By Reba Hull Campbell
Anyone who is or was a legislator, lobbyist, page, staffer or reporter would immensely enjoy this week’s book and the podcast episodes.
Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s the fact that some of my current work has me skirting around the edges of politics again, but I recently devoured three podcast episodes and re-read a book that took me back to the policy issues and politics of the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s. These podcasts inspired me to dust off a book, “Against the Tide” by Harriet Keyserling written in 1998, that gives great context to the policy and politics of the time and how they still impact us today.
First the podcasts:
- Podcast hosts and former state senators Vincent Sheheen and Joel Lourie spent an hour in conversation on “Bourbon in the Back Room” with long-time editorial writer Cindi Scoppe from the Post and Courier. She covered the State House for The State paper in the ‘80s and ‘90s and knows more about SC politics than just about anyone in the state.
- Gavin Jackson interviewed former SC Supreme Court Justice Kay Hearn on SC Public Radio’s “The SC Lede” podcast about the recent rulings on the state’s abortion ban after the US Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
- Casey Fields interviewed former Senate Clerk Jim Fields (her dad) on the Municipal Association’s “From the Dome to Your Home” series of the “City Quick Connect” podcast about his recollections of working for long-time Senator Marion Gressette in the 70s and 80s during a period of rapidly shifting political tides.
Now the book:
All three of these podcast episodes brought up political and policy issues from the ‘70s, ‘80s and early 90s that still taunt South Carolina today. Mulling over these three interviews sent me to my home library to re-read “Against the Tide: One Woman’s Political Struggle,” by former state Representative Harriet Keyserling (D-Beaufort). I remember buying this book at The Happy Bookseller when it first came out in 1998, and I was working as a lobbyist for SCETV.
The book explores the state’s political landscape in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s through Keyserling’s eyes. She represented Beaufort County in the SC House from 1977 until 1993 as one of the few women legislators. There were 12 Republicans (two were women) 13 Blacks and 10 women in the House. She was the first woman from Beaufort County elected to the legislature which followed her election as the first female Beaufort County council member.
At first glance, the 388-page book both looks and feels heavy. The title sounds heavy. And yes, some of the book’s content is dense, especially when she describes all the political machinations around education, state finance policy, nuclear waste and the arts. Keyserling must have kept daily meticulous notes to be able to recall the details of conversations, debates and compromises that she recounts in the book. Dense and heavy it may be, but I found it fascinating.
I devoured the book in less than a week already primed for that era after listening to the podcasts. I’m a little too young to remember the rough and tumble state politics of the 70s, but I did gain a front row seat in the legislative arena as a page in the SC Senate in the early 1980s. While, at the time, I didn’t have the perspective to understand the bigger picture context, I do remember the days of girl pages who had to wear dresses and answer phones while the boy pages got to accompany the legislators to the floor.
The book explores in vivid, first-person detail, what it was like to be a woman – and a Jewish woman – in the state legislature that was only just beginning to crack the long-established, rural-focused, good old boys network in the late 1970s. Keyserling describes how her naïveté about the mechanics of the General Assembly actually worked in her favor as she quietly (at first) learned the ropes by watching coalitions develop and across-the-aisle friendships flourish.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter about “Women and Politics,” recognizing the names of many women I’ve admired over the years, including Nancy Stevenson whom I had the pleasure to know when I was a page for her in college (and she didn’t relegate the girl pages to just answering the phone). A major “women’s issue” of the time was passage of the ERA, rather than abortion, since that issue had been decided by the 1970 Supreme Court decision. But the chapter also touches on issues like reproductive choice, domestic violence, housing and nuclear energy that Keyserling championed over the years.
The book is peppered with long-established names like Blatt, Gressette and Riley (Dick and Joe). It not only describes groundbreaking reforms like the Education Finance Act and the Education Improvement Act, but also reminds us of other legislative changes that took place in that era like mini bottle sales, blue law repeal, establishment of a state reserve fund and passage of home rule.
Anyone involved with education policy in South Carolina should read the 22-page chapter focusing solely on the Education Improvement Act that passed in 1984. When Gov. Dick Riley first circulated the bill, he found 21 sponsors that Keyserling describes in the book as “the Smurfs … an unlikely medley of people” that included Republicans and Democrats, Blacks and whites, rural and urban, men and women – none of whom were in leadership. She notes Gov. Riley said, “We had to organize a new leadership” to get the bill passed.
The chapter goes on to describe how the EIA efforts trace their roots back to a 1951 study committee then-Gov. Hollings established to look at school funding. Her narrative could be describing today’s’ ongoing education debate around teacher pay, tax increases, education equity, race relations and school choice. She even noted “… if the move toward schools vouchers becomes successful, there will be further competition for public education funds.” She writes the effort was stifled in 1996, but noted “it can always re-appear.” Foreshadowing, for sure!
Keyserling retired in 1993 and her son Billy took over her seat (he later went on to become Beaufort’s mayor). After her retirement, she returned to Beaufort focusing on passion projects until her death in 2010.
For anyone interested in reading this book, it’s hard to find. The Richland Library’s copy is only available for in-library use. Copies are still available through the USC Press and Amazon. I’m always happy to lend out my copy to anyone who shares my love of SC politics in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s as long as you don’t mind the dogeared and marked-up pages!
In 2022, Reba Campbell set out to get off the screens and back to books for the summer. She set a goal of reading a book a week. Her accountability was writing short Blink Book Reviews (so short you can read them in a blink). Join Reba’s Blink Book Review Facebook group to follow along for the 2023 summer series. Reba is president of The Medway Group can be reached at [email protected].