SC’s coronavirus recovery panel lacks scientists and racial diversity, critics say
The advisers Gov. Henry McMaster has chosen to help South Carolina’s economy bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic include few health experts and few representatives of the state’s hard-hit black community.
The accelerateSC panel, which will meet for the first time Thursday afternoon in Columbia, includes one physician, Medical University of South Carolina President David Cole, and a single epidemiologist, former University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides. Other members include Lou Kennedy, CEO and owner of Nephron Pharmaceuticals, Christian Soura, vice president of policy and finance at the South Carolina Hospital Association, and Prisma Health board member James Bennett.
Bennett, a bank executive, is among four black members on the 30-member panel. Two-thirds of the people appointed by McMaster are white men, as is the panel’s executive director, Columbia attorney James Burns.
The selections have drawn some concern.
Full list of panel members: Greenville mayor, developer, Clemson trustee on panel to help revive SC economy
More than half of the appointees have private-sector expertise, including six men who own or run companies that stand to benefit from a resurgence of the state’s economy.
The panel includes three Republican officeholders, including Greenville Mayor Knox White. And 19 of the panel’s members have made at least $256,000 in total state campaign contributions since 2007, with more than 80% going to GOP candidates or committees, according to state Ethics Commission records. About $44,000 of those donations went to McMaster.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, the Republican governor described accelerateSC as a “representative group of virtually every aspect of South Carolina life.”
Yet when Republican state Rep. Gary Clary of Clemson reviewed McMaster’s list of acclerateSC appointees, he said he saw “a very heavy business emphasis” and a troubling lack of scientists.
“We have three wonderful, highly regarded research universities that have a tremendous amount of talent untapped,” Clary said. He wished McMaster had appointed some researchers from those institutions who are studying COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and therapies.
Clary said he and many others share McMaster’s eagerness to reopen the state’s economy, which has shed more than 340,000 jobs in the last five weeks mostly because of business closures stemming from efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. But, Clary cautioned, “there are a lot of things that need to be considered before we open the floodgates.”
“We don’t want to wind up in a few months having to shut back down because we didn’t pay attention to the science and scientists,” he said.
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson expressed similar concerns in an email Wednesday. He said “it is astonishing that Henry McMaster would not include more people from the medical community — doctors and scientists.”
“The lack of doctors and scientists indicate that this panel is made up of individuals who support McMaster’s vision with donations or have a vested financial interest in ‘opening’ businesses,” Robertson said. “And that interest may conflict with the measures needed to save lives in our communities.”
As of Wednesday, 4,761 people in South Carolina have tested positive for COVID-19 and 140 of them have died, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
In an email responding to questions from The Greenville News about accelerateSC’s members, the governor’s spokesperson, Brian Symmes, said McMaster “was able to convene an incredibly impressive group of people from a diverse group of industries and disciplines.”
Symmes said the members of accelerateSC “will have two operating questions in mind at all times: how do we revitalize South Carolina’s economy and how do we keep South Carolinians safe while doing so?”
“The governor will hear from large and small business owners, manufacturers, health professionals, representatives from the tourism industry, and education professionals to determine best practices we move forward,” Symmes said. “The governor has been clear — he wants to hear directly from people on the ground who have been impacted by the virus’ impact to the state’s economy. Because if a business is better off because of accelerateSC’s work, so are the South Carolinians who rely on that business for a paycheck.”
Symmes also said that an array of state agencies, including staff experts from DHEC, will provide support to the panel as it works during the next month.
Recent findings: African Americans in SC dying of coronavirus infections at a disproportionately high rate
A lack of racial diversity and an abundance of campaign contributions
Based on statistics gathered by DHEC, blacks have accounted for 57% of the COVID-19 deaths in South Carolina through they make up only 27% of the state’s 5.1 million residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Besides seeking to revitalize the state’s economy, accelerateSC has been instructed by McMaster to “prioritize protecting the most vulnerable citizens, including senior adults, residents in rural areas, lower income communities, minority communities, persons with chronic disease and weakened immune systems.”
Robertson and Clary said they are concerned about the lack of racial diversity among McMaster’s appointees.
“It is also alarming that the governor would campaign in communities of color but neglect to include them in an organization as important as this — especially when those communities have been hit so hard and do not have access to the medical supplies needed to survive COVID-19,” Robertson said in his email.
Clary said diversity “is extremely important, particularly in South Carolina given our history.”
“This committee should reflect our population in this state,” he said.
The panel includes five white women. The gender and race of one panel member was not immediately known Thursday morning.
Clary said he was not surprised that a number of the people that McMaster appointed to serve on acclerateSC are Republican donors.
“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” said Clary, a former judge who is not seeking reelection. “What we are talking about here is our economy; we’re talking about money. Money and politics are inextricably intertwined at every intersection.”
Clary said he has returned campaign donations in the past from the company run by one of accelerateSC’s appointed members, Nicky McCarter, who also serves on the Clemson University Board of Trustees. The Clemson board is elected by state legislators.
“I don’t take money from people that I vote on,” Clary said.
McCarter is the president and CEO of Defender Services Inc., which is based in Hopkins. The company specializes in janitorial services, grounds and building maintenance, production and security, according to its website.
Defender Services has made hundreds of campaign contributions to South Carolina legislators and political parties, according to the Ethics Commission. It has donated about $18,500 to Democrats and at least $49,000 to GOP candidates and committees, including five contributions totaling $8,750 to McMaster between 2009 and 2018.
McCarter did not return a phone message seeking comment Wednesday.
Calls to two other accelerateSC members who have made past campaign contributions also were not returned.
‘Honored to serve’ but not answering questions
Henry Swink, co-owner of McCall Farms in Effingham, is one of the men that McMaster appointed. Swink made 14 contributions totaling $16,300 to nine GOP candidates between 2007 and 2020, including six donations to McMaster totaling $11,000.
“We’re obviously honored to be on this committee, but we are referring all of these types of questions to the governor,” Swink said during a brief phone interview Wednesday. “I just think that is probably the right place to get the information, and that is what the group, as far as I know, is doing. I wouldn’t want to answer any questions.”
Symmes, the governor’s spokesperson, did not respond to questions from The News regarding campaign contributions made by McMaster’s appointees.
Akil Ross, a former South Carolina secondary principal of the year, said he was proud to be appointed by McMaster to the accelerateSC panel.
Ross, who is black, was reluctant to discuss the panel’s lack of racial diversity.
“I don’t think I can talk about the composition of the committee yet,” he said. “I’d like to see the task force actually meet first before I can say who should have been on and who should not have been on.”
Ross said he will be thinking about the future of 10-year-old daughter girl and 6-year-old son when he and other accelerateSC members gather today.
He said his main goal is “making sure that South Carolina is a premier state — not only for education but in terms of our economy, our healthcare system and our public services.”
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