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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

How are top state politicians feeling about Barack Obama, the presidential race and other issues?

Joining me now, we've got Bob Coble, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina; Jim Hodges, the former governor of South Carolina, and Thad Viers, he represents South Carolina's 68th District, including Myrtle Beach in South Carolina's House of Representatives.

Gentlemen, thanks for coming in.

State Representative THAD VIERS (68th District including Myrtle Beach, South Carolina): Thank you.

Mr. JIM HODGES (Former Democratic Governor, South Carolina): How are you?

CHIDEYA: I just - I'm great. And I have to say it's great to be here in South Carolina.

So now, we are going to keep it mainly local, but I wanted to do something quick. Governor, you are a national coach here of Barack Obama's campaign, and we just heard from the senator. Why did you support him?

Mr. HODGES: I'm immensely proud of the Obama campaign and my role in it. I supported him because I believe that he is uniquely qualified to change the way we're doing business in Washington. He, in my judgment, is a once-in-a-generation candidate. He's the John F. Kennedy of our generation. And I've been immensely proud of what Barack Obama has done, not only here in South Carolina but around the country.

CHIDEYA: Is it transformative to have not just black Americans but Americans of all races supporting a black candidate? Does it say something about the changes in the South and in other parts of the country?

Mr. HODGES: I think it does. For each generation that passes, I think the issue of race is less prevalent. I was in the seventh grade when schools were integrated here in South Carolina. And I compare the feelings of my parents' generation to the feelings of my children about issues of race. And I think we've come a long way in the South.

But we still have a long way to go. And the Obama campaign brings some of those issues to the forefront. I've been surprised and pleased in the number of white South Carolinians who have taken immense pride in the fact that the South, and particularly South Carolina, could play a pivotal role in allowing Barack Obama to move toward the Democratic nomination for president, and indeed, being our first African-American president.

CHIDEYA: Representative Viers, you are a Republican. Have you made a pick?

State Rep. VIERS: In the Democratic primary…

CHIDEYA: No, in your party.

(Soundbite of laughter)

State Rep. VIERS: I will be supporting the nominee, whoever that is. We have some good candidates as well. And I believe when it's all said and done, I'm hopeful that the country will choose to elect a Republican for the next four years.

CHIDEYA: Mayor?

Mayor BOB COBLE (Democrat, Columbia, South Carolina): I'm for Senator Edwards and have been since 2003 when I first met him. I think he is someone I, you know, know and particularly I like his wife Elizabeth. And, I think, he speaks to insuring that middle-class families can enjoy and have a part of the American dream.

CHIDEYA: Well, gentlemen, I want you all to stick with us because we are here in the fine town of Columbia, South Carolina, and we're going to continue after this break with more from the state's politics.

We've got with us Bob Coble, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina; Jim Hodges, the former governor of South Carolina; and Thad Viers, a state representative for South Carolina's 68th District, including Myrtle Beach.

We'll be back with more after the break.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

We're back in South Carolina at the Educational Television station for a special live broadcast. We're hearing how key figures in local politics are thinking about the election and local issues.

I'm talking to Bob Coble, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina; Jim Hodges, the former governor of South Carolina; and Thad Viers, he represents South Carolina's 68th District, including Myrtle Beach in South Carolina's House of Representatives.

Welcome back, guys.

State Rep. VIERS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So let me move on to the economy. This state is not alone in seeing some economic shake-ups, seeing manufacturing jobs being lost, seeing that agriculture alone is not going to support a state.

Representative, what do you think is the best hope for this state in terms of building a strong foundation or rebuilding a strong foundation for the economy?

State Rep. VIERS: I think there is a couple of things that we need to address. I believe we need - it's fundamentally vital for our education system to be on the right track and move forward. And nationally, we made a lot of strides. A lot of those strides were made under Governor Hodges, to my left, but we still have a long way to go.

And I think that's the foundation of all of our problems, but also the best hopes for our futures. And I think when we have an education climate that is attractive, I think more businesses will come to the state because we'll have a more educated workforce. I also believe that we need to do things to make sure that people keep their own money and are able to spend it more versus being taxed to death, as well as regulated to death from the state and local governments.

CHIDEYA: Governor, there is a project from the state of Dubai in the Middle East offering to put $600 million of investment into South Carolina. What do you think of that plan?

Mr. HODGES: Well, they are (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: That's what I was going to get to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HODGES: So I can do a little advertising for my business here.

CHIDEYA: Why did you decide to sign on with them?

Mr. HODGES: Well, they came to me because they were interested in investing in Orangeburg, and it's historically an impoverished region of the state. And I was quite excited about it because we talk about Obama being a transformational candidate; this is a transformational project for a poor area of our state.

And I think, Farai, it symbolizes some of the opportunities in South Carolina because this project will create a complex of warehouses and logistics centers in this region and will provide anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 jobs over the course of the next 20 or 25 years. That's an immense change for an area like Orangeburg. And I think it speaks to the hope for areas in South Carolina that are close to the poor and the things that can be done there.

CHIDEYA: There was a real controversy over Dubai getting an interest earlier in America's ports. This is not the same kind of project, but is there is a sense that people here in South Carolina or, nationally, could or should be concerned about this kind of money coming in from the Arab Emirates?

Mr. HODGES: They shouldn't be. In fact, if you would ask me, I think that the Congress made a huge mistake in how they handled the Dubai issue. In fact, I think, many of the members will tell you, privately, they recognize they made a mistake. Especially the world has changed. This is a global economy and we're going to find more and more international companies investing in the South Carolina and in the United States. If we were to shut our borders from any global investment then I imagine our unemployment rate wouldn't be 6.5 percent, but would be 20 percent.

