Rep. Jim Clyburn is of two minds about Archie Parnell.
A Democrat running to represent South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, Parnell beat his then-wife in 1973. But given his razor-thin defeat in a special election last year, he is resolved to keep campaigning.
Clyburn, a high-ranking Democratic member of Congress and South Carolina party kingmaker, says that’s a decision he can’t support.
Still, as a devout Christian and the son of a minister, “I do believe in redemption,” Clyburn told McClatchy. “I’ve always believed one can be redeemed.”
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By staying in the race in spite of the 45-year-old incident, Parnell has created a complicated and fraught dynamic for fellow Democrats.
On one side are county officials and activists who still want to support Parnell — they note he has been married to his second wife for 40 years and has two grown daughters. On the other are state and national party leaders who say they can’t stand by Parnell in the era of #MeToo.
It has given many South Carolina Democrats more reasons to distrust the Democratic establishment in Washington, which withdrew support for Parnell after promising to back him.
And the episode is forcing Democrats, like Clyburn, to take sides when the circumstances aren’t cut and dried.
Just weeks before the June 12 primary election, the Charleston Post and Courier published divorce records detailing how Parnell, then a student at the University of South Carolina, broke into an apartment with a tire iron and beat his then-wife twice in one night.
Parnell says he received counseling following the episode. His current wife and daughters support him.
“Wrong is wrong,” concluded Clay Middleton, a veteran Democratic operative and former chairman of candidate recruitment for the South Carolina Democratic Party. “In the court of public opinion, you can’t defend this.”
Barbara Bowman, chairwoman of the Sumter County Democratic Party, disagreed.
“South Carolina needs to be a little more forgiving, and a little more open,” she said. “I think that (Parnell) should fight for what he believes in.”
‘Like a hot potato’
Bowman isn’t alone. Democratic leaders in 11 of the 12 counties that make up the 5th Congressional District are backing Parnell. The South Carolina Democratic Party Veterans Caucus publicly supports him, too.
Elsewhere, Parnell is a pariah. And his opponent, incumbent Rep. Ralph Norman, isn’t letting voters forget it.
“I’m not going to debate a man who beats his wife,” he said recently in response to Parnell’s invitation to debate in public forums.
While Parnell says he doesn’t begrudge Clyburn or others for standing on the sidelines, he does regret being abandoned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the main fundraising apparatus for Democratic House candidates.
“I’m still surprised about that,” Parnell said. “After all the commitments of so many different people up until that point, to just drop us like a hot potato so quickly, without any discussion.”
The revelations about Parnell’s past came out in the midst of the #MeToo movement, where men in Hollywood, the media and politics were being exposed in rapid fire fashion for past sexual misconduct. Democrats took some heat for seeming to rush to judgment when the alleged perpetrator was a Republican, but being more muted when the man in question was a Democrat.
Parnell had sparked hope among Democrats that he might be part of their hoped-for Blue Wave that would wash away GOP House seats even in red states like South Carolina. A tax attorney who had never run for office, Parnell had come within 3 percentage points of winning a June 2017 special election. Norman, a former state representative, squeaked out a victory.
South Carolina Democrats like Clyburn and former state party chairman Jaime Harrison — now an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee — were incensed the DCCC didn’t do more to help Parnell in the special election, arguing that with more resources he might have won.
When Parnell announced he would challenge Norman to a rematch in 2018, the DCCC indicated it would now have Parnell’s back. But it quickly retreated once the wife-beating came to light.
Harrison said he could no longer support Parnell. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, a possible 2020 presidential candidate who campaigned for Parnell during the special election, also rescinded his endorsement. Clyburn said House colleagues asked if they should demand refunds for their campaign contributions. He said to just “leave (Parnell) be.”
Still, Parnell’s allies in South Carolina call it another example of Washington Democrats being out of touch with voters in their state, which gets little national Democratic attention, given the GOP’s strength in the state.
“They all just jumped on the bandwagon without getting the full facts,” said State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democratic National Committeewoman who is supporting Parnell. “And because of the climate, the#MeToo climate and all of that, it was easier for them to just say, ‘Oh, we aren’t going to support this man,’ than it was for them to hear his version of the story.’”
“They’re a bunch of wusses,” said Keith Grey, chairman of the Lancaster County Democratic Party.
Interviews with over a dozen South Carolina Democrats inside the district or involved with state politics shed light on why so many are sticking with Parnell despite the violence in his past.
First, he’s personally popular with Democrats who have gotten to know him, they say. They don’t think he’s the same man he was that night, 45 years ago.
Second, many Democrats are reluctant to abandon someone who might have been their best hope.
Many of them are nostalgic for John Spratt, the Democratic congressman who represented the 5th District for nearly 30 years. He was defeated in 2010 by Republican Mick Mulvaney, who left Congress to become Trump’s budget director.
“People still remember how very effective Spratt was and they want somebody like that again,” said Walt McLeod, a longtime former state legislator and Newberry County Democratic Party chairman.
Finally, allies say Parnell, even with his violent past, is better than Norman, a Trump loyalist.
Bowman, who said the Sumter County Democrats will share their headquarters with the Parnell campaign, acknowledged she was sticking with the Democratic candidate even as she predicts defeat.
“But I’m going to help him,” she said, “and I’m going to vote for him.”
‘I’m moving on’
Parnell still thinks he can win, and said owning his personal baggage is part of his strategy..
“It’s not the only thing that we talk about, but it is something that is very, very important, and we do talk about it,” Parnell said.. “There are so many things you can take from the fact that people have the capacity to be better and a single mistake, a terrible mistake, doesn’t need to define a person or a community. This is a theme of our campaign.”
Not everyone on his team feels the same way.
Parnell lost key staff after the abuse came to light. Middleton told McClatchy he and others felt betrayed to learn about the abuse from a newspaper.
And a recent news report that Parnell verbally abuses staff have not helped resuscitate his image as a soft-spoken policy wonk.
Meanwhile, the possibility that Parnell’s presence on the ballot could tarnish the Democratic brand weighs heavily on party officials who made the decision to sever ties with him. Democrats are most concerned about their candidate for governor, James Smith, becoming implicated by party association. Smith’s campaign, however, declined to comment.
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson, who also has said Parnell should step aside, said he was just tired of talking about the beleaguered contender.
“I’ve got 347 candidates across the board that I’m working to get elected,” he told McClatchy. “I’m moving on.”