Given the rapid evolution of American public opinion toward acceptance of gay marriage, the gubernatorial campaign of S.C. Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw) dealt local gay advocates a sharp reminder of their home state’s politics this week by reaffirming Sheheen’s support for the state ban on gay marriage.
For political observers, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s opposition to gay marriage was a given. But Sheheen’s renewed position, prompted by a same-sex couple’s lawsuit, snuffed out speculation that his views may have evolved along with those of the Supreme Court, President Obama and the Democrats’ national platform, all of which have embraced marriage equality.
But while bucking the national party is something of a tradition for southern Democrats, bucking opinion polls is not. And South Carolinians' opinions on same-sex marriage are changing.
In 2006, 78 percent of S.C. voters supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Fast-forward to 2011, when Public Policy Polling found 69 percent of South Carolina voters opposing same-sex marriage, 21 percent favoring it. In 2012, PPP polled again to find 62 percent opposing and 27 percent favoring same sex-marriage — and, for the first time, a majority (54 percent) of South Carolina voters favoring some legal recognition for same-sex couples, be it marriage or civil unions.
The trend, though not massive, is there, and proponents of marriage equality have taken to social media waving that 54 percent.
“I was disappointed, as I am with both candidates. I consider Vincent a friend and somebody I respect, but I thought his response could have been more considered,” said Malissa Burnette, a Columbia attorney who chairs a legal task force for marriage equality backed by SC Equality and the ACLU of South Carolina.
“It was 2006 when the [S.C.] constitutional amendment passed, and here we are almost to 2014,” she said Thursday. "Time is passing, and I think a lot more people have realized they have gay relatives, gay friends, gay neighbors, gay people in the workplace. With familiarity comes friendship and acceptance, and I think that is even happening in rural South Carolina.”
For Warren Redman-Gress, director of the Charleston-based Alliance for Full Acceptance, Sheheen’s position is posturing.
“I’m sure he counts on the fact that the LGBT population, [many of whom] happen to be Democrats, is going to vote for him as the lesser of two evils,” he said Wednesday.
“Sheheen’s campaign will routinely ask members of the LGBT community, me included, for contributions and support. How can I support a candidate who doesn’t support my equality as a citizen of South Carolina?”
For Harriet Hancock, retired Columbia attorney and the Midlands’ grande dame of gay rights activism, Sheheen’s continued opposition to gay marriage was an expected disappointment.
“Well he’s certainly upset a lot of people in the LGBT community, and I think he knew that was going to happen,” she said. “He’s been against gay marriage since the beginning. This is a political thing. I don’t know in his heart of hearts how he feels about gay people.”
Hancock’s last sentiment was shared Thursday by the socially conservative Palmetto Family Council in a press release that parsed the Sheheen campaign’s statement and expressed skepticism over the candidate’s commitment to the state ban on same-sex marriage.
Sheheen's campaign manager, Andrew Whalen, had told The State that Sheheen “continues to personally believe that marriage is between one man and one woman."
“Why add the word ‘personally’? Hmmm. Where have we heard that before?” wondered the Palmetto Family Council, before harkening back to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed bid for president and his alleged flip-flop on abortion.
For his part, Scott Huffmon, professor of political science at Winthrop University and director of the Winthrop Poll, sees shrewd political calculus.
“I don’t think that 54 percent means all of a sudden people are pro-gay marriage,” he said, referring to PPP’s 2012 poll number. “The problem with that is that ‘legal recognition’ is in the eye of the beholder,” and interpretations could range wildly.
“Even though there’s movement for greater tolerance, when you’re hoping to scrape back a few percentage points to perhaps eke out a win against the same opponent, you don’t want to hand them any new ammunition that might hurt you with those few percentage points you need to pull onto your side.”
Despite feeling underrepresented at the State House, South Carolina’s marriage-equality activists, boosted by wins on the national stage, are digging in.
“Look to the good things that have happened, gain strength from that and keep fighting, because it’s not going to be long before it’s a done deal everywhere,” Hancock urges her disappointed allies.
“South Carolina has resisted everything under the sun from time immemorial, and there’s no reason they won’t resist this, but eventually they have to come around too, because things change, progress is made and everyone deserves equal rights,” Hancock said.
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