COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor challenged Republican opponent Henry McMaster on Thursday to permanently renounce his membership from a historically all-white country club.
State Rep. Bakari Sellers, who is black, said he wants McMaster to stand with him against South Carolina's "old ghosts" of division by resigning from Forest Lake Club, a private golf club in Columbia.
McMaster has been a member there for more than 30 years, said his campaign manager, Jeff Taillon.
"It has no policies of racial discrimination, and he would not be a member if it did," Taillon said. He said the former U.S. attorney and two-term attorney general "conducted his offices honorably and without discrimination or prejudice of any kind. He will continue to run his campaign in a positive manner with a spirit of optimism and inclusion for all of the people of South Carolina."
He did not say whether the club has any black members.
Club manager Sean McLaughlin said Thursday blacks are not excluded. McLaughlin said the club's president could provide details, but he has not returned messages.
Sellers said he hesitated to issue the challenge to McMaster since he has "great friends" and supporters who also are Forest Lake members. They include other legislators and the managing partner of Sellers' law firm, attorney Pete Strom.
"Their personal choices are not up for debate, however, choices of those running for lieutenant governor are," Sellers said, adding he has not talked to his mentor about the club.
Strom said he joined in 2012 after being assured that not only was there no policy on discrimination, official or unofficial, but there was "an active effort to be more inclusive."
"No one is interested in having that type of old-time stigma associated with that club," he said of its current leadership.
Becoming a member requires being sponsored by three members and a vetting process. Once approved for membership, people can go on waiting lists for between two and 10 years before a slot opens, Strom said, adding he waited for four years.
A mixed-race couple and two African-American couples are approved and waiting, he said.
Sellers said he's not castigating McMaster personally, but rather is inviting him to demonstrate that "the old specters of discord and division which have so often haunted our past have no place in our future."
Sellers, a four-term House member from rural Bamberg County, said the campaign for South Carolina's No. 2 post is one of contrasts, "whether generational or idealistic." Sellers is 29; McMaster is 67.
McMaster is running on his experience, saying he has the knowledge to get things done. McMaster was a U.S. attorney during President Ronald Reagan's first term and state GOP chairman from 1993 to 2002 before being elected to two terms as the state's attorney general.
Sellers portrays himself as representing the future and McMaster the past. He notes McMaster has been running for offices since 1986, when he lost a bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, and ran unsuccessfully in 1990 for the job he's seeking now.
Sellers is the son of Cleveland Sellers, the only man imprisoned — and later pardoned — for the 1968 civil rights protest known as the Orangeburg Massacre, during which three students were killed and 27 others wounded by state troopers and police.
Forest Lake's all-white status made headlines in 2008 as then-state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson campaigned to lead the national Republican Party. Dawson wrote the club's leaders urging them to embrace diversity and publicly resigned his membership before formally seeking the Republican National Committee job. He lost in January 2009 to Michael Steele, who made history as the party's first black national chairman.
Dawson said in 2008 the club had no policy against black members, and that he learned about its whites-only restriction on the original property deed from an article in The State newspaper. Dawson told the newspaper the deed was both unconstitutional and unacceptable.
The club, located near two synagogues, previously made headlines in the mid-1980s when the then-commanding general at Fort Jackson said he had been denied the complimentary membership normally extended to the training base's leader because he was Jewish. By 2008, The State reported, the club had Jewish members.
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