COLUMBIA, S.C. –Texas Gov. Rick Perry said last week he opposed allowing specialty license plates, featuring the Confederate battle flag in his home state, saying, “We don’t need to be opening old wounds.”
Those words resonate in this crucial primary state, where public placement of the flag remains a controversial issue. But when it comes to politics here, some South Carolinians on both sides of the issue agree with Perry that those wounds, however fresh, should be left alone.
The flag issue came to a head here in July 2000 when, after protracted legislative debate, it was moved from the statehouse dome, its perch since 1962, to a monument just in front of the capital. (The NAACP has upheld an economic boycott of South Carolina tourism since 1999 due to the flag’s presence on statehouse grounds).
That debate coincided with the presidential race here, during which Sen. John McCain changed his opinion of the flag several times before ultimately calling for its removal from the statehouse after he lost the primary to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
But now, even though the Confederate flag still has proponents in the South Carolina statehouse, some of them say Perry’s opposition to the Texas license plates shouldn’t be an issue here during the 2012 primary.
“It’s last Century’s battle. Let’s move forward,” said Republican state Sen. John Courson, a flag supporter, who wrote the 1994 Heritage Act, a compromise proposal to relocate the flag, which would later form the basis of the 2000 compromise.
“The Heritage Act debate was long, very emotional on both sides, and I just don’t think people want to revisit anything like that,” added Courson, who endorsed Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman for the Republican nomination.
Democratic state Sen. Robert Ford, who opposed the flag but worked on the 2000 compromise, noted that the state just kicked off a five-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
“Nobody’s even talking about the Confederacy in that light anymore. Not since the celebration started,” said Ford, who is African-American and earlier this year urged other African-Americans to participate in the anniversary events.
“You just don’t add fuel to the fire that’s not even burning,” he added.
While Perry opposes the license plates, he has previously defended the historical value of Confederate symbols. In March 2000 (one month before South Carolina legislators voted to move the flag here) Perry, then Texas lieutenant governor, opposed NAACP-led efforts to remove plaques with Confederate symbols from a state Supreme Court building in Austin.
According to the Associated Press, Perry wrote a letter to the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans, who supported the plaques. “Although this is an emotional issue, I want you to know that I oppose efforts to remove Confederate monuments, plaques, and memorials from public property,” he wrote.
Perry campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan said that while the plaques have been in the state building for decades, “The license plates have not been approved or implemented. There's a difference between removing decades old plaques and approving new license plates,” Sullivan said in an email to NBC News.
Proceeds from the sale of the proposed license plates, which first needs approval from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, would go to the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans and be used to erect Confederate monuments after the group has recouped expenses, according to the Washington Post.
Regarding Perry’s positions on the license plates and plaques, South Carolina political strategist Chip Felkel noted that nationally, the Confederate flag carries a bigger political stigma than among Southern states.
“Even people who are staunch supporters of the Confederate battle flag or license plates also recognize the political minefield that that issue represents for a national candidate,” Felkel said.
But the leader of the South Carolina branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (which has its own license plate here) said he is not convinced by the argument of political expediency.
“Those who want to take safe positions when it’s politically correct these days to distance themselves from the Confederate flag, the voters themselves will figure it out,” said Mark Simpson, the group’s commander.
South Carolina NAACP president Lonnie Randolph suggested that while Perry’s shift may have been politically motivated, he believed it was a positive change.
“With him supporting [Confederate plaques] at the Supreme Court, but now not supporting license plates, that tells me that maybe he didn’t think he would be running for president one day,” Randolph said, adding, “He understands that if you want to be president, you should want to be a president of all the people, not just of some people.”