This South Carolina Primary Will Test Whether Democrats Are Willing to Overlook Domestic Violence

Because Democratic House frontrunner Archie Parnell says he won’t quit the race.

Mother Jones illustration; Facebook

For the past year, Archie Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs managing director and former tax attorney for ExxonMobil, has been among the candidates the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee viewed as contenders to fulfill their dreams of a Blue Wave in the 2018 midterms. But last month, divorce records surfaced that show Parnell abused his ex-wife—a revelation that may cost Democrats the race. 

Parnell, who is running for a House seat in South Carolina’s 5th District, has admitted to physically abusing his former wife in 1973, using a tire iron to break into an apartment where her friends were trying to protect her. He then struck her several times and beat her again later that evening. She sought a divorce and a restraining order against him.

Announcement

I'm Archie Parnell, candidate for Congress. After much prayer and thought, I have concluded I should stay in this race. I need to tell you why.I did something terribly wrong 45 years ago. I hit my ex-wife and another person in a state of rage. No excuse can justify what I did. I hurt her. It was wrong.I know I can't change the past, but that night 45 years ago was a turning point and I sought help. When I met Sarah, I told her of my past and she gave me a second chance to be a better man. We've been married for more than 40 years and we have two wonderful daughters.Starting with the special election, several members of my campaign staff knew of my divorce in the 1970s, but I did not provide them with the details that have now been disclosed. I was ashamed. I want you to know I apologized and asked for forgiveness from my ex-wife and I ask for forgiveness from God. I have apologized to my wife Sarah and our two daughters for the suffering caused them by recent publicity of what I did terribly wrong long ago. I also want to sincerely apologize to every volunteer, donor and supporter of our campaign, including campaign staff who stayed with the campaign and those who left the campaign.My family and I have been trying to find the best course of action. We have heard from those who urge me to withdraw and from those who urge my continued candidacy. There have been loud voices on both sides.If I withdraw, I would not be fully facing my past. If I withdraw, I would be telling anyone who makes a terrible mistake that that one terrible mistake will define them for the rest of their lives. It is the voters of the 5th district who should decide the outcome of this election, and not me or certain Democratic Party officers. We all have the capacity to change and be better.This campaign has always been about the people of the 5th district and we should be talking about issues important to people of the 5th district. And that's what we're going to do from this point forward:* We need sensible gun laws under the 2nd Amendment; we need to fix the Charleston gun loophole; we must make our schools safe.* We need a fair tax code. Right now it disproportionately advantages big corporations and explodes the deficit, putting the burden on our children and grandchildren. We must change that. Our tax code should be an extension of our collective moral code.* We need access to affordable healthcare for all and we need a public insurance option. There is a way forward on healthcare.* We need better jobs in parts of the 5th district; we need to improve job training; we must invest in public education, and the federal government has an important function to fulfill. We must recognize the indispensable role of our teachers.* We must protect the environment. As stated by a foreign leader recently, "there simply is no planet B."* We need thoughtful government budgeting, not just kicking the can down the road. * Right now, our Congress is effectively dysfunctional. We need members of Congress who will talk with each other, not in partisan sound bites, but pragmatically with the goal of reaching rational solutions. I ask for your vote on June 12th. I know what I did 45 years ago was horribly wrong; I am not that same person now. My name is on the ballot and the voters of the 5th district should decide the outcome of this election. Please join me. We must do better. We can do better. We all have the capacity to be better. Thank you.

Posted by Archie Parnell on Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Most of Parnell’s staff quit after they learned of the abuse, including campaign manager Yates Baroody. Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, called on Parnell to drop out of the race, saying “his actions, though long ago, directly contradict the values of the Democratic Party.” The DCCC also withdrew its support—a representative called Parnell’s abuses “inexcusable and deeply disturbing.”

But in a Facebook video posted to his campaign page June 6, Parnell resisted: “After much prayer and thought, I have concluded I should stay in this race.” He sought help after his violent outburst, he argued, and his marriage to his current wife gave him a second chance. “If I withdraw,” he said, “I would be telling anyone who makes a terrible mistake that that one terrible mistake will define them for the rest of their lives.”

Odds are good that Parnell will still win Tuesday’s primary. He has the most name recognition among the Democratic candidates, which include Steven Lough, a former professional clown; Mark Ali, a former undocumented immigrant; and Sidney Moore, a retiree who has held a wide range of jobs over the course of his career. In 2017, Parnell ran in a special election for the open House seat vacated by Mick Mulvaney. He spent a modest half-million dollars and came within about 3 percentage points of victory.

If Parnell does prevail in the primary, he’ll face off against Rep. Ralph Norman, the Republican incumbent who defeated him a year ago. Norman is perhaps best known for pulling out a loaded .38-caliber handgun at a Rock Hill diner to demonstrate that “guns don’t shoot people; people shoot guns”—he then set the gun down on a table and continued his “coffee with the constituents” meeting. Afterward, he said, “I’m not going to be a Gabby Giffords,” referring to the Tucson congresswoman who was shot in the head during a meeting with constituents at a supermarket parking lot.