- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 1, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Democratic candidate for governor Vincent Sheheen tried to shake up the governor’s race in South Carolina on Wednesday, calling for the removal of the Confederate flag that flies on a pole in front of the Statehouse.

Sheheen, who is lagging in the polls, is the most prominent political voice to call for the removal of the flag - a somewhat quixotic attempt that would need a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate at a time when few others in the state are publicly demanding it.

The two-thirds vote requirement was included in a compromise 14 years ago that moved the flag from atop the Capitol dome to a place just a few feet south of a monument honoring Confederate soldiers on one of the state’s busiest streets.

The state senator from Camden has proposed replacing the Confederate flag at its new location with an American flag. The American and South Carolina flags still fly over the Statehouse.

“I want South Carolina to be celebrated not as the state that left America, but as the best state in America,” Sheheen said.

The candidate’s announcement came the same day a poll from Winthrop University found about 44 percent of likely South Carolina voters supported Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s re-election bid, compared to 34 percent backing Sheheen. The Democrat has hammered the incumbent as being corrupt and incompetent, but has struggled to get traction in a rematch of a race Haley won by more than 4 percentage points in 2010.

Sheheen said his timing isn’t political, however, but generational. He said the 2000 compromise was fine at the time, but looks less and less progressive as time moves on.

“We’re never going to move toward the future if we keep looking always to the past,” Sheheen said. “We’re stuck in a rut in South Carolina.”

Haley, who is Indian-American, has said for years she respects the 2000 compromise. Her campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey said Sheheen hasn’t made a push to remove the flag before and his timing just over a month before the election is desperate and irresponsible.

“If the General Assembly wants to revisit the issue that’s fine,” Godfrey said. “But any such effort should be done in a thoughtful bipartisan way and not in the heat of the political campaign season.”

Independent candidate Tom Ervin, however, said he agreed with Sheheen that it’s time to remove the Confederate flag.

“For some it is a symbol of oppression and for others it is a symbol of states’ rights,” Ervin said in a statement. “A symbol this divisive should not be flown in front of the Statehouse. Rather, it should be placed in our State Museum so we can remember our past and look to our future.”

Sheheen was joined Wednesday by the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Bakari Sellers, who is trying to become the state’s first African-American in that office.

Sellers’ father, a prominent civil rights leader made sure his teen son was at the front of a 2000 Martin Luther King Jr. Day march that brought tens of thousands of people to the Statehouse to call for the Confederate flag to come down from the dome.

“It has become that much more divisive over the past 14 years,” said Sellers, a state House member who is one of the few in past years to call to remove the flag. “That is not a good sign. We’re tired of being laughed at on late-night TV. We’re tired of people coming on Main Street and saying, ‘Do they really still fly that?’”

South Carolina started flying the Confederate flag on top of its Capitol in the early 1960s, both as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War and a protest of the civil rights movement. It remained for nearly four decades.

Two of the main supporters of the 2000 compromise to move the flag, white state Sen. Glenn McConnell and black state Sen. Robert Ford, both out of Charleston, are no longer in the Legislature.

The House voted 66-43 for the compromise and the Senate approved it on a 37-8 vote. Sheheen joined the Legislature in 2001.

The Associated Press asked Sheheen when he ran for governor in 2010 whether he wanted to remove the flag. He didn’t call for it to come down, but said there needed to be a discussion about what to do next.

“I think it would be in the state’s best interest to try to work together to resolve that issue in a way that helps us move past this fight that has continued forever,” he said then.


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