Pitched battle How Democrats lost, and then regained, the needed votes to lower the Confederate flag

Waving an American flag, Rep. Wendell Gilliard stands with other representatives and their families on the Statehouse steps to watch as members of the Highway Patrol Honor Guard take down the Confederate battle flag Friday at the Statehouse in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina House Democrats were confident when they walked in the chamber Wednesday, knowing there was enough support to remove the Confederate battle flag.

They knew Laurens Republican Rep. Mike Pitts — a devoted proponent of the rebel banner — intended to delay a final vote on the bill by placing more than 20 pro-flag amendments, a move everyone had agreed on because they felt he should be allowed to speak.

Even as pressure mounted and the requests got stranger, House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, confidently called for patience when the chamber took an afternoon break.

He stressed that discourse was part of the legislative process, and House Democrats had no intention of stymieing the debate, opting to wait Pitts out as he called for a statewide flag vote and for all the monuments at the Statehouse to be torn down.

Behind the scenes, however, dissent was growing among House Republicans.

During a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday morning, some questioned why the Democrats were claiming victory. Some pointed to a Democratic news conference Tuesday where they forcefully stressed they would not accept anything other than a clean bill.

It infuriated some Republicans, said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, adding that it was a bad, in-your-face type of move.

“When you have what you want almost within grasp, you don’t sit there and poke people in the eye,” Merrill said. “But I think cooler heads prevailed.”

Cooler heads did prevail — more than 12 hours after the session started. And it took a lot of stress to get there.

Though the flag did come down Friday, many lawmakers in the aftermath said it was made much more difficult than it had to be, as most of the Legislature was on board in the wake of the Emanuel Church AME shooting.

The hiccup was that an estimated 20 Republicans pulled their support, forcing Democrats to spend the rest of the day working to regain those votes. The strategy: allowing Republicans to speak for hours without challenging them, and to avoid inciting them.

But it was difficult. Democrats were receiving calls from frustrated constituents, who didn’t understand why they were not challenging Republicans. It also didn’t help that national reporters kept pulling Democratic members aside, asking them why a vote had not come yet.

“The reason people thought we were losing is because people don’t understand the legislative process,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “There was a strategy behind the scenes that ensured we’d be able to have a clean bill.”

A “clean bill” meant passing it without any amendments attached to it, as the Senate had done earlier in the week. The clean bill issue was important. Any change to the Senate-approved plan that took the flag down could have delayed its removal for weeks.

Some Republican lawmakers even refused to listen to Gov. Nikki Haley, who stressed the need for the flag and its pole to come down during a second closed-door caucus meeting on Wednesday. Pitts, for example, said he took his hearing aids out when Haley spoke.

A key moment came late in the evening when Summerville Republican Rep. Jenny Horne took to the floor, and gave an impassioned four-minute plea to pass the bill as is to remove the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds.

“If you cannot be moved by the suffering of the people of Charleston, then you don’t have a heart,” Horne told her fellow House members. “I would ask you all to dig deep and find the courage to do the right thing.”

Horne’s speech angered some Republicans, who said it made a tense evening even worse. Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Cayce, for instance, said afterward that he was offended by Horne’s comments, saying she “politicized and polarized” the chamber at a time when he was trying to work with Democrats.

“I think it was a very irresponsible, selfish thing to do,” he said.

Horne’s comments quickly caught the attention of the nation and went viral.

“It moved the people outside of the chamber,” said Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg. “But her passionate stand to take the flag down did not move any hard-hearted Republicans who were mocking her.”

Before Horne took to the floor, Republicans had already agreed to scrap the amendment they had been stuck on and move on to one Quinn had offered.

It would have required the operators of the Confederate Relic Room to present a budget and plan on how the flag would be presented. It didn’t call for spending any money and was seen as innocuous by some.

And they had enough votes to pass it, Merrill said. That prompted Democrats to act.

“After it became clear that they were stalling and they were not interested in voting for a clean bill, I released the troops,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I was bound and determined that spinally-challenged House members were not going to undue the efforts of the Senate.”

Democrat after Democrat took to the floor calling for a clean bill; “a page” out of the playbook Republicans had been employing most of the day.

Meanwhile, St. Andrews Democrat Rep. Russell Ott began formulating an idea in which the House would adopt a “resolution,” instead of a formal “amendment,” to support the Relic Room in the future.

By adopting a resolution, it amounted to a promissory note by Democrats to support the museum in the future.

“I was trying to think outside the box,” Ott said.

The resolution idea was eventually agreed upon after the Quinn amendment was on the verge of passing. Quinn later pulled his amendment, saying he felt like it was the right thing to do.

“In the end, the decision to take a page from the Republican playbook worked for us just as it had worked for them in the past,” Cobb-Hunter said. “We had the votes. We kept the votes. We just waited them out. And in the end we got clean bill.”