COLUMBIA — With another battle over redrawing political district maps looming, a dispute continues to rage over how boundaries for a vital South Carolina congressional seat were drawn seven years ago.
A state lawmaker this week accused U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, of misrepresenting the role that he and his staff played in the 2011 redistricting process, insisting that Clyburn and a top aide were intimately involved throughout and hand-picked specific businesses to include in Clyburn's district.
Republicans around the Statehouse have grumbled quietly for years about Clyburn's criticism as the sole Democrat in the otherwise deep-red Republican state's congressional delegation. But recent assertions from Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House, have thrown the conflict back into public view.
In a letter to The State newspaper this month, Clyburn directed blame for the shape of his district map to Republicans who dominated both chambers of the Statehouse.
"[I]f I had drawn the lines, my district would not be 58 percent black, and Joe Wilson, with whom I share Columbia and Richland County, would not have a district that is 68 percent white," he wrote.
State Rep. Alan Clemmons, a Myrtle Beach Republican who helped lead the legislative redistricting process in 2011, described Clyburn's account as revisionist history.
"To say that Congressman Clyburn was not engaged in that process is a very far deviation from the truth," Clemmons told The Post and Courier.
Allies have come to Clyburn's defense. Dick Harpootlian, who chaired the South Carolina Democratic Party at the time, said Clyburn personally told him he would prefer to have fewer African-American voters in his district in order to make the state's other six districts more competitive.
"If [Clemmons] is accusing Congressman Clyburn of not telling the truth, then he has either taken a blow to the head or he's a liar," Harpootlian said.
The result was a district that stretches from Columbia to Charleston and from Lake City to the state's southern-most border in Jasper County.
This latest spat over the 2011 maps comes as political groups have already begun gearing up for another redistricting battle in 2021. If the years-long feud over the 2011 map is any indication, the next round promises to be just as combative.
As work began on redistricting maps in 2011, Clemmons visited Clyburn in his Columbia district office. There, the congressman introduced Clemmons to Dalton Tresvant, who would go on to serve as Clyburn's "eyes and ears and hands" in multiple visits to the map room, Clemmons said.
Tresvant would request specific businesses and churches be included in Clyburn's district, according to Clemmons and another source involved in drawing new boundaries. Those requests included a range of prize assets, like Boeing's North Charleston plant, and smaller personal preferences, like a beauty salon in Sumter where Clyburn's mother worked.
Clyburn's office confirmed that the congressman met Clemmons once and that Tresvant visited the map room multiple times. In the one face-to-face meeting with Clemmons, Clyburn asked why his Santee house had been moved outside the district. It was subsequently moved back into his district.
Clemmons described Tresvant and Clyburn as cooperative and friendly throughout the map-drawing process. Tresvant's level of involvement did not surprise Clemmons, he said, as he expected Clyburn's office would want to be engaged in drawing his new district lines.
All incumbent congressmen have an acute interest in the future shape of their district, and all members of South Carolina's delegation took advantage of the map room's open-door policy to make requests, Clemmons said.
But Clemmons disputed any notion that Clyburn was merely an innocent bystander who got railroaded by a Republican Legislature. In fact, he said the map drawers did not even begin working on the six other districts until they had completed Clyburn's district to his satisfaction.
"I would suggest that he speak with Dalton Tresvant to refresh his memory," Clemmons said.
Clyburn's office did not respond to requests to speak with the congressman and Tresvant.
Harpootlian insisted it was the Republicans who wanted to pack as many African-Americans as possible into Clyburn's district to ensure that they would not risk their own reelection.
There were some black lawmakers in the State House and Senate who wanted to keep African-American supermajorities in their districts to ensure safe reelection, Harpootlian said. But Clyburn was not one of them.
Former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, who served on the election law subcommittee with Clemmons, bemoaned that some black lawmakers have formed an "unholy alliance" with Republicans to create safe districts for themselves at the expense of greater Democratic representation.
But he said Clyburn does not need to do that because he is popular enough to win in a district with fewer black voters. More broadly, Sellers said the continued quarreling between Clyburn and Clemmons shows fundamental flaws in the partisan redistricting process.
"I think the bickering and back-and-forth is indicative of why we need an independent commission," Sellers said
Harpootlian attempted a legal challenge, describing the map as "voting apartheid" that resegregated white and black voters. But the Justice Department, led by then-Attorney General Eric Holder, an appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama, had approved the maps by that point, limiting the odds of overturning it.
The lawsuit made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court ruling that the state's new lines were fair and did not discriminate against racial minorities. Clyburn's office pointed to the congressman's support for challenging the map as proof that he was never satisfied with the agreement.