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.)
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.)
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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