Posted by Joan Hanna on February 23, 2016 in Blog

On Saturday, Republican voters had the chance to make their voice heard in the South Carolina Presidential Primary. Donald Trump won the state by 10 percentage points, sweeping all 50 delegates, in the winner-take-all delegate system. Unlike the Republican delegate system, Democrats will vote this Saturday, February 27th, and South Carolina’s 53 delegates will be awarded to either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders proportionate to the primary vote count. Black voters will play a powerful role, as they did in the 2008 primary, comprising 55% of voters in the Democratic Party in South Carolina. With this cycle’s primary race so close, Arab Americans will also play a critical role, representing a potential voting block upwards of 32,000.

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The Arab American community has a long history in South Carolina dating back to the 18th century arrival of slaves from Morocco. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, the first wave of Arab immigration to America included Abraham Sheheen, the great-grandfather of current State Senator and two-time Gubernatorial candidate, Vincent Sheheen. Abraham immigrated to Virginia from Lebanon in the late 19th century. Aspiring for a better life economically, he made his way down to South Carolina where he married a Lebanese woman from Georgia. From that point forward, the Sheheen’s legacy of public service and civic engagement has gone on to span three generations and counting.

The Sheheen family’s political legacy began with Abraham’s son, Austin. In the early 1950s, Austin Sheheen served in South Carolina’s Camden City Council for 12 years before being elected Mayor of Camden, an office he filled from 1964 to 1972. During his time as mayor – in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement – Austin oversaw school integration  and went to great lengths to make sure the historic shift in education and equality went as smoothly as possible. He was a founding member of the Camden Jaycees, a nonprofit organization aimed at nurturing youth leadership skills in the Camden community. Before he retired in 1974, Austin served on the Board of Directors for the First Palmetto Savings Bank for 30 years and was President of both the Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce and the Kershaw County Recreation Commission. His experience in and out of office shows how much he valued upholding justice and investing in the next generation.

Vincent’s father and uncles are also important public figures in South Carolina. Fred Sheheen, Vincent’s father, served as an aide to South Carolina Governor Donald Russell in the mid 1960s. During the next two decades, Fred was a member of the State Commission on Higher Education and has served as the Commission’s Chairman for three years.

Bob Sheheen, Vincent’s uncle, was appointed as Municipal Court Judge for the City of Camden and served for two years, ending his term in 1975. The next year, Bob ran for the state’s 52nd District seat in the House of Representatives and won, beginning his term in 1977. During his time in the House, Bob was placed on the Judiciary Committee, serving as the Committee’s Chairman from 1980 to 1986. Bob was elected as Speaker of the House – the first Lebanese American ever elected to the office – from 1986 to 1994 and he served on the Ways and Means Committee from 1994 until 2000, when he declined to run for reelection.

Vincent’s other uncle, Austin Sheheen, Jr., is a graduate of the University of the South Carolina, former Air Force officer and founding partner of Sheheen, Hancock & Godwin, LLP, CPAs. Heavily involved in the community, Austin Jr. has served as a member of the Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce for 24 years, 16 of which as Chairman, President of the Camden Rotary Club, member of the Junior and Senior Chambers of Commerce and the South Carolina Association of CPAs, and most recently, has served as the Treasurer of the South Carolina Numismatic Association. The Sheheens underscore what it means to be American – involved in their community, a desire to uphold justice, and the courage to make their voices heard.

VincentSheheen.jpegAt the age of 44, Vincent Sheheen has already had an impressive and ambitious political career. As his uncle Bob was leaving office in late 2000, Vincent ran for his seat and won, assuming office in 2001 and serving for two terms. He ran for the 27th District’s state Senate seat in 2004, a position he has held since then. In 2009, Sheheen threw his hat into the gubernatorial race, beating out Jim Rex, the State Superintendent, during the Democratic primary in June of 2010. Later that year, Sheheen lost to Republican Nikki Haley by just 56,676 votes. Although Sheheen lost the gubernatorial race rematch against Haley in 2014, both races were historic – a half Lebanese, half Italian American ran against an Indian American for the highest political office in South Carolina, representing a shift in the ethnic diversity in South Carolina’s highest political sphere.

This history and celebration of South Carolina’s diversity has been put to the test, especially in the past twelve months. On June 17th, 2015, Dylann Roof opened fire inside the Charleston based Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest African Methodist Episcopal churches in the south. This horrific event sparked a heated debate on the South Carolina legislative floors about the removal of the Confederate flag from the memorial in front of the State House building. Amid the debate, Vincent reflected on South Carolina’s history and his own moral standards moving forward, “We still have a very serious culture of division within our state. It’s a culture of division that we as leaders have to take stands to change.” Sheheen was instrumental in the flag’s removal from the grounds; he introduced legislation to remove the flag, and ultimately, his bill passed the General Assembly and the flag was taken down in what has become and iconic moment for the country.

The legacy of the Sheheens, along with many other Americans from different ethnicities who have served in the leadership roles across the state, has created an important South Carolina model for inclusion that welcomes the voices of all communities. Arab Americans can continue to be an important and definitive part of South Carolina’s public life, not only at the ballot box, but through civil discourse about the future of what type of state residents want moving forward.