Many S.C. lawmakers silent on flag stance

The Post and Courier conducted a survey of House and Senate members to determine how much support exists for removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds. Many have not yet responded.

Deep, strong feelings exist on both sides of the Confederate flag debate, but a majority of South Carolina lawmakers dodged attempts on Monday to pin down where they stand on removing the flag from the Statehouse grounds.

The Post and Courier reached out to all 170 House and Senate members in an attempt to determine how much support existed for removing the flag, as Gov. Nikki Haley has called on the Legislature to do.

A team of reporters called, sent emails and tweeted to these lawmakers throughout the day, but were met by silence from many.

By 6:30 p.m., those in the House supporting removal outnumbered opponents by a 4-to-1 margin. But less than half of the chamber had returned calls or emails, making it impossible to say how a vote might turn out. Across the aisle, only 19 of 46 Senators had weighed in.

State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said a lot of discussions are probably going on behind the scenes, but he thinks the writing is on the wall: the flag is coming down. For many, the flag is inextricably linked with the race-fueled killings of nine people in Charleston, and people have no desire for that symbol to fly on public property, Stavrinakis said. He said he doesn’t see Statehouse leaders bucking the governor or the will of the people to remove the flag.

“I think it’s just an issue of timing at this point,” he said.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, expressed similar sentiments and said he supported the flag’s removal. “For many, the flag stands for traditions of heritage and that’s not hate,” he said. “But the fact is, hate groups have misappropriated this flag and made it a sign of their hatred. It may not be right, but that’s a fact.”

But other lawmakers who responded to The Post and Courier’s poll firmly disagreed and vowed to fight any effort to remove a flag they see as a symbol of tradition and sacrifice.

“People look at it as honoring their heritage and the ancestors who fought in the war,” Rep. James “Mike” Burns, R-Greenville, said. “They have a place in history and people want that observation made, not placed in a dark closet and hidden away somewhere.”

Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Woodruff, said the issue had already been decided with the compromise that removed the flag from the Statehouse dome in 2000 in favor of a location on the grounds.

“This needs to go no further,” he said. “It has been settled already. A compromise is a compromise.”

Others said they were undecided, lamenting that it was too soon to be taking up the issue and picking a side. Some called it irresponsible to let emotion guide the debate so soon after Wednesday’s deaths at Emanuel AME Church.

“We haven’t had the discussion on it. I don’t think it’s right to have the discussion before we’ve had time to mourn for those who’ve lost their lives,” Rep. Todd Atwater, R-Lexington, said. “This is a reactionary decision and I don’t make decisions that way.”

Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, agreed and refused to say where he stood on the issue. “We should not be debating this matter, and we should not be leveraging the grief to try and advance a political position.”

The Post and Courier will continue to reach out to lawmakers in an attempt to pin down their positions on the flag issue. The results will be posted in real time online.

Tony Bartelme, Robert Behre, Jennifer Berry Hawes, Melissa Boughton, Andrew Knapp, Diane Knich, Schuyler Kropf, Joel Millman, Doug Pardue, Jason Emory Parker, Bo Petersen, Allison Prang, Cynthia Roldan, David Slade and Matt Sartwell contributed to this story.