Originally created 04/02/97

Beasley didn't push hard on flag issue



COLUMBIA - For all the shouting about moving the Confederate battle flag off South Carolina's Statehouse dome, the real fight was waged - and lost - very quietly.

Gov. David Beasley's aggressive public push to move the Rebel banner became a low-key, lowpressure campaign in the Legislature, which holds the power to move it.

And the Republican governor met defeat at each step.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled House, who spurned Mr. Beasley's plea for racial reconciliation, say he never lobbied hard. Many Democratic leaders in the House say they never heard from him at all.

The House voted by a nearly 3-1 margin for a public referendum. The Senate opposes a public vote, but all but a few senators in the Democrat-controlled chamber say they have not heard from the governor since the House vote.

Now the flag issue is all-but dead, and Mr. Beasley's chances of resurrecting it this year are slim, legislators say. In the Senate, Rules Chairman Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, has threatened a filibuster if the issue is pushed.

"I don't know if there was a lobbying effort, as you think of most lobbying efforts - someone trying to put a squeeze on you," said House Ways and Means Chairman Henry Brown, R-Hanahan.

But Mr. Beasley gets heated at questions about whether he fought for his flag proposal as hard as he fought past battles - for property tax relief, or welfare reform, or new economic development tools.

"We have worked as hard on this issue as any other," the governor says.

The most insistent pressure, though, came from outside government.

Newspapers' letters-to-the-editor pages have been filled with arguments from both sides - those who see the flag with its blue X, white stars and red background as Southern heritage and those who say it is a racist symbol.

Hundreds of religious leaders circled the General Assembly and prayed for the flag to come down. A plane buzzed the Statehouse, its message: "Keep The Flag Flying."

House Speaker Pro Tem Terry Haskins, R-Greenville, at first supported Mr. Beasley's proposal, but said it would be inappropriate if Mr. Beasley had pushed hard.

"He certainly hasn't attempted any kind of heavy-handed pressuring on lawmakers," said Mr. Haskins, who eventually moved to support a public vote.

The governor says he still is talking with lawmakers and leaders, but acknowledges the political stalemate. "I wouldn't say the last nail is in the coffin, but as each day passes it gets more and more difficult," he said.

Still, said Sen. Kay Patterson, a black Democrat from Columbia who backs Mr. Beasley's plan, "I don't know how to get anything moving by sitting around and being silent." Mr. Patterson has argued for years that the flag should come down.

In his first two years in office, Beasley pushed hard to overcome Senate opposition to property tax relief and called a special session to resolve a fight that would have sunk an economic development bill.

He began his flag efforts away from the glare of publicity at a meeting with House leaders a few days after the November election. Most told him they opposed moving the flag to a monument on Statehouse grounds.

Beasley said he had hoped to talk with all legislators and build consensus before his plan became public. "We were just beginning the process on day one, when it broke out in the press," he said.

Many lawmakers were caught unaware, and consensus slipped away.

"The governor kicked that sleeping dog," said Sen. John Courson, a Columbia Republican who helped draft an unsuccessful 1994 flag bill the governor used as his model. "A lot of people would like to see it go back to sleep."

Two weeks later, the governor went on live statewide television to argue that hate groups had appropriated the flag. Moving it would help race relations and protect the flag from criticism, he said.

That same night, McConnell and GOP Attorney General Charlie Condon also were on TV to oppose Beasley's efforts.

House Majority Leader Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said the governor worked "very, very hard" to sway Republican House members. Many were adamant in keeping the flag flying and well aware that three of every four voters in the 1994 GOP primary wanted the flag to stay above the Statehouse dome.

Beasley also met with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in February, with no results.

"What surprised me is it was just thrown out there for people to attack without a more coordinated effort to build consensus among Republicans and Democrats," said House Minority Leader Jim Hodges, D-Lancaster. Hodges is considering a run for governor next year.

But the flag is unlike most legislation, an emotional one that crosses family histories, race and Southern identity.

For instance, the governor's staff contacted Democratic Rep. Greg Delleney, a staunch flag supporter from Chester. He told them his position. They knew it couldn't be changed, and there was no more discussion, Delleney said.

"There was nothing he could tell me to convince me to take the flag down," Delleney said. "He didn't have an opportunity to have a lobbying effort."