After quarter-century break, there’s a woman on council again

  • Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Shirley Lang became the first woman on Dorchester County Council when she was appointed to replace a councilman with legal troubles. She then ran for the position and served for four years, the longest tenure of any woman on council.


When Carroll Duncan was sworn in as the Dorchester County Councilwoman for District 5 this month, she became the first woman in more than two decades to sit on council.
Gender wasn’t uppermost in her mind when she decided to run; it wasn’t actually something she considered at all, she said.
Now that she’s arrived and started to work, though, she thinks she can bring a different perspective to council’s work.
“I feel like I can bring that voice to the table,” she said.
It feels almost quaint to interview someone about “being a woman” in politics, especially local politics; after all, Dorchester County has a female treasurer; clerk of court; register of deeds; several judges, both elected and appointed; and not one but two female legislators.
And yet.
There is but one female state senator in all of South Carolina. No women at the federal level.
And then there’s those 25 years without a woman on county council.
For Duncan, though, the progression to county council is almost natural. She was raised on politics, she said.
“I’ve stood out in front of the A&P handing out bumper stickers for ten cents an hour when I was that high,” she said, gesturing about waist-high.
Her father was a state legislator in Florida, where she grew up. Here in South Carolina, in between raising a family and changing careers from respiratory therapist to teacher at Pinewood Prep to antiques store proprietor, Duncan got involved in politics and rose to become chairwoman of the county Republican Party.
When longtime Councilman Richard Rosebrock started talking about retiring, he talked to Duncan about running for his seat.
She thought about it and talked to her family, and her husband said he would support whatever she wanted to do.
The council that Duncan joins is a far cry from the council that first accepted women in the early 1980s.
Duncan is a huge football fan, so she’s more than ready to talk with the guys about the game. At her first meeting, though, she found (in addition to the nonstop digs at rival teams) that the men were discussing recipes.
The councilmen have been very helpful, she said, and welcoming. There’s an easy camaraderie, as well as a shared vision for making Dorchester County a wonderful place to live and work, she said.
Shirley Lang’s experience was a bit different.
“I hate to say it, but it was a good ol’ boys time,” she said. “It was very different to be the only woman.”
Lang was the first woman on County Council.
She got there, as did the second woman on council, by gubernatorial appointment, to replace men removed because of personal or political skullduggery.
Lang was appointed after Councilman Wilbur Sweat was removed while under indictment for conspiracy, along with his brother Richard Sweat and a local doctor, for using county equipment for personal gain.
Wilbur Sweat pleaded guilty in 1980 to a State Ethics Act violation, for using county personnel and property to work on his yard, but the conspiracy charge petered out.
The state tried unsuccessfully to get the case moved out of Dorchester County, claiming residents were so inured to such misdeeds they didn’t see them as a crime.
Lang won a special election for the seat, but four years later, she said, she knew she didn’t have a chance of winning. Her supporters urged her to run, though, so she did, and lost in the primary to Richard Sweat.
“I knew I would, because I bumped too many heads,” she said.
Still, she enjoyed the experience and learned a lot, she said.
“I learned how to work with people and not cause any anguish …. How to say something without getting people aggravated,” she said. “It’s not as easy as everybody thinks it is.”
Lang said she’s mystified why more women haven’t stepped forward for local office. She expected more women would follow after she served, especially with the opportunities women have today.
Lang’s appointment to council was quickly followed by the appointment of Joan Owen, a woman who had helped organize the Dorchester County Association of Retarded Citizens.
Owen replaced Wally Wall, who was suspended in 1981 while awaiting charges of shooting a man in his estranged wife’s apartment.
Prosecutors didn’t get far with that case, either. The jury believed Wall’s defense, that he grabbed a gun from a kitchen drawer after the man pulled a knife, and the gun went off after his wife pushed him, and Wall quickly resumed service on council.
Lang and Owen were Democrats, as was most of Dorchester County at the time.
In fact, a 1982 article in The Journal Scene about the election of party officials noted, “Time was when local GOP members huddled together to ward off loneliness, but now, according to one member of the party, ‘There are enough of us to support competition.’”
That year saw the election of Sharon Chellis as vice chairwoman of the county party.
Before Chellis made it to council, though, Sandra Willis, one of The Journal Scene’s “outstanding women” in 1981 and a vice chairwoman of the Dorchester Human Development Board, the predecessor to Dorchester Seniors, Inc., ran as a Republican and defeated Wall.
Willis resigned in February 1986, along with Councilman Don Handelsman, after a curious incident at the Human Development Board’s office.
They were charged with second-degree burglary for breaking into the office at night, but the charges were dropped in exchange for their resignations, according to then Sheriff Carl Knight.
Handelsman said he was questioning the way the board handled its money. Council ordered an audit after his resignation, but the audit cleared the board of mishandling funds.
With Willis out of office, there was an opening in District 5 again, and Chellis ran in the special election.
For Chellis, her minority status as a Republican was more significant than minority status as a woman.
“The vote every time was 5-2,” she said. “It was nice to have at least one ally.”
Chellis said she enjoyed working on zoning issues, a plan for Highway 61 and awarding a sanitation contract.
“It was pretty hard times in the eighties. Money was scarce,” she said.
Her background as a history teacher gave her a unique perspective and, as it turned out, her time on county council gave her insight that would help her in her next role, as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Arthur Ravenel.
She left council in 1988 to take that job, which entailed traveling throughout the First District, to every city, town and hamlet, to find out the needs of the district.
The scarcity of women isn’t something limited to South Carolina or local politics, Chellis pointed out. President Barack Obama has been criticized for the shortage of female appointees in his second term.
Once Chellis left, council again became the province of men.
There must be something about that District 5 seat, however, occupied as it was by Owen, Willis and Chellis – and now Duncan.
Duncan didn’t get there without controversy, either. She became one of the central figures in the Mike Rose-Sean Bennett battle for the state Senate, a case that dragged through the summer before the courts determined Bennett had filed correctly and was legitimately a candidate for office.
Now, though, Duncan has jumped right in to her council duties. She’s been meeting with every department and getting stacks of background information on current issues.
She’s been impressed by the quality of the county staff and especially Administrator Jason Ward, whom she describes as a walking encyclopedia of knowledge.
“My biggest challenge is going to be time management,” she said, in terms of finding a balance between family time and council demands.
She said she’ll listen to her constituents without preconceived notions and hear what they have to say.
One of her first tasks is to make appointments to boards and commissions. She’s talking to those who were appointed by her predecessor, Richard Rosebrock, and has also posted an application on the county website to open up the process to anyone interested in serving.
“I know I have huge shoes to fill, but (Rosebrock) has been such a wonderful mentor,” she said.

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