Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Embracing Bipartisanship to Reach Legislative Goals

BOND: Now, do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?

SELLERS: I don’t think you can have one without the other. I think you have to be able to articulate the agenda, but if you’re articulating an agenda and you can’t persuade anybody to buy into it, then it’s a worthless agenda, so I think there’s also a third category and that is, I go to persons who may not have been your friend in the past and attempt to work with them as we move forward with a new agenda.

BOND: In the South Carolina legislature, just naturally there are people who would disagree with you for one reason or another. When you’re proposing that let’s pass legislation A, how do you go about getting a majority of your colleagues to support legislation A?

SELLERS: Well, for me, it’s about numbers and life, I think, is about numbers. And there’re fifty-two Democrats, fifty-one Democrats which means that we oftentimes say you need sixty-two votes plus one friend because there’re a hundred and twenty-four members, so I take that fifty-one and I realize that I need twelve Republicans, which is very difficult, but I siphon off those who I know I won’t get on the issue because there are some who are just purely, purely conservative and just totally right-wing and they just won’t vote with me because I am who I am. But then you look at the moderate Republicans, and you go and you have commonsense conversations with them. And I always talk with my Republican colleagues in a language that they understand, which is money. So, for example, I have a child obesity bill that I hope will save a kid’s life one day, but it regulates the intake, the caloric intake of our students, and childhood obesity is an epidemic that is raging out of control. I put it in a fashion where our schools can partner with our farmers, economic development and our farmers, they get to reap some benefit from this so the agricultural community is behind it. But even more importantly, I hope it will curve off the number of preventable diseases that persons are having like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol. And then you look at that on the secondary level and you say that those persons in South Carolina, they go to the emergency room and you know, they’re uninsured and they’re in our pool, so that costs us about $500 per person per insured individual, so that is the type of message and that’s the way I couch it with my colleagues. And when you say you’re going to save each person in South Carolina $500 and not only that, but you’re going to make sure that our farmers are happy, then it’s amazing that you’ve gotten all the way down this winding road talking about childhood obesity in the school lunch program, but you’ve gotten there. And that’s something they understand and they’re like, “I like this.” So one of my co-sponsors was a Lexington County Republican who is hyper-conservative.

BOND: When you run up against a person who, for philosophical reasons, say this is a great idea, but government should play no role in this, I don’t believe government should have any —

SELLERS: And that’s when my blue dog streak comes out just a little bit, because I have a problem with government playing a huge role in adults’ lives all the time, but here we’re talking about kids and we regulate the lives of children every day.

BOND: But if I were one of these people, I’d say, you’re talking about the nanny state.

SELLERS: And, you know, I have that. Oh, my goodness. That was an argument.

BOND: Taking care of everything we do.

SELLERS: The nanny state, yes, I know, but at the end of the day, I do have those people and some of those people I don’t think I’ll win over. In fact, I’m sure I won’t, but I just look at the larger picture and I say, "Well, you know, we have to stave off this health care crisis that is imminent, so I may not get that nanny state person."