Sheheen says Confederate flag should no longer fly at State House, Haley's campaign calls move 'desperate'

Published: Oct. 2, 2014 at 12:33 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 8, 2014 at 8:41 PM EDT
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A Confederate flag flies on South Carolina State House grounds. (Source: WIS)
A Confederate flag flies on South Carolina State House grounds. (Source: WIS)
The Confederate flag that flies on South Carolina State House grounds has become a...
The Confederate flag that flies on South Carolina State House grounds has become a gubernatorial campaign issue. (Source: WIS)

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS/AP) - Democratic candidate for governor Vincent Sheheen said Wednesday that he wants South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag that flies on State House grounds. Governor Haley's campaign calls the move "desperate and irresponsible."

Sheheen was joined by the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Bakari Sellers and several mayors Wednesday in calling for the removal of the flag. Sheheen becomes the most prominent political voice to call for the flag's removal since it was moved from atop the capitol dome to a pole just south of the Confederate soldier's monument in front of the State House in a 2000 compromise.

Sheheen said the flag needs to be removed for South Carolina to compete effectively in a global economy.

He proposed replacing the flag with an American flag in front of the State House. The American and South Carolina flags still fly over the State House dome.

"I want South Carolina to be celebrated not as the state that left America, but as the best state in America," he said.

Reached after Sheheen's announcement, Haley's deputy campaign manager said Sheheen has gone his entire political career without doing a thing to remove the flag. "And now he's trying to make it an issue 30 days before an election," Rob Godfrey said. "Vince has run out of things to say about the economy, education, and ethics reform, so he's trying to inject this sensitive issue into the campaign at the last minute. It's desperate and irresponsible.

"Governor Haley has long said she respects the bipartisan compromise that was reached in 2000 to remove the flag from the Capitol dome," Godfrey continued. "If the General Assembly wants to revisit the issue that's fine, but any such effort should be done in a thoughtful bipartisan way and not in the heat of the political campaign season."

Independent candidate Tom Ervin, however, said he agreed with Sheheen that it's time to remove the Confederate flag.

"For some it is a symbol of oppression and for others it is a symbol of states' rights," Ervin said in a statement. "A symbol this divisive should not be flown in front of the Statehouse. Rather, it should be placed in our State Museum so we can remember our past and look to our future."

There are plenty of obstacles to removing the flag. The law creating the compromise calls for a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to move the flag again.

Outside of civil rights leaders and University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier, there has been little public outcry about the flag.

Sellers' father was prominent in the civil rights movement. Sellers is in the state House, and has been one of the few lawmakers in the Legislature to call for the flag's removal.

South Carolina started flying the Confederate flag on top of its capital in the early 1960s, both as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War and a protest of the civil rights movement. It remained for more than three decades, until Republican Gov. David Beasley called for it to come down, leading to protests from civil rights groups that marched from Charleston to Columbia in support of Beasley and counter protests from groups that felt the flag was a part of the state's history and should be honored.

Beasley served one term and was beaten by Democrat Jim Hodges in an election where supporters of the Confederate flag protested almost every campaign stop.

The compromise that moved the flag to its prominent place in front of the Statehouse was widely supported. Two of its main authors, white state Sen. Glenn McConnell and black state Sen. Robert Ford, both out of Charleston, are no longer in the Legislature.

The Associated Press asked Sheheen when he ran for governor in 2010 whether he wanted to remove the flag. "I think it would be in the state's best interest to try to work together to resolve that issue in a way that helps us move past this fight that has continued forever," he said then.

Copyright 2014 WIS/The Associated Press.