CHIDEYA: Mayor, here in Columbia, we've gotten to go to some of the great restaurants. And there's all sorts of culture here and at the same time, you know, you see the train tracks, you hear the rumble. You see that the city seems to have different economic worlds. What are you doing to make sure that all of the people in your city have a chance at a sound future?

Mayor COBLE: I think, really two things. First, we're entering the new economy of research and technology with our USC research campus that we call Innovista, which is a very important way of increasing jobs and increasing per capita income. I think, at the same time, we have to make sure that all parts of our city have the same investments.

So we have four institutions of higher learning in Columbia - Benedict, Allen and Columbia College, as well as the University of South Carolina. We have North Columbia, Farah Road(ph), and other parts of our community that we have to and are investing in to lift up all parts of Columbia so that they experience the reinvestment.

What we're doing now, though, that I think is very important is working with our schools with a program called Together We Can to make sure that the community, both the business community and nonprofits, are investing more both time and money in our public schools.

CHIDEYA: Representative Viers, you are someone who has looked at the voucher plan, which was voted down. Do you think that vouchers are an alternative to the traditional public school system? What kind of case would you make?

State Rep. VIERS: I would not put it as an all-or-nothing and either-or. I think that the point that my support of a school choice is, I believe, the competition, a market-base competition will not - will give children and families options that they currently do not have.

But also, I fundamentally believe that it will inject competition to make our public schools better. And I believe the arguments of - and the real analysis of, if it's going to be good or not for South Carolina is lost in the war of words on both sides. And I think we need to start at the premise of what is best for South Carolina school children. What can help them succeed? And I think we have to look at all options on the table and not shut any out.

CHIDEYA: Governor, when we spoke to Senator Obama today, who again you support, I said how are you going to find the money to get the federal government more invested in education, and he gave us an answer about cutting back on other programs.

But in states like this that need education funding and, frankly, most states would say they need education funding, do you really expect the federal government to come to the rescue?

Mr. HODGES: Well, I think that the federal government needs to recognize that investing in better technology and better facilities is a national priority. Currently, they give us somewhere in the range of 7 percent of the money that we have for public education in our state, yet they seem to provide 90 percent of the rules. And that's offensive to a governor and, I think, to a state legislator like Thad. My sense is that it should be a national priority. If we are going to be successful in the next 50 years in the United States, we're going to have to invest more and more wisely in education. And it seems foolish for the national government not to have a seat at the table in doing that.

CHIDEYA: I want to ask about a local issue - Pitchfork Ben. Ben Tillman was a South Carolina governor, a U.S. senator in the late 19th century. He supported lynching African-Americans and said that black people who wanted the same rights as whites should be killed. Now, he's got a statue outside the South Carolina statehouse, and one representative introduced a bill to have that statue removed.

You, Representative Viers, are a colleague of the representative, Todd Rutherford. Where do you stand on the resolution to take Pitchfork Ben off of the pedestal?

State Rep. VIERS: I think we have to be very careful to - when we address this issue - not to take a revisionist approach. Ben Tillman was a governor. He was a U.S. senator. And some of his comments that he made in the past were horrendous, but that doesn't change the fact that he made them and he did serve the people of South Carolina. There's a…

CHIDEYA: But did he serve all the people of South Carolina?

State Rep. VIERS: And that's the question. I believe what we should do is because, you know, we have - I believe if we start focusing on just Tillman, where does it stop? I mean, we have portraits from Southern Civil War generals throughout the statehouse. Are we going to go after them? There are a couple of great compromises on the table that I think will address the issue. I think, and I have to - I'm going to support one of them, but I'm going to let the author of the compromise talk about that, who you'll be talking to next. But I think we just need to present it, the whole history. The, you know, the unadulterated version of the history, put it on the monument with him, you know, let him - let everyone know what he stood for, and then we can hopefully have a brighter future.

CHIDEYA: Mayor, what would you like to see happen with this statue?

Mayor COBLE: Well, I'm not in the legislature, of course, but I did suggest and I think what - I mean, Ben Tillman was governor and in 1940, they did put up a plaque that seemed to leave out every part of the history in terms of - how it affected African-Americans.

I think, at a minimum, what we should do is have the correct historical plaque up that, you know, led our South Carolina historians, a diverse group, come up with the accurate history. And, you know, there are certainly may be other instances in the statehouse and in Columbia where we have to make those corrections. But I think if we do it in that manner, you don't try to cover up the history or change it, you just have an accurate history.

CHIDEYA: Governor, one of my favorite quotes and I use this probably too much is William Faulkner saying the past isn't dead; it isn't even past. How do you reconcile the old South with the new South, not just in the case of this particular statute, but in moving forward with the future of South Carolina?

Mr. HODGES: It - you try to understand it as best as you can. I think Faulkner, who was one of my favorite writers, did put it well. Part of what I think you do is you can't fall in love with the past, as I think too many Southerners have. You need to look to the future and understand that I think our biggest problem historically in our region has been a lack of ambition and a lack of respect for education. And if you start with those two premise, then I believe we can move a long way toward being at the top of the country.

CHIDEYA: Well, gentlemen, I want to thank all of you for your time.

Mr. HODGES: Thank you.

Mayor COBLE: Thank you.

Rep. VIERS: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Bob Coble is the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina. Jim Hodges is the former governor of South Carolina, and Thad Viers represent South Carolina's 68th District, including Myrtle Beach in South Carolina's House of Representatives. They all joined me here at the studios of South Carolina ETV.

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