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Georgetown County election chair not quitting amid GOP calls for his removal

James Sanderson (copy)

United Steelworkers Local 7898 president James Sanderson at the steel union hall in Georgetown on May 23, 2022. Sanderson serves as the chairman of the Georgetown County Board of Elections and Voter Registration. Mike Woodel/Staff

GEORGETOWN — The Georgetown County Republican Party called on Gov. Henry McMaster to remove county elections board chairman James Sanderson.

County GOP Chairwoman Karol Anderson accused Sanderson, the longtime president of United Steelworkers Local 7898 representing workers at Liberty Steel, of taking part in political activity that violated state law.

She cited a May statement that Sanderson gave to Georgetown Times that Anderson claims endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mia McLeod, and political contributions to local candidates that came from the United Steelworkers district office.

State law bans members of county or municipal election boards in taking part in campaigns for candidates running within the local area. The ban includes managing campaigns, campaigning or contributing to and attending fundraisers for candidates.

The governor will decide whether to keep Sanderson on the county elections board, said Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the S.C. Elections Commission. A spokesman for McMaster did not respond to a request for comment.

Sanderson said he will continue serving on the board despite the complaint from county Republican leadership.

Anderson said a statement Sanderson made to Georgetown Times this spring amounted to an endorsement of McLeod, a state senator from Columbia running for governor.

McLeod visited the Liberty Steel mill in Georgetown on May 16 at the behest of mill safety coordinator Boris Gibson, who serves as secretary and treasurer of the South Carolina AFL-CIO. McLeod gave a speech calling on local and state officials to protect the downtown mill and dredge the Port of Georgetown.

Sanderson was photographed by multiple media outlets, including Georgetown Times, standing to McLeod’s right as she spoke.

“Right now, from all I understand, she is very much the person that working people should consider for governor,” Sanderson told Georgetown Times following McLeod’s speech. He also told Georgetown Times that as chair of the county elections board, he could not formally endorse a candidate.

Sanderson reiterated that his statement was not an endorsement.

"I feel like at any time you see somebody ask you to consider somebody, it's not telling them that you endorse them or you want them to vote for that person," Sanderson said.

Anderson also mentioned campaign donations made by the United Steelworkers district office in Alabama to two Democratic candidates for municipal office in Georgetown: Brendon Barber, a then-incumbent mayor of Georgetown who lost reelection to Republican Carol Jayroe in 2021; and Tamika Williams Obeng, who is in the running for a Dec. 27 special election to the Georgetown City Council.

Anderson claimed it is inconceivable that the United Steelworkers district office would contribute to Georgetown municipal candidates without Sanderson’s direction.

Sanderson said he had nothing to do with contributions made by the district office, though he sent news articles to union district director Daniel Flippo about events surrounding the mill that some city leaders want to close to make way from tourism-centric development.

"He is well-advised about what is taking place here in Georgetown," Sanderson said of Flippo. He added that Flippo was moved to donate to Williams Obeng's campaign after she voted in the mill's favor during a zoning appeals board hearing in June.

Sanderson's term on the elections board, as well as that of five other members, expired Dec. 1. He said it is a long-standing practice to continue serving on the board until the county's legislative delegation meets to appoint new members.

"I don't know what the final outcome is going to be, but I do believe that everything will work out for the best interests of the people in Georgetown County, and that's all I look forward to," Sanderson said.

State Rep. Lee Hewitt, a Murrells Inlet Republican, said the county’s legislative delegation is working on a meeting date, possibly after the county chamber of commerce’s legislative breakfast on Jan. 27. He said he remembers discussion at the delegation’s April 2021 meeting, at which Sanderson was appointed, over whether the local union chief was too politically active to be considered unbiased.

“Him taking the podium with Mia McLeod, is that against that spirit?” Hewitt said. “That’s what we need to sit down as a delegation and decide.”

State Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, a Murrells Inlet Republican, said he does not believe Sanderson should be serving on the elections board.

State Rep. Carl Anderson, a Georgetown Democrat and the delegation’s incumbent chairman, said he was never concerned about Sanderson’s ability to serve unbiased. 

“He is a go-getter and, on top of being a go-getter, he follows the rules,” said Anderson, who put Sanderson's name forward for his position. “That’s one of the main things. He follows the rules and regulations. Even in his secular position that he has, he follows rules and regulations. And that’s what we need.”

Carl Anderson also noted that Sanderson’s appointment was approved — as required by state law — by the governor’s office.

State Sen. Ronnie Sabb, a Greeleyville Democrat, called Sanderson “an upstanding citizen” and said that, in seeking his removal, the county GOP was “weaponiz(ing)” the governor’s office.

“All we want is a full and fair election,” Sabb said. “But it’s not dictated by any particular party where they get to control all that happens. And I’ve seen this occur nationally, and quite frankly, it’s disturbing.”

The Georgetown County Board of Elections and Voter Registration will meet on Dec. 29 to canvass the Georgetown City Council special election.

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Mike Woodel reports on Georgetown County for The Post and Courier. He graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2018 and previously worked for newspapers in Montana and South Dakota.