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Nikki Haley, Sex and Race: The Last Gasp of the Good Old Boys?

5 years ago
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It was supposed to be "politics as usual" with the usual results. Paint a female on the rise with "the scarlet letter" and, for good measure, remind people that her parents came from "someplace else" where the people are dark and may wear a turban. Then sit back – preferably with a cigar in one hand and a bourbon in the other -- and watch said candidate slink away as voters run back to a Daddy figure who knows best. (Excuse the stereotyping but when a guy plays the "raghead" card, he deserves what he gets.)
In this case, though, if the polls are any indication, the reliable tactics stalled. Rather than hide, South Carolina gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Haley has traveled across the state in the days before Tuesday's primary, dismissing recent accusations as a distraction and touting her Tea Party and small-government message. According to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted June 5-6, Haley leads the Republican field of four at 43 percent, with her closest competitor 20 points behind. She has actually gained four points since the last survey taken before infidelity accusations and an ethnic slur took the race to a new low.
Whether you agree with the policies of the woman who wants to be the first female governor of South Carolina, you might take some comfort that the mud that's slung no longer sticks. But boy, when Haley first moved to the front of the pack, it got tossed by the bucket full. (We'll know more after Tuesday's results; state Rep. Ralph W. Norman, a Haley supporter, told me he thinks the controversy is "a plus" for his candidate.)
The conservative Haley might commiserate with another woman in recent headlines, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, scrutinized for the way she sits and holds a baseball bat. One is criticized for not enough socializing, another for too much.
Will Folks, a conservative blogger, and lobbyist Larry Marchant, a former campaign worker for rival Andre Bauer, who sits at the bottom of the poll, said they've shared pillow talk with Haley. Then, state Sen. Jake Knotts used "raghead" to describe Haley and the president of the United States, two elected officials who may be politically opposed but are similar in the way that matters most to Knotts.
Haley, a Methodist,
was born and raised in South Carolina and attended Clemson University there; her parents, immigrants from India, are Sikhs, which must make Haley some sort of stealth candidate in Knotts' view.
The politically tainted accusations of sexual misconduct, the ethnic slurs passed off as harmless and "intended in jest," reek of sexism and nativism that is unfortunately as American as the apple pie some would also see as under attack – maybe by a sexy dish with multicultural spices. While Americans talk a good game about welcoming everyone, it's clear that to a lot of people some citizens are more American than others. In 1928, the Catholicism of presidential candidate Al Smith was a deal-breaker. That you have to now have Muslims or Sikhs in the family tree to engender the wrath of some Christian Americans could, I suppose, be considered slow progress.
Many South Carolinians – embarrassed by a new wave of national ridicule – have certainly had enough. They would prefer a serious debate on jobs, health care and education. Some are still plenty mad and showed it at a Haley rally in Rock Hill, S.C., on Friday. "Haley's Comet, Bye-Bye Boys!" read one sign.
"If they weren't so scared, they wouldn't have to bring this stuff up," said Lindy Wetherell, a Lake Wylie small-business owner, wife and mother of three sons. Wetherell said women "have to be so much better than a man" when they compete. Like many women in the workforce, she has a story to tell. In a former job at a printing company, when she finished first in a sales drive, Wetherell said she heard the whispers and insults about how she should be earning a secretary's pay. She said she admires Haley's integrity. "She's so down-to-earth."
Glenda Rawlings wore a pink "Team Haley, A Women's Coalition" T-shirt. Rawlings, the president of the York County Republican Women, said Haley is a "true conservative" who believes in term limits and taking control of government spending. Haley's grass-roots success spurred the personal attacks, Rawlings said. "What makes me maddest is that Nikki's got two kids." She also thinks criticism of Haley's Sarah Palin endorsement is hypocritical. "Any of the other ones would have taken it."
However, Palin's input is problematic. While she has supported her "good friend" Haley through her troubles, Palin's "real America" rhetoric is fuel for those who would divide the country between true patriots and everyone else. It's been used to contrast her supporters with those who voted for President Obama, Tea Party and/or NRA members vs. those who abstain, rural vs. urban.
Unease with "the other" is behind Knotts' foul notion of Haley and President Obama as not authentically American. Since Palin allowed cries of "terrorist" and signs asking for Obama's birth certificate at campaign rallies without rebuke, she has to own a piece of that sentiment. When you toss out red meat, you can't be surprised when the crowd smells blood.
In a country that's constantly re-examining its identity -- and in a state that's conservative by any measure -- Haley is walking a tightrope, tough and strong, to be sure, but also demure. While keeping her cool in the South Carolina sun, the slender candidate told the small and enthusiastic Rock Hill gathering, "I have a spine that will not break." Husband Michael stood off to the side as his wife talked about the importance of faith, family and friends.
Her parents were immigrants who did it the right way, starting "a business out of the living room of our home," she said, in contrast to those targeted by an Arizona law Haley supports.
At a brief press conference after the rally, she said, "When you fight the power and the money, they're going to fight back." The racial pushback she experienced in her 2004 winning run against the longest-serving lawmaker in the South Carolina House showed she wasn't afraid to mix it up.
But she softened when asked about her competition: "I love the candidates I'm running against because I'm so different than they are. They have done this all their life. I'm just an accountant and a small businessperson that understands the value of a dollar. This is the next stepping stone for them. For me, I just want to go change government and then I want to go home."

