S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Oct. 1, 2006
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/06.1001.tarbaby.htm

Sanford shouldn't use racial language
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

OCT. 1 , 2006 - - At a Sept. 19 meeting of the State Budget and Control Board, Gov. Mark Sanford described his frustration with how the state disposes of excess property as "dancing with a tar baby."

Quite simply, it was a very poor choice of words - especially by a politician running for reelection.

Listen. Hear Gov. Sanford's "tar baby" comment. The quality isn't great, but you can distinguish the governor's voice and words.

Audio | Transcript

Sanford's use of "tar baby," unreported until now by the South Carolina press, might be viewed by some as a way to describe a "sticky situation." But for many, particularly South Carolinians of African-American descent, this expression that comes from the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris is a racial epithet - a derogatory term for black people. "As a result, some people suggest avoiding the use of the term in any context," according to a Web site on sensitive words by Random House publishers.

Sanford's press secretary, Joel Sawyer, said the context of the remark was to highlight how "the state was dealing with a difficult-to-escape situation. The governor was not aware that some people view the word as having another meaning, and if anyone was offended by his use of that word he certainly apologizes."

But when the Rev. Joseph Darby, the powerful African-American pastor from Charleston who gave the invocation at Sanford's inauguration, listened to an audio tape of the budget meeting, he found the governor's language was "distressing and insulting."

"I am surprised and I am shocked because Mark Sanford is a well-read man who usually chooses his words carefully," said Darby, who is former vice-chair of the state NAACP. "I would be very curious to learn where he learned to say that phrase with such natural comfort and I look forward to his explanation."


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Sanford's use of the term came during the budget board meeting during a discussion of how the state should dispose of a 250-acre tract of property near the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base owned by Clemson University. Earlier this year, Sanford pushed for the board to sell excess property through auctions. But this month, Clemson said it wanted to sell the attractive and developable tract through a sealed bid process with the minimum value set at $18 million. The university reportedly wanted to ensure it got at least that amount of money so it could use the proceeds to purchase options on property for the Upstate ICAR project.

When Sanford raised a red flag during the budget meeting about changing how the property was sold, he recalled how the board agreed to sell a piece of property in Dorchester County at auction, but changed its mind by August:

"The explanation used was it's slower - uhh, we need to move this property. But what I've come to learn is that [Budget and Control Board Executive Director ] Frank [Fusco], you went and held them for a month in even looking for auctioneers.

"So, I just feel I'm dancing with a tar baby on trying to, to move this ball forward and again, I don't want to make my problem y'all's problem but, uh, we're pushing for open, transparent ways of disposing property so that everybody has as much of a shot as somebody else.

"Umm, in this instance, given the magnitude of this project for y'all, if y'all feel strongly about wanting to go the other way, I'll look the other way. But I want to emphasize how important we think it is to move to a completely open process in the way we sell properties." [Transcription by S.C. Statehouse Report from an audiotape of the 9/12 Budget and Control Board meeting; More]

Sanford's use of the term "tar baby" this month isn't the first time he's put his foot in his mouth. Four years ago when running for governor, he offended Jews by likening time spent on his family's farm to time spent in a concentration camp.

Meanwhile, Sanford isn't the only Republican to use the expression "tar baby." Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts governor who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, received a storm of criticism in July for using the term at a fundraiser in Iowa. In describing Boston's Big Dig construction project, he said: "The best thing politically would be to stay as far away from that tar baby as I can."

Romney quickly later apologized by saying he didn't realize some people were offended by the term. In May, presidential spokesman Tony Snow was criticized for using the term when answering a question about government surveillance.

Romney was born in Michigan. Snow grew up in Ohio. But Sanford is Southern. He should have known better. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt, but it's hard to believe he didn't know "tar baby" was an old expression with racial overtones.

Send your comments to Andy Brack at brack@statehousereport.com. His book of commentary, Bugging the Palmettos, is available for $15.00. Click here for more.

Recent commentary

lighter side
10/1: Watching the numbers

Another great cartoon from Bill McLemore:

9/24: Outlaw cell phones when driving

To the editor:

Outlawing Cell phones while driving..(Commentary, 9/24) Let's call it 'Celling'...My suggestion would be to outlaw using HANDHELD CELLPHONES while driving and impose a National requirement of the auto makers to make available as an option a speaker cell phone system would would allow celling through the autos speaker phone and allow keeping both hands on the wheel. No harm here anymore than carrying on a conversation with passengers sitting in the car and that is legal..

-- Bob Logan, Little River, SC

Recent feedback

Ahead on soul of budget board

A look at how you often learn first about things in SC Statehouse Report:

From Andy Brack in Statehouse Report, 9/17/06:

"But in November, control of the board could shift to Sanford if a few things fall into place. Supporters say that would boost the power of the governor, which he needs to put his platform into place. Critics say it would increase gubernatorial meddling in day-to-day governance, something at which Sanford hasn't shown to be too adept. And they say if Sanford controls the board, it could cause college building programs to grind to a halt and affect how state employees are hired and fired."

From Dan Hoover in the Greenville News, 9/24/06

"It's the battle within a battle. And perhaps because the vote is indirect, with future control of the State Budget and Control Board at stake on Nov. 7, it's the forgotten piece in the 2006 election puzzle."

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