Some 2020 Democratic hopefuls (copy)

Democrats in the presidential conversation this year may be faced with questions about reparations.

Some of the Democrats running for the White House have given their support for reparations to descendants of slaves.

But the last time reparations surfaced in a major Democratic race in South Carolina, it didn't go well for the candidate who proposed it.

The year was 1994. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Lt. Gov. Nick Theodore, a Greenville native, were battling for the Democratic nomination for governor.

The location was a debate in Rock Hill. A phone-caller asked their views on reparations for those "who may have lost something during slavery times."

"It's a critical issue, and I think that as we look at areas especially along the coast in Beaufort County, and along those lines, there must be some reparations made," Theodore said, according to a Greenville News account from the time.

"There are some land problems that could very well be dealt with if given the proper attention through the executive branch of state government," he said.

Riley didn't go in that direction. More than reparations, he called for a colorblind state government that fosters opportunity.

Theodore would later walk back his words. He called the Rock Hill event "a confused debate."

"The bottom line of my position is that I do not support reparation, but I do support the clarification of people's ownership of property whether it's been illegally or improperly seized or if it's just in a confused state of ownership at the present time," he said.

Republicans pounced. Then-S.C. GOP Party Chairman Henry McMaster gave Theodore his "Democrat Pandering Award" for appealing to black voters.

The issue quickly died out, never getting serious traction again on the campaign trail or in the Statehouse.

But 2020 is different. The Democrats most vocal about reparations have suggested tax credits and other methods of support — a shift away from previous discussions that have centered around payments of some sort.

Among those who have spoken of reparations in recent days are Sen. Kamala Harris of California, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and self-help guru Marianne Williamson. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts expanded the issue to include Native Americans as "part of the conversation."

New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker was asked by an audience member in Simpsonville on Friday how he would focus on improving the lives of African Americans, including possible reparations. He talked about how his proposal to federally legalize marijuana would include an “economic redistributive justice” component, Palmetto Politics' Jamie Lovegrove reports.

“I say if we have marijuana laws that are producing billions of dollars in tax money, we should be investing that tax money back into communities that were disproportionately targeted, damaged and hurt,” Booker said.

Going forward, the issue is sure to stir interest in South Carolina, with its huge African-American population, its legacy of Jim Crow and enslaved labor that affected the property, wealth and education of generations.

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But could reparations ever rise above more kitchen-table issues? Some aren't ready to make that declaration.

Brenda Murphy, president of the South Carolina NAACP, listed health care access, criminal justice reform, education needs and economic sustainability where she saw as priorities. 

"That's the way we move forward as a state," she said.

J.T. McLawhorn, president of the influential Columbia Urban League, didn't think the discussion should be limited to the Democrats' White House political season.

It's "much broader than a political party," he said. "All the parties ought to be talking about reparations."  

Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon, who runs the school's Winthrop Poll, said one reason why reparations may falter as a broad talking point is that many voters favor positions of racial healing — up to a point.

Reconciliation polls well, he said, including questions about removing a Confederate flag or moving statues and adding a new marker with more historical context.

"But actual reparations — no," he said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.