Editor’s Note: On Tuesday (March 19), South Carolina will hold primaries in a special election to fill a congressional seat. Candidates for the post include former Governor Mark Sanford, magnate Ted Turner’s son, and Elizabeth Colbert Busch, comedian Stephen Colbert’s sister. For our latest from The States of the Union Project, we give you this piece on Palmetto State politics. Enjoy.
For years, driving through my hometown in South Carolina, I could glimpse the storefront of Exotica. The building sat back off the road on Sunset Boulevard, its façade a pale peach, its windows obscured. It looked exactly like what its name, scrawled in script, suggested: a sex shop or maybe a strip club.
It would be more than a decade before I would learn it was not, in fact, an adult novelty store, but instead an upscale ladies’ clothing boutique. Until her recent retirement, its proprietor Raj Randhawa spent years serving up custom tailored suits to locals. Randhawa also happens to be the mother of Nimrata Kaur Randhawa, or Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina.
I learned all this when Haley was running for statewide office back in 2010. The motto of South Carolina is “Dum Spiro Spero”—Latin for, “While I breathe, I hope.” It’s a forward-looking message, but most natives don’t hold their breath or hope that things change, not in this state, and especially not in politics. In fact, resistance to change is something of our de-facto motto.
But when Haley first appeared on the national stage, you couldn’t help but think she was something different, no matter what you thought of her politics or biography. Born to Indian immigrants from Punjab, she was raised Sikh in a garnet hamlet of the Bible Belt. She became South Carolina’s first female governor and the South’s third governor of color. Despite her conservative distaste for identity politics, she emerged as a symbol, if not proof, of Southern progress.
On the eve of her election, she stopped her campaign bus at a rally held in the refurbished barn of Harmon’s Tree Farm, not far from where my family lives. I perched next to a table laden with beer cans and urns of sweet tea. I listened as Henry McMaster, the state attorney general, rallied the nearly 200 partygoers with the drawl and fire of a preacher: “I do look forward to making Democrats so rare we got to hunt them with dogs!”
“Frankly,” he added, “having a girl in the crowd of all these boys doesn’t hurt a bit.”
Haley was the lone woman on the stage. Most of the state’s Republican delegation lauded her with stump speeches: Jim DeMint, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Wilson—my hometown representative, the one who famously yelled, “You lie!” at the president over benefits for illegal immigrants.
Haley’s minority status gave her a certain sheen and momentum, at least in some quarters. In the beginning, she spoke openly about the Sikhism of her youth, a political handicap in a region where Protestantism wins. She talked about her interfaith wedding, how she had Sikh and Christian ceremonies. She called herself a Christian convert and held membership at a United Methodist Church, but she allowed her children to experience both faiths, attending Church and Gurdwara.
Of course, like almost anything in the South, race was a factor. (It also happened that Haley ran the same year that Tim Scott, now the South’s first African American senator since Reconstruction, ran for Congress.) There was talk of Haley “passing,” of looking “like a conservative with a tan,” as one legislator put it. She could be Greek or Mediterranean, other commentators noted. A favorite press story, which played on this tension, was of the time Haley’s mother entered her into a children’s beauty pageant. There was a pageant for little white girls and a pageant for little black girls. Not knowing where she belonged, organizers refused to let a young Haley compete.
Life’s other contests fared better for her. As a political novice, she had been a fierce competitor. Now her campaign was to end with the words of her former mentor Mark Sanford, who though disgraced from his adultery scandal, was still the outgoing governor. The embattled politician was to close the pre-election rally, at least according to the schedule. He was late.
“We don’t know where he is,” a local party official told me, adding sotto voce, “We may not want to know.”
The governor did show, eventually. It was whispered that he was dressed “a tad bit more casual than everyone else.” In fact, he looked like he had just stepped off the Appalachian Trail: he wore jeans, a fleece, and shoes fit for hiking.
More than two years later, we are surprised, though only somewhat, that Sanford is enjoying a kind of political renaissance. His comeback has made him a frontrunner to reclaim his old congressional seat—a seat vacated after Haley appointed Tim Scott to fill Jim DeMint’s place in the Senate. In the wake of life’s mistakes, Sanford said in a recent ad, “We can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances and be the better for it.”
The public loves a good redemption story.
Haley has had her own share of scandals to counter. On that November evening, I found her parents standing off to the side, by themselves. They seemed press-shy and burned by a brutal campaign. There had been plenty of mudslinging; rumors of Haley’s infidelity marred the trail. My local state senator had publicly called her a “raghead.” Haley’s father, a professor, wears a turban.
As the politics got uglier, Haley seemed to distance herself from that part of her background, a sad coda to what had made her candidacy unique and special. Her website had talked about the belief in an Almighty God, a more encompassing higher power that seemed to embrace both her religious leanings. At some point that got scrubbed and the new wording proclaimed that Haley believed in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
After all, this is the state that birthed the political machinations of Lee Atwater. It gave us Ben Tillman, Preston Brooks, Wade Hampton, and Strom Thurmond. As the secession-era lawmaker said: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
The South Carolina I grew up in, and the district Haley represented in the state legislature, is less the South of William Faulkner and more the South of Walker Percy, with golf courses and subdivisions, swimming pools and Walmart. But between the country clubs and new developments, there’s still poverty and crumbling schools and rampant inequality. There’s a continued wrestling with the notion of legacy. It has been little more than a decade since the Confederate flag came down from the statehouse dome, only to be placed atop a grand monument—directly in front of the capitol’s steps.
Just a few blocks from that monument, Haley accepted her gubernatorial victory. In a ballroom of Columbia’s convention center, among her supporters, was a sizeable portion of the local Indian community. They wore Haley campaign buttons pinned to their lapels and kurtas and kameezes. Mostly they just stood in the back, cautious and careful not to step in front of the television cameras.
When I went outside to get some air, I spotted Mark Sanford. He stood near the entrance, next to some shrubbery, talking on his cell phone. Two young aides paced nearby. No one had noticed he had arrived. I thought: The governor of South Carolina is standing in the bushes. I wondered if he was reluctant to go in and face the crowd. Was he nervous? Was he sad to begin the presumed end of his political career?
Penance comes before redemption.
Inside, they called the election for Haley, and she arrived to give her acceptance speech.
“Tomorrow morning, there’s going to be a lot of news and a lot of observers that say that we made history,” she said. “And in some ways, you can look at me and say, yes, we did. But what I want this to be is that we’re turning a page. We’re turning a page on where we’ve been, but the history’s going to be where we go.”
When Haley finished speaking, a drumbeat reverberated from the back of the room. The contingent of Indian-Americans cheered, leaping forward into a traditional folk dance. Hands outstretched overhead, they sang and moved, a man keeping time with the drum strapped to his shoulders. Onlookers snapped pictures.
Kept on the margins of the campaign, Haley’s Indian supporters now commandeered the center of the room. The crowd parted to circle the dancers, jubilant and victorious.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” a man muttered behind me.
Me too, I thought.
And then, better still, it seemed the old motto might be true.
Dum Spiro Spero.
While I breathe, I hope.
Tiffany Stanley is managing editor of Religion & Politics. Follow her @tifflstanley.