May 17, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

House Members Stay on Message: Speaker “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”


The phrase “on message” first began to circulate in 1992, when Bill Clinton’s campaign for the presidency began to take shape. It signified a tendency to keep a politician’s statements and responses trained on the two or three issues he wanted to talk about, and an avoidance of issues he didn’t want to talk about. For Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos, then, to stay “on message” meant to talk almost exclusively about the economy and not about the candidate’s personal character, and to dismiss questions about the latter as irrelevant. Tony Blair’s campaign in the general election of 1997 was premised on the same idea, and “on message” has been with us ever since.

The phrase came to mind recently as I thumbed through the (very few) responses the Policy Council has received from state lawmakers on the question whether Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) is able to fulfill his duties as the state’s most powerful politician. Essentially we wanted to give citizens a chance to ask their House members if they think, despite an ongoing investigation by the Attorney General, they still think the Speaker is able to do his job. The South Carolina House Speaker, remember, doesn’t just preside over floor debate; through appointment powers he exercises vast powers over all three branches of government, and he holds tremendous sway over the allocation of billions of public dollars through the state budget process. So the question we proposed citizens put to their House member was just this:

Do you believe that the Speaker – SC’s most powerful official – can effectively carry out his duties while under a grand jury investigation?

If yes, please explain why.

If no, how will you work to restore responsible leadership?

So far we haven’t received many answers. That’s not too surprising, given the current Speaker’s reputation for – how to put it? – taking action to ensure that his House colleagues do what he wants them to do. As one House member explained to The Nerve’s Rick Brundrett, “When the king has a guillotine to your neck, it’s kind of hard to go against the king.”

It’s impossible to say if the “king” or his courtiers circulated talking points in a gentle reminder to stay “on message” when questioned about the ongoing grand jury investigation. The “message,” in this case, would be to say that the Speaker is “innocent until proven guilty.”

Of course, the question we’re enabling people to put to House members isn’t about the Speaker’s guilt or innocence. We realize it’s not their job to decide that question, and it’s certainly not ours. Our question, rather, has to do with competence and practical ability, not guilt. Being innocent of criminal allegations is fine, but it doesn’t entitle you to be Speaker of the House. The principle isn’t “presumed Speaker until proven guilty.”

Still, the innocent-until-proven-guilty line is the response du jour.

Rep. Raye Felder (R-York), in an otherwise thoughtful response, says, “He is innocent until proven guilty.” Rep. Donna Hicks Wood (R-Spartanburg) reminded her constituent that “when someone is accused of something they remain innocent until proven guilty.” Rep. Bill Chumley (R-Spartanburg), similarly, reminded his constituent that we should “follow the rule about ‘innocent until proven guilty.’”

Rep. Bruce Bannister (R-Greenville), the House majority leader, did not respond to the Policy Council’s survey, but he did point out in an op-ed for the Orangeburg Times & Democrat that under American law you’re “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” Indeed, he used the phrase twice.

Nor is the response confined to the majority party. Rep. Leola Robinson-Simpson (D-Greenville) responded in part by noting that, in America, “everyone should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.” As far back as January of this year, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg) avoided commenting on the State Law Enforcement Division’s referral of the Harrell case to the grand jury by asking, “Don’t we have a system that says we are innocent until proven guilty?” Even Speaker Harrell’s Democratic opponent in the 2014 election, Mary Tinkler, remarked in an interview that “the beauty of our criminal justice system is that we are all innocent until proven guilty.”

[UPDATE: After this piece posted on Tuesday morning, we received another response, this one from Rep. Kit Spires (R-Lexington). “I BELIEVE THE SYSTEM MUST BE ALLOWED TO RUN ITS COURSE,” Rep. Spires explains, for some reason in all caps. “A PERSON IS INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY.”]

Some of this could be no more than politicians’ instinctive habit of using stock phrasing any time they’re asked a tough question. “Innocent until proven guilty” may just be a fancy way of saying “no comment” without actually saying “no comment.” But it does seem curious that so many politicos are on message when the subject is Bobby Harrell.

Rep. Bannister and Rep. Robinson-Simpson are right, incidentally, to use the more precise formulation. You’re not innocent until proven guilty. If you’re guilty, you’re guilty, no matter what the justice system says. But even if you’re guilty, you’re presumed innocent by the justice system until a verdict says otherwise. There’s an important difference there.

And that difference goes to the heart of the question many citizens are asking their House lawmakers. They’re asking House members if they think Bobby Harrell should continue in the immensely important office of Speaker while simultaneously fighting the Attorney General at every step and dealing with daily headlines associated with a grand jury investigation. To put it bluntly: Can Speaker Harrell do these two things at once, or does he need to be a mere Representative Harrell? Only members of the House can decide that question, and spouting truisms won’t help them to grapple with it.

If you haven’t yet put the question to your House members, click here.

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