When Charleston County Council member Elliott Summey announced Jan. 6 that he would be switching from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, rumors started swirling that he was gunning for a position in state government — specifically Republican Larry Grooms' state Senate seat, which Grooms might vacate to run for the state's second-highest office in the event of a resignation by scandal-plagued Lt. Gov. Ken Ard.
Summey wants to put those rumors to rest. He says he will run for re-election to his county council seat this year, citing the need to work on "unfinished business" including road infrastructure problems near the airport that have been highlighted by the arrival of Boeing. He says he will ask the cash-strapped State Infrastructure Bank for $380 million for the project next month.
"I don't have any plans to go to Columbia any time soon, or Washington," he says. "I'm not ruling that out in the future."
Another theory about Summey's party jump, put forward by political blogger Will Folks, is that it was a calculated move based on racial demographics and that he was only a Democrat in the first place to court the black vote. After the county approved a redistricting plan based on 2010 census data, the black voting-age population (BVAP) in Summey's District 3 shrank to 22.6 percent. Folks says the old district lines had a BVAP of 36 percent; Summey says the 36-percent figure actually represented the total voting-age minority population including Hispanics. Either way, Summey says his party change was a philosophical decision, not an electoral maneuver. "I wish I was that smart," he says.
"I don't think people are so dumb that they vote for people or parties because of race anymore," he adds in an e-mail. "Those days are behind us."
Summey says the change of party was a long time coming.
"I guess to an extent you could describe me as a conservative old-school Democrat, but I'm a dinosaur," says Summey, who is 35 years old. "I'm going extinct in the Democratic Party. That real conservative, Second-Amendment, gun-toting, pro-law-enforcement, big-job-creation kind of Democrat doesn't really exist anymore in the Democratic Party."
Summey traces his Democratic roots back to his grandfather, who served as a Democrat on Charleston County Council in the 1960s. He says he personally got involved with the Democrats while he was a student at the College of Charleston, where he worked with the election campaigns of Sen. Fritz Hollings and Gov. Jim Hodges, both Democrats. He says he was part of a crop of young Democrats in Charleston that included political consultant Lachlan McIntosh and realtor John Tecklenburg.
His father, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, made the switch to the Republican Party in 1988. The younger Summey says the last straw for him was the Democratic Party's support for the National Labor Relations Board as it sued Boeing for opening a nonunion plant in North Charleston.
"When a United States company does it right, when they create 6,000 jobs in Charleston and 4,000 jobs in Seattle, and the federal government then turns around and sues them and tries to rip it down — and unfortunately the party I was associated with stood behind the NLRB's decision to do that — to me that's a slap in the face of Mayor Riley, Mayor Summey, and every elected official who's worked to try to make Charleston a special place."