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It's interesting that you describe Ms Haley as "slender candidate." Is this an admirable personal and political quality? Or just a subjective observation? It is a descriptor with a slant. What I do find disturbing is Ms Haley's counter-intuitive example of immigrants, people like her parents, who did it the right way and those immigrants in Arizona who are, supposedly, doing "it" the wrong way. How's that? Ms Haley is going with the anti-immigrant tide, one which equates "alien" with skin color and culture. She may not have appreciated state Sen Knox's "*******" epithet but Haley's support of the Arizona Law means she has something in common with the good ol' boys, after all. This Tea Party-approved, fiscally conservative candidate, first generation American who just happens to be a woman proves she is another politician determined to win.

June 11 2010 at 3:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What has this country become? The inspiration to vote for Nikki Haley and the only one is the statement made in the last paragraph of Ms. Curtis's article.

Do not let the internet sway common sense in this country. We do not need to have our political decisions finalized by the internet. Go to the polls and vote. I'm beyond baby boomer but oh how I'd love to be in the challenging days before the boomers. Get off the internet - read books - read a newspaper everyday and plan your future retirement days where you might be able to have some fun. Stay healthy too! Internet research regarding health conditions is the greatest event since the invention of the electric typewriter. Be prepared for lots of research as you get older on the health sites - you may live to be 100. Until then, unless you're an expert in the everyday political world - quit your criticizing. Like blaming President Obama for the oil spill - are you living on Mars? Dolores M. Finn

June 09 2010 at 4:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Aloha Ms. Curtis,

Kudos to you for a job well done in reporting! As an Asian American, it is very hard for me to believe that an Asian female having extramerital affais, especially a Siksh female! One could almost feel the pain her children and her parents must be experiencing.

June 08 2010 at 8:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

while i do not agree with ms. haley's politics i am appalled at the vicious ethnic and religious slurs spouted by her obviously demented opponets . by the way , sikhs are not muslims , and those slinging this mud are not christians, although they probably claim to be.

June 08 2010 at 7:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

She might be an interesting candidate if she weren't going to be so shackled by the impracticable hodge-podge of policies that are the "Tea Party". Don't tell me you are going to bring back "commonsense" or "family values". Tell me whether you are going to bring the budget into balance, what you are going to cut and what taxes you are going to raise. You are not running (all of you new conservatives) for Junior Class President. We need to know more than how nice you are, how you understand us, and other useless information. Your philosophy of governance has proven not to be the panacea it was cracked up to be--now we need details besides "Freedom" "Less Taxes" "Less Government" "Real America".

June 08 2010 at 12:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am quite sure that Ms. Haley and I disagree on most matters of public policy but may I suggest that South Carolina change its state motto to "Men Behaving Badly."

June 08 2010 at 12:38 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Last gasp of the good old boys by a woman accused of not one but two affairs? I think not and if so how embarrassing of a choice. Sounds like more republican family values to me.

June 08 2010 at 10:22 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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