the State NAACP has been seeking to have the state senate reapportioned into single member districts for quite some time. The fear that
the election of even one Black to the state senate would endanger a single member reapportionment plan tempered the support of some Black leaders. The Chronicle, Charleston’s Black newspaper, while supporting Bill Saunders, noted reservations that perhaps the reason Saunders was able to garner so much White support was the fact that White politicians were trying to defuse the single member district reapportionment attempt; the NAACP, while supporting Saunders, expressed a belief that his election might harm their reapportionment suit.
Whatever combination of reasons led to the defeat of Saunders, he does not believe his race was one of them. Statistics showing that Saunders received approximately the same number of votes as White Democrats in local races seem to bear him out. “I got a lot of White votes,” says Saunders, expressing a hope that local Blacks will realize this and not make a racial issue of his defeat. Racial issue or not, the defeat of Bill Saunders leaves the South Carolina State Senate 100 percent White, and enables some future candidate once again to claim: “It’s about time we elected a Black State Senator.”
Mary Frances Derfner is an occasional writer in Charleston, S.C., for Southern Changes.