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Democrats Out of Step in South

Once a stronghold, the region was swept by Bush in 2000. Many voters say the party has strayed too far from the mainstream.

November 13, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Sam Hudson, a graying, 45-year-old bartender in this former textile town, would never display a Confederate flag. "Not rich enough" to be a Republican, he said, he's a Ralph Nader man who can't understand what's happened to the Democratic Party in the South.

"When I was growing up, everybody was a Democrat," Hudson said this week. "But then it seemed like Democrats were more conservative."

Now they're preoccupied "with all this negative stuff," he said, meaning the gay rights movement. Hudson doesn't mind people living their lives the way they want in private, but "they don't have to be out there having parades."

When former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean made his controversial comment -- for which he later apologized -- about wanting to appeal to guys with Confederate flags on their pickups, political experts were quick to accuse the Democratic presidential candidate of slandering the South with an outdated image straight out of "Tobacco Road."

Confederate flag wavers are "not a group that votes very much of the time. Or if they did, they wouldn't think that a New England Democrat would represent them," said Earl Black, a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston and the author of several books on Southern politics.

But Dean's broader point, that the Democrats need to find a way to reach out to working-class white voters, is on target.

The truth is in the numbers. President Bush defeated Al Gore, 57% to 41%, in South Carolina's 2000 presidential voting on his way to sweeping the South. And just this month, the Democrats lost the governor's mansion in Kentucky for the first time in 32 years.

So what went wrong for the party? And what do the Democrats have to do to fix it?

"A lot," said Joe Erwin, 47, a Levi's-wearing ad executive who is president of the state Democratic Party. "There are so many things we have to do a better job of."

The Republicans, Erwin said, have exploited the worst fears of whites by opposing Democratic efforts to achieve racial justice. "What changed in this state is race," he said. "They've painted the Democrats as the black party."

Some whites in this town of 56,000 on the banks of the Reedy River do admit, sometimes guiltily, that they are troubled by the way Democrats seem to be courting one special interest group or another. If the issue isn't gay pride, it's abortion rights. Interviews in bars, restaurants and shops show the conservative shift is a result of vast cultural changes that have occurred here in recent decades.

"A really important fact," Black said, "is the rise of the middle class in the South that didn't exist 50 years ago." Back then, it was a region of haves and have-nots, with the wealthy mill and mine owners on one side and the sharecroppers and mine workers on the other. The Democratic Party was a vital ally in the fight for decent wages and working conditions.

A tour of Greenville shows just how much things have changed: Once described as "bombed-out," Main Street has become a glittery row of restaurants catering to immigrants flocking here from Germany, France and England, among other places. They come to work at the factories of General Electric, Michelin, Lockheed-Martin and BMW. And BMW is endowing a graduate school of automobile engineering at nearby Clemson University that is expected to produce 20,000 jobs.

Now, instead of pickups, "you'll see more BMWs per square inch driving down the street" than most places, Greenville Mayor Knox White said. "Our foreign investment is the highest per capita in the U.S.," boasted White, an immigration attorney whose father owned a small textile company here.

That's not to say no one here is struggling to make ends meet. It's just that there are not enough low-wage earners to fuel class rage, Erwin said.

According to a 2000 report by the University of South Carolina's Darla Moore school of business, the state's per capita income since 1970 has grown faster than the nation's. The state has shifted from manufacturing -- mainly textile and apparel -- to a more diversified economy of service, trade and modern manufacturing.

The economic success in the region that includes Greenville "is in large part due to the growing network of automotive related industry," the study said.

At the same time, 18,000 manufacturing jobs were lost across the state over the past year -- which has spurred criticism of Bush economic policies from leading state Democrats. "I don't want horrible things to happen so the Democrats can gain," Erwin said. "But if this keeps up you're going to see Democrats start to win."

Although unemployment in South Carolina is up a tick or two to 7%, and GE has announced a new round of layoffs from its turbine plant, he said, there's not enough pain out there right now to threaten Bush in South Carolina next year.

"This is clearly a Bush state," the Democratic Party chief said. "But there is a growing frustration."

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