COLUMBIA - Bakari Sellers, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor and the son of a well-known South Carolina civil rights leader, challenged his opponent Thursday to resign his membership in a country club with a history of excluding black people from membership.
He said opponent Henry McMaster, a former federal and state prosecutor and the Republican in the lieutenant governor's race, should renounce his membership in Columbia's Forest Lake Club, a private golf club known to have many of the city's most prominent people as its members.
"I'm asking Henry McMaster to join me in standing up against those old ghosts and for a new South Carolina and for all future generations by permanently resigning his membership to the Forest Lake Country Club, which in 2014 continues to accept no African-American members," Sellers said in prepared remarks at a news conference on the back steps of the Statehouse.
Sellers said he knew of no black members of the club and he had never been offered membership. A manager at the Forest Lake Club declined to comment but said that questions would be forwarded to the club's president, Frank Brunson.
McMaster's campaign manager, Jeff Taillon, said McMaster has been a member of Forest Lake Club for more than 30 years. "It has no policies of racial discrimination and he would not be a member if it did," Taillon said in a statement.
Sellers' law firm boss, Pete Strom, also is a member of the club.
Sellers, a member of the firm since 2007, said he didn't know his boss was a member. "He's not running for lieutenant governor," Sellers said. "It's time we all let go of the ghosts of the past and move forward."
Strom told the Associated Press he joined in 2012 after being assured that not only was there no policy on discrimination, official or unofficial, but there was "an active effort to be more inclusive."
"No one is interested in having that type of old-time stigma associated with that club," he said of its current leadership.
Sellers' remarks could elevate the under-the-radar lieutenant governor's race in a year when statewide races for U.S. Senate and governor generally dominate the discussion. The 29-year-old S.C. House member is considered a rising star in the Democratic Party. His father is Cleveland Sellers, the only person charged in a 1968 civil rights protest known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
Sellers said the announcement was a difficult decision, and that it was not a ploy. "There are those who will call this a stunt. It is not. The truth is that this is already a campaign of contrasts," he said.
In response to a reporter's question about whether his goal was to elevate the campaign, he quipped: "I'm pretty handsome, so I've been getting some attention," he said.
Sellers also renewed his call for debates with McMaster, which he said the Republican so far has not responded to. "We're running to change the conversation ... to let go of those things of yesterday."
Taillon said he was sure McMaster and Sellers would have joint appearances and exchanges of ideas during the campaign.
"But we're not going to let other candidates dictate our schedule or our campaign plan," he said.
Sellers also said he was not calling McMaster a racist. "I want him to join me," Sellers said. "I'm not castigating the club. I'm not castigating him personally."
The club's practice of admitting only white members gained national scrutiny in 2009 after former S.C. Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson sought unsuccessfully to head the Republican National Committee. Dawson resigned his membership in the club and called on its leaders to allow black members, according to media reports.
Forest Lake, tucked off Trenholm Road, also made headlines in the late 1980s when a then-commanding general at Fort Jackson, Robert Solomon, said he had been denied a complimentary membership because he was Jewish. The club now has Jewish members, according to The State newspaper.
Sellers made his announcement facing the statue of famous South Carolina segregationist Strom Thurmond and facing away from the Confederate battle flag and monument that sits in front of the Capitol building.
Taillon said McMaster conducted his office as U.S. attorney and as the state's attorney general honorably and without discrimination. "He will continue to run his campaign in a positive manner with a spirit of optimism and inclusion for all of the people of South Carolina, and that is how he would fulfill his duties of lieutenant governor if elected," Taillon said.
The Associated Press contributed this report. Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.