SUMTER, S.C. — A jovial James Mardis sits near the doorway of his wife’s floral shop to enjoy a cool breeze that brought relief from a muggy morning as he explains House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn’s popularity.
Rosa’s House of Flowers — named for Mardis’ wife Rosa — is near the entrance to Morris College, ringed by a working-class neighborhood of modest homes mixed with overgrown yards and abandoned dreams.
The flower shop sits in a community that is “predominantly Black, Hispanic and unemployed,” Mardis says. “Yes, a lot of people are unemployed, but we can’t blame (Clyburn) for that.”
Doing so wouldn’t work in Sumter, where native-son Clyburn enjoys support, in part, for bringing federal money to the city for three community centers and an intermodal transportation depot that bears his name. He’s also responsible for nearly $3 million in “earmarks” over three years to improve environmental health and safety programs at Morris.
“Anytime you mention Jim Clyburn here you get smiles on people’s faces,” says Mardis, a retired state employee and Louisiana transplant. Anything that Clyburn does to help Morris College, he adds, benefits the community around it and beyond.
Clyburn, first elected to Congress in 1992, serves a district created to ensure Black representation from South Carolina. The sprawling 6th district is the state’s only Black-majority district, encompassing all or parts of 15 mostly rural counties and stretching from Columbia to Charleston.
With a population of more than 600,000 people, the district is one of the poorest in the state where it’s estimated that one out of every five people live below the poverty line. The district is cut in half by the so-called “Corridor of Shame” along Interstate 95 where access to health care for some is limited and schools are underfunded and many are in disrepair.
The corridor is expected to get more attention in the coming months as a result of a first-ever detailed study to examine the region’s needs. Earlier this year, Francis Marion University in Florence and South Carolina State University in Orangeburg released the results of a human needs assessment of the residents in the I-95 corridor that was conducted at the end of last year.
The study made 66 recommendations “in the areas of leadership and local capacity; regional economic development; education; infrastructure; tax and finance; and health care and social service disparities,” said Emerson Gower Jr., executive in residence at FMU, in a statement.
“Congressman Clyburn has always had a unique interest in the South Carolina I-95 corridor, not because of the geography of his congressional district but because of the special needs of the area. As the corridor community implements a prioritized list of recommendations, Congressman Clyburn’s ongoing strong leadership will be critical to the success of meeting the many challenges and needs of the area.”
In a recent radio commercial Clyburn is not apologetic about bringing congressional earmarks to South Carolina. The money he has brought to Sumter is building hope, Mardis explains. The community centers are aptly called hope centers and one of them is near Morris College’s main gate.
“I’d vote for him again,” Mardis says days before the June 8 primary during which five candidates from the two majority parties and the Green Party were running to unseat the incumbent. Clyburn won his party’s nomination by a 10-to-1 margin.
The GOP contest was to be decided in a June 22 runoff. With such a crowded primary field, signs of campaigning from any candidate, however, were hard to spot here.
In a vacant lot adjacent to Rosa Mardis’ flower shop, a large billboard looms high. An image of Clyburn is surrounded by a mosaic of faces, Black and White.
“Putting Families and Community First,” reads the apolitical sign, which is also posted in other locations around the district. In Sumter, however, it is in stark contrast to an absence of ground-level partisan campaign signs in the neighborhood around the Morris campus. Maybe a lack of signage is a sign that Clyburn is so entrenched, at least here, that he does not have to ask for votes.
Clyburn’s voter support is partially linked to the financial support he brings to the state and his House post. Andy Brack, a political analyst who publishes StatehouseReport.com, says Clyburn “is a vitally important leader for South Carolina because he helps colleges, economic development projects and hospitals and schools to get the resources they have historically been denied or shortchanged. When Democrats are looking to a go-to guy for South Carolina they automatically turn to Jim Clyburn because he is the third most powerful Democrat in the U.S. House. That is not to say John Spratt is a shrinking violet, but Congressman Clyburn’s leadership beyond South Carolina is of great benefit in South Carolina.”
Joel Sawyer, executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, did not respond to phone calls seeking the GOP’s assessment of Clyburn’s work.
On the Morris campus, public relations director NiCole Williams gives a diplomatic description of Clyburn’s support of the college. She says other members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation, such as Spratt and Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, have also helped the church-supported college. The college has not built a new building in about 15 years but currently a new structure is rising to house a forensic lab. The building is supported in part with a grant from the Bureau of Justice, Higher Education Excellence Enhancement program, Williams said. Clyburn did not play a role in securing the funding for the lab, a member of his staff said. But, according to a list of appropriations compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens Against Government Waste, Clyburn and Spratt directed $500,000 to the college for the lab.
Clyburn is solely responsible, Williams adds, for two $10,000 scholarships he established nearly five years ago in honor of his late parents.
Clyburn’s most recent and largest support to the college came earlier this year when it was announced that Morris and eight other historically Black colleges and universities — eight in South Carolina and one in Georgia — would share in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management. The grants would support programs to encourage more African-American and female students to seek degrees in nuclear technology, the sciences and math. At Morris, the money will be used to enhance the curriculum and add a wing to the Wilson-Booker Science Building.
The college’s greatest need is support to carry out a long-range plan for new structures and curriculum, says Melvin Mack, director of institutional advancement and church relations.
Mayo Phillips, 19, of Mullins, a junior at Morris majoring in elementary education, says Clyburn’s support for the college comes from the heart, and he is particularly thankful. Phillips, attending Morris on an athletic scholarship as a middle-distance runner, received $2,000 and a laptop as a Canzater Scholar, a scholarship program supported by Clyburn’s annual golf tournament.
Clyburn also gets kudos beyond Morris. The Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston is benefiting from a $14.5 million earmark sponsored by Clyburn that will fund over three years the Southeastern Virtual Institute for Health Equity and Wellness, a multi-layered approach to addressing the problem of health disparities in low-income and rural communities. Dr. Thaddeus Bell is passionate about the issue. Bell, associate dean for minority affairs, is founder of Closing the Gap in Healthcare, a program that is not tied to MUSC.
“We need more African-Americans in the health care profession and Jim has elevated that discussion,” Bell says. But the health care outcomes for African-Americans along the “corridor of shame” has not improved, Bell notes.
The problem is systemic, Bell says. “I can’t say in all fairness to (Clyburn) whether he could have done anything about it, but I think if he talks to grassroots people, as well as other people who can spotlight those issues, we can do something about it, but I know he is a busy man.”