A conservative advocacy group has sent thousands of mailers depicting South Carolina Republican lawmakers as Soviet Union military officers in an attack aimed at their stances on a bill involving public education data.
John Crawford, a Bonneau resident, was shocked to find one of the 6-by-9-inch glossy cards in his mailbox this week.
It pictured state Rep. Sylleste Davis, a Moncks Corner Republican, wearing a fuzzy Russian ushanka hat complete with a hammer and sickle on it.
The mailer blasted her for supporting a "creepy" bill that would mandate a "soviet-style data warehouse" that would "track and control what careers your kids' and grandkids can — and can't — have."
According to the text of the bill, H. 3757, the purpose is to create a Workforce and Education Data oversight committee which would consolidate numbers from several state agencies to analyze how students are progressing in the state's public education system.
Crawford said the mailer, and putting his Statehouse representative in the uniform of a defunct communist government, is in poor taste.
"It infuriated me," Crawford said. "I'm a supporter of her, and I am even more so after this."
Davis is one of at least two other Republican incumbents who were subjects of the Soviet-themed mailer, attacking them for their vote on the bill.
Dave Schwartz, president of Mount Pleasant-based Freedom Action Network of South Carolina, said the timing of the mailer ahead of the June 9 primary was intentional.
“The bill is very much in line with the Soviet Union, and the Chinese government,” Schwartz said. “It’s un-American. We wanted to inform the voters of what is going on."
The Freedom Action Network advances causes that support tax cuts, anti-abortion legislation, gun rights, and overall, shrinks the size and scope of state government.
Schwartz did not disclose how much was spent on the mailers. He said that "thousands" of them were mailed in various districts.
Davis was surprised to see the ad and her face on the body of a Soviet Union military officer. But she also said it's emblematic of what campaigns in South Carolina have become.
"This is the way politics is today," Davis said. "I've been through this before. Some people called to tell me they thought the mailer was sad. And I agree, it is."
Davis' GOP primary challenger, Berkeley County Attorney Tom Fernandez, whose campaign strategy has included a raffle for an AR-15-style rifle, said he felt the tone of the anti-Davis mailer was too much.
"As aggressive as I am, I would not have photo-shopped Sylleste Davis and I certainly wouldn't have put her in a Soviet uniform," he said. "Nevertheless, it does raise questions as to why she is supporting bills like this."
Davis was not alone in supporting H. 3757, which passed second reading in the House last year 92-8. It's now sitting in a Senate committee.
State Rep. Neal Collins, a Pickens Republican, was one of the sponsors of the bill. He has also been targeted by the Freedom Action Network.
In a mailer similar to the one targeting Davis, he was labeled as "Comrade Neal Collins" and blasted him for his support of the bill.
State Rep. Heather Crawford, a Myrtle Beach Republican, has also been targeted by the group.
Additionally, robocalls have gone out in several districts asking residents to text a number to tell their representatives that they don't support the bill.
Collins said the measure does not collect any additional data from South Carolina residents, but asks other agencies to send it to the Revenue of Fiscal Affairs Office, which already analyzes residents' information.
The purpose is to analyze K-12 education information to see where students end up after graduation, such as technical school or a four-year university, to troubleshoot any disparities in the system.
Freedom Action Network said in the mailer that the data is personal and also includes health records, which could be breached.
While the bill does outline that "medical and health records" can be connected to the education and workforce data, it is randomized and not connected to a particular name, Collins said.
Additional safeguards to protect the data are also outlined in the bill.
“The intention of the bill is to consolidate the data we already have for an education to workplace pipeline,” Collins said. “We have the data but we are not analyzing it.”
This is the latest in a series of colorful mailers that have entered South Carolina politics in recent history.
Last year, state Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, was depicted wearing a Hawaiian T-shirt and carrying a large bag of marijuana for his support of medical cannabis.
“It so ridiculous," Collins said. "I don’t know what the intent or motive is. But they're a conservative group targeting incumbent Republicans. So you need to question it.”