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Redistricting: GOP wants county in new congressional district

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Following two days of debate, the state Senate voted this week to move the Waccamaw Neck into the state’s new congressional district. Then they moved it back where it started: in the 1st District.

That’s a victory for the Democrats, said Sen. Ray Cleary, a Murrells Inlet Republican, because it’s part of a larger plan that deadlocks the redistricting process in the legislature and makes it more certain that federal judges will end up drawing South Carolina’s congressional districts just as they did following the census in 1990 and 2000.

Georgetown County Republicans say they want to be part of the state’s new 7th Congressional District with Horry County. “A new congressman will work harder for us,” said Jim Jerow, the county party chairman.

Party members were dismayed last week when Cleary backed a plan that placed Georgetown County in the 6th District, held by Democratic U.S. Rep. James Clyburn. The county is currently split between the 1st and 6th districts, with the Waccamaw Neck in the 1st District that runs along the coast from Charleston to Myrtle Beach. Growth in the state led to the creation of the 7th District.

Cleary told the county GOP at a weekend meeting that the choice was staying in the 1st District with Charleston under a plan that put the 7th District in the Beaufort County area or going into the 6th District in a plan that put the new district in the Pee Dee region. He said the plan adopted by the Senate congressional redistricting committee could be amended to put at least the Waccamaw Neck in the 7th District. An amendment he offered to that effect last week was tabled.

Cleary’s vote drew criticism last week from the former county GOP chairman, Tom Swatzel. “It’s clear, based on the public record, Sen. Cleary has taken actions on this redistricting plan that are perplexing and contrary to his own constituents’ interests,” he said.

Cleary expected the criticism. “This is take down Ray Cleary time,” he said. He and Swatzel sparred earlier this year over his nominee for the magistrate in Murrells Inlet, with Cleary’s first choice stepping aside.

About 40 Republicans met with Cleary at the Applewood House of Pancakes in Litchfield on Saturday. Several said they were upset with his vote.

“Why did you vote for it at all?” Linda Caswell asked of the 6th District option.

Voting for the alternative would have kept Georgetown County in the district with Charleston, Cleary told her. “You want me to do the effective thing or you want me to do the political sound-bite thing?” he asked her.

Caswell said later she understood the options better.

So did Ted Quantz. “People are always taking pot shots,” he said.

Cleary said since the federal courts will draw the districts the question is, “What model are they going to start with.”

Redistricting plans adopted by the legislature in 1990 and 2000 were vetoed by the governor along partisan lines. With the GOP in charge of the Statehouse, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley will sign this year’s plan, lawmakers said.

But it still needs approval by the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act, which will want to make sure it does not dilute black voting strength in the majority-minority 6th District. Cleary said the plan will also face a court challenge because blacks and Democrats believe two black majority districts ought to be created. He noted that they don’t consider the 1st District a minority district even though U.S. Rep. Tim Scott is black.

Cleary said adding Waccamaw Neck to the 7th District in exchange for an equal number of voters in Sumter County would only affect minority voting strength by 0.6 percent. It was still opposed by the Democrats because it makes the 7th District a stronger Republican seat.

Republicans don’t object to being in the 6th District because it is held by a Democrat, said Glen O’Connell, who represents the county party on the state GOP executive committee. They believe they would be better represented by someone with local ties.

“Clyburn has been a very effective congressman,” said O’Connell, who is also a former County Council member.

To pick up a majority of black voting-age population, the 6th District adopted by the Senate committee stretches from the coast to the Georgia border. Its size alone is a problem, Jerow said.

“It’s very large. People don’t feel like they’re represented,” he said. The plan to move Waccamaw Neck to the 7th District drew opposition from Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Darlington County Democrat, who said it would be dominated by coastal interests in Horry and Georgetown counties. “This is an urban-rural issue,” he said.

Cleary argued that the Waccamaw Neck has more in common with Horry and the other counties in the Pee Dee than it does with Charleston County as part of the 1st District. “Historically, we have more community of interest in this area.”

“Are you saying that with a straight face?” Malloy asked. “I mean, come on.” The amendment to move Waccamaw Neck into the 7th District passed 26-15.

But a later amendment put Waccamaw Neck and Georgetown precincts back in the 1st District, with the western parts of Georgetown County moving from the 6th District to the 7th District. In that scenario the 7th District runs south to the Lowcountry rather than north into the Pee Dee.

The amendment passed with the 10 Republican senators joining 14 Democrats.

“They broke us,” Cleary said. “The only way we could be successful was to pick one plan and stay with it.” While Cleary said keeping Georgetown, Horry and Charleston counties together makes some sense, “the people who elected me want a Pee Dee district. It’s frustrating. We took a lot of hard votes that we knew we were going to have a hard time explaining.”

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