COLUMBIA — U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn lashed out at the religious freedom law that triggered the fight over gay rights in Indiana, saying it’s more proof that conservative Republicans are trying to further divide the country.
“This stuff goes way beyond anything as simple as race,” Clyburn said at a wide-ranging roundtable discussion Thursday with newspaper and television reporters at his Columbia office.
“This stuff goes to the basic foundation of what this country has been built upon,” South Carolina’s only black Democrat in Congress said. “And I’m fearful that if we are not careful, we are going to be experiencing some troubling times.”
Clyburn, who routinely meets with the state’s media during congressional recesses, said he believes there is a nationally run campaign underway by conservative groups to roll back the clock on civil rights.
Included in that, he said, are religious freedom laws like those in Indiana and Arkansas condemned as potentially allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians; voter ID requirements; and stand-your-ground laws that have been used to defend shootings on unarmed blacks.
“I hope people will wake up,” he said.
Turning to a homegrown issue, Clyburn answered his critics that he hasn’t done enough to help his financially troubled alma mater, South Carolina State University.
Clyburn, for the first time, disclosed that he and his wife have donated nearly $2 million to seven colleges and universities in the state to fund endowments and scholarships.
The bulk of it — more than $1.6 million — went to S.C. State, which is South Carolina’s only historically black public university.
The money came from outside honoraria and golf tournaments that Clyburn has taken part in or sponsored during his more than two decades in Congress and before.
Clyburn attributed S.C. State’s financial troubles, which have led to the Orangeburg school falling millions of dollars behind in paying its bills, primarily to the Legislature failing to meet its financial commitments.
But he also blamed a historically inept governing board that, by design, hasn’t been allowed to draw membership from outside the state’s borders.
“You’ve got a lot of people setting policy and they can barely spell policy,” he said.
He suggested bringing in outside experts to devise and manage a recovery plan. “Elect people to the board who can add value, and who are policymakers and know what it is to manage,” he said.
Clyburn, the third-highest ranking Democrat in Congress, also discussed the upcoming vote on unionizing Boeing’s North Charleston assembly plant and the 2016 presidential primary season that is gaining momentum in South Carolina.
Clyburn said he has no plans to take a stand on the Boeing union, which the state Democratic Party is backing.
“I don’t get involved in stuff like that,” he said.
He also disclosed that he once toyed with the idea of running for president, or at least launching a “favorite son” candidacy in South Carolina. He said it was around 1976, when former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter was the Democratic frontrunner. He said his wife quickly “shut it down.”
While political observers see Clyburn strongly leaning toward supporting Hillary Clinton if she chooses to run for the White House, he insisted he will make no public statements.
“I’m going to vote for someone,” he said.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551