The congressman from the 2nd District is Joe Wilson, a Republican chosen in a 2001 special election. Wilson grew up in Charleston and graduated from Washington and Lee University and the University of South Carolina law school. He worked as aide to Rep. Floyd Spence, a Republican who represented the 2nd, and then for Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond. Wilson was the deputy general counsel at the U.S. Energy Department during the Reagan administration. He practiced law in West Columbia for 25 years and worked on many campaigns. In 1984, he was elected to the state Senate, where he chaired the Transportation Committee. All four of his sons have been Eagle Scouts and served in the military, two of them in Iraq. In 2001, when Spence died after more than 30 years in the House, Wilson became the frontrunner to replace his longtime friend and mentor and pledged to continue his focus on national defense. He won the Republican primary with 76% of the vote and defeated his Democratic opponent 73%-25%.
In the House, Wilson has had a mostly conservative voting record. Following in the footsteps of Spence, the longtime chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Wilson secured a seat on the panel, where he has advocated a closer military relationship with India in the war on terrorism and supported President Bush in the Iraq war. During the 2004 presidential campaign, he demanded an apology from Democratic candidate John Kerry, who served in Vietnam, for criticizing the conduct of some soldiers in Vietnam in 1971 when he returned from the war. Former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., who lost both his legs and an arm in Vietnam, dismissed Wilson as a "chicken hawk" who never went to war. In 2009, Wilson became the ranking Republican on the Military Personnel Subcommittee at Armed Services.
On trade, he joined most other Carolina Republicans in opposing expanded powers for the president to negotiate free trade deals, but Wilson voted for the Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2005. On the Education and Labor Committee, he won House passage of a bill to expand college loan forgiveness for math, science and special education teachers who work in impoverished areas. He has worked with Democrats to make permanent the child adoption tax credit. In 2008, he waded into the controversy over congressional earmarks, which critics call wasteful spending, but refusing to request highway projects for his district until Congress sets uniform rules that remove political favoritism from the process.
To stay visible to constituents, Wilson makes an annual five-day bus tour across the district. In 2008, he faced his first serious challenge for re-election against Rob Miller, a retired Marine and an Iraq veteran. Without any help from national Democrats, Miller spent $624,365, half of what Wilson spent, and ran as a social conservative and critic of the Bush administration. He prevailed in Richland and four of the rural counties, but Wilson got 65% of the vote in Lexington to win overall 54%-46%.
The 2nd District
In 1786, soon after the Revolutionary War, the South Carolina Legislature decided to move the state capital away from the Charleston aristocracy and into the Upstate interior, away from a city named after a king to a new city named after a discoverer of America. So began Columbia. The State House was built on high ground above the Congaree River in a town of one-and-a-half story houses with first floor porticos, dormers and raised brick basements--"Columbia cottages." In 1865, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's army burned almost everything here but the State House. Columbia recovered, but grew slowly, with state government and the university, the Army's Fort Jackson and local insurance companies providing steady employment. Manufacturing boomed in the 1970s and again in recent years, making Columbia a confident city and the state's largest. For a time, Columbia's politics was personified by Jimmy Byrnes, the Democrat who returned from top posts in Franklin D. Roosevelt's Washington to serve as governor and lament the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Since then, upwardly mobile South Carolinians, transplanted from underdeveloped rural areas to comfortable two-car-garage subdivisions, turned Republican, first in national elections and then at the state and local levels. The metro Columbia area has been mostly Republican. But African-American population, now 46% of the total in Columbia's Richland County, has helped Democrats carry it. Across the river, faster-growing Lexington County, which is 14% black, has remained heavily Republican.
The 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina includes most of metro Columbia, except for the African-American neighborhoods in northern and western Columbia and the southern and eastern parts of Richland County that are in the black-majority 6th District. It contains the city's affluent white neighborhoods and the spread-out towns of Richland and Lexington counties, with their shopping centers, churches and the Army's huge training center, Fort Jackson, where $1 billion in construction projects resulted from the 2005 base realignment. The district extends south, taking in Barnwell County, which includes half of the Savannah River Site, one of the nation's nuclear weapons manufacturing complexes and the location of a landfill for low-level nuclear waste. A massive clean-up of the landfill has been going on since the reactors were shut down in 1992, but plans are now underway for a $5 billion plant to convert weapons-grade plutonium for commercial use.
The district takes in horse farm country around Aiken and several lightly populated, low-income rural counties. The 2nd also includes fast-growing Beaufort County on the coast, with the old county seat of Beaufort, the carefully manicured developments of Hilton Head Island and the Marine Corps' Parris Island training base and air station. This part of the district distinctively blends old and new. Beaufort's wonderful mansions and evocative Spanish moss provided the backdrop for the prose of novelist Pat Conroy and the 1983 movie The Big Chill, while the posh condominium developments and golfing resorts around Hilton Head and the Sun City Hilton Head development helped drive up Beaufort County's population by 24% since 2000. On nearby St. Helena Island, slave-owners, hating the heat and mosquitoes, ran largely absentee operations, thus allowing Gullah culture--a fusion of English and African elements--to thrive. Republican President George W. Bush won 60% of the vote here in 2004, and GOP presidential nominee John McCain got 54% in 2008.