A Dilemma Named Buddy Witherspoon

By Lee Bandy
The State (Columbia, S.C.), Sunday, February 14, 1999
� Copyright 1999 The State

Perception in politics is reality. And that's why national committeeman Buddy Witherspoon is giving the state Republican Party political heartburn these days.

His association with the Council of Conservative Citizens couldn't have come at a worse time as the party reaches out to African-American voters.

"Horrible," says Vince Ellison, a black GOP activist who tried but failed last year to get the party's nomination for the 6th Congressional District.

National GOP Chairman Jim Nicholson has appealed to Witherspoon to quit the council because of its "racist views." Witherspoon has refused.

College of Charleston Professor Bill Moore, who has studied hate groups, says the council certainly can be defined as a radical fringe group trying to present itself as a more acceptable organization.

Mainstream Republicans say Witherspoon should quit the council or his national committee position. "He can't have it both ways," protested Ellison. "This is why blacks are so reluctant to join the party. It's because of situations like this. The party needs to come to grips with it. If we hope to be the majority party in this state ... we need to cleanse this foolishness out of the party."

Francis Marion University analyst Neal Thigpen, a Republican activist, says the impetus for Witherspoon's stepping down "should come from the Christian Coalition members. ... They put him there."

Moore said, "There's absolutely no question this causes the party a public-relations problem."

The Republican Party in the South was born out of segregation in the 1960s. In the past 20 years, it has attempted to redefine itself by focusing more on economic and moral issues.

The Witherspoon flap resurrects the old image of a party that opposed integration and is not receptive to blacks -- an image the GOP doesn't want. Ellison throws his hands up when stories like the Conservative Council surface. His work to recruit blacks goes for naught.

"Politics is a game of perception. And when people perceive you a certain way, that's what you are. We can't walk around here in the year 2000 and have all of this going on and not be perceived as racist," he said.

Moore argues that race still defines Southern politics. "It may not be as blatant and open," he says, "but the subtleties are out there."

Former national committeeman Lonnie Rowell of Summerville served for eight years before being upset by Witherspoon of Lexington County in 1996. As long as he was an elected official representing all Republicans, he avoided being a member of any controversial organization, he says. To that end, he quit the National Rifle Association.

Martha Edens, former national committeewoman from Columbia, says Witherspoon needs to sever his ties with the council or quit the national committee. "It's not that I dislike Buddy as a person. It's just that I dislike what he's doing to the party," she says.

Thigpen says the image hurts with whites who are sympathetic to the black community and who are looking for a more progressive party. Right now, he said, the perception is that the party is represented by "fanatics and kooks ... and who wants to be with those kinds of people?"

The party would like for this to go away. But it may not be that easy. The GOP has some image- polishing to do before the 2000 elections.

(Lee Bandy covers politics. You can reach him at (803) 771-8648 or by e-mail at lbandy@thestate.com.)