Growing is painful, but not to grow is to die. The state Democratic Party has been going through some growing pains lately and is better for the experience.
While the Republican Party continues to demonstrate that it is a club for white Christians, Democrats are expanding their tent to bring more people in. Of course, the Democrats have been the "big tent" party for many years. Four decades ago the critical issue was race. Blacks embraced the Democratic Party for giving them the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Unfortunately, Southern Democratic organizations did not embrace blacks. There were ugly battles over choosing blacks as delegates to the national convention. The National Democratic Committee got involved, setting quotas for black representation in state delegations to the national convention. In one ugly scene from 1968, two Democratic delegations from Mississippi arrived at the national convention in Chicago — the all-white "regular" delegation, and the integrated "progressive" delegation. The DNC chose to seat the progressive delegation.
In the South, racist whites streamed out of the Democratic Party and into the GOP, where they have been caucusing ever since. The Democrats — especially in the South — paid a high price for reaching out to blacks, but it is the Democratic Party that has transformed race relations in America in the last half century.
Today, something like that is going on again, this time with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Despised, persecuted, and excluded in ways much as blacks were in the past, LGBTs are fighting for acceptance and power, even as states pass laws curtailing gay marriage and other rights.
There is little acceptance or power to be found in the Republican Party, which is controlled by right wing Christians, the same people who have led the battle in many states to pass homophobic legislation. So, like blacks before them, gays and lesbians have overwhelmingly embraced the Democratic Party, giving it their votes and their money. But, as history insists on repeating itself, some Democratic state organizations have been slow to return the embrace. It should come as no surprise that South Carolina is one of them.
South Carolina's conservative culture permeates every fiber of this state. In last fall's general election, 78 percent of S.C. voters supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The role of gays and lesbians has even caused anger and dissension within the state and Charleston County Democratic organizations.
Leading up to last November's election and referendum there occurred an incident that nearly poisoned the Charleston County Democratic Party. County Chairman Waring Howe entered the party headquarters on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and removed signs and placards opposing Amendment 1 — the homophobic ban on gay marriage.
"As county chairman, my job was to do everything I could to elect Democrats," Howe explained last week. "The people who donated money to the Democratic Party were supporting Democratic candidates. They were not donating to oppose that amendment."
Nevertheless, Howe came in for a round of scorn and abuse in local Democratic circles. Some of the comments made to him were "mean and hostile," Howe said, obviously stung by the remarks.
Fast forward eight months. When the state Democratic Executive Committee gathered in Columbia two weeks ago, they were one of the last two state parties having no quotas for gays and lesbians in the delegation to the Democratic National Convention. And they were under the gun from the Democratic National Committee to set a goal of at least three LGBT delegates.
There was tension in the room as party chairwoman Carol Khare Fowler began the meeting and the rancor surfaced as soon as the subject of LGBT quotas came up. Curiously, opposition to the quota rule was led by several black ex-com members, who have forgotten their own history, forgotten that only a few decades ago they were the ones trying to win a place at the table.
Then Waring Howe stood and addressed the room and suddenly things became very clear. It was important for the executive committee to adopt numerical goals for gays and lesbians, he said, because state Democrats were not in line with the national party. Gays and lesbians represented some five percent of the Democratic voting strength, Howe said, and this would be a way of thanking and rewarding them for their support. And it would be a way to bring other LGBTs into the Democratic fold.
When he finished, there was a round of applause in the room, and the committee went on to pass the resolution guaranteeing gays and lesbians at least three places in next year's convention delegation. With Howe's leadership the state Democratic Party joined the rest of the nation on this critical issue and passed a character test in its development. Meanwhile, the GOP remains a party of white Christians.