By Tom Baxter
Gloria Bromell Tinubu cut a pretty wide swath during her years in Atlanta, though she never stayed in one place very long.
The former chair of the Spelman College economics department served as a member of the Atlanta City Council and the state Board of Education and ran for mayor twice before moving to North Carolina. Then she moved back, got elected to the state legislature and served for a year before moving yet again, back to her home state of South Carolina. There, she took a job at Coastal Carolina University and went to work right away on another race, in the state’s newly-created 7th Congressional District.
The 7th, centered around Myrtle Beach and including the Pee Dee region, is South Carolina’s first expansion district since the 1880s, and it has already brought disappointment to several political careers. Former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and a former state parks commissioner ran for the Republican congressional nomination and lost last summer to Horry County Commission Chairman Tom Rice, who had left some in his party breathless when he said in an interview he was “more moderate” than U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint.
Meanwhile, Tinubu was pulling a surprise in the Democratic side. She was declared the winner of the party primary with 52 percent, but a court ruled the votes of a candidate who had dropped out must be counted, dropping her percentage to below a majority. In the runoff, she trounced a more established Democrat, Preston Brittain, with 73 percent of the vote.
The 7th was drawn by Republican legislators to be a safely Republican district. African-Americans make up about 28 percent of its voting population, enough to boost Tinubu in her primary race but not enough to make her general election chances anything but a long shot, going into the last week of the race.
But those who remember her political career in Atlanta shouldn’t be surprised to learn that she has made a run of it. She gave a well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention, and she has aggressively attacked Rice as an elitist who supported a plan to bring a telephone call center to his county which would have benefited a few wealthy supporters, while trying to scale back an annual motorcycle rally which brings money into Myrtle Beach.
It’s a race in which the ideological divide is deep and wide. In a recent debate, Rice challenged Tinubu for her pro-union positions.
“Jobs are flocking here because we don’t have unions,” Rice said.
“They’re flocking here because they can exploit the people,” Tinubu replied.
Badly outspent by her opponent, Tinubu has put $300,000 of her own money into the race, a gutsy thing for an economist to do in a district designed for her to be a long-shot. Historian and longtime South Carolina political observer Jack Bass argues the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been remiss in not sinking more resources into the race, given Tinubu’s aggressive performance and primary results. But while they might force the GOP to commit more to this district than they expected, it’s hard ground for any Democrat.
And yet South Carolina remains a fascinating place. Perhaps the most mind-blowing factoid about the 2008 presidential election is that while John McCain carried the state with 54 percent of the vote, exit polls indicated that if only those 44 and under had voted, Obama would have carried this most Republican of Deep South states.
South Carolina has been Republican so long now that its Republicans routinely war with each other. Those divisions and long-term demographic changes could make it an interesting place for a tenacious Democrat, which Tinubu –whenever she has stayed in the same place long enough — has demonstrated she can be.