The nearly four-minute campaign ad begins with scenery of a small town sheriff's race in the South. A camouflage fishing boat winds down a picturesque waterway. The talk from a front porch rocking chair is of hunting, Christian values and guns.

Then, more than halfway through the video, Craig Stivender, a Republican candidate for sheriff in Colleton County, S.C., reveals a picture of himself in blackface with his arm around an African American woman.

"To those of you who may be upset, I understand your disappointment," he says in the video.

Stivender, who is currently a fireman in the rural community just west of Charleston, goes on to explain the photograph was taken at a Halloween party for law enforcement nearly a decade ago. He says he released the picture to begin his campaign with full transparency. The election is in November 2020.

"Basically if I'm going to run on honesty and integrity, I'm willing to put out things bad about me," he said in a telephone interview.

Stivender says he was dressed as Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2008 for his role in the Black Mafia family, which the U.S. Department of Justice describes as a drug trafficking ring disguised as a record label.

"If I'm a police officer, the exact opposite would be a gang member," said Stivender. "So that's what I picked."

In the video he says, "I did it to disparage a criminal whose actions hurt our community and country. That was a different time."

Stivender insists there was no racial bias or motivation, adding that if that was the case, he would not have attended the party with a black woman. He calls her a friend he's known since sixth grade who he says did not question the blackface.

"To be honest with you, 10 years ago I had never heard of blackface," he said. "I didn't know it was a legitimate thing."

He knows now.

"Today we understand that type of costume is troubling to many," he says in the video.

Stivender has worked in law enforcement for 15 years. When asked what has changed in the past decade, he says it has become popular to look up blackface pictures in people's pasts, especially politicians.

"If I dressed up in blackface today, it would definitely be an issue because we know today that people are very easily offended over things that were maybe not so much 10 years ago."

Stivender says the feedback he's gotten from his Facebook video release has been 95% positive. But there are negative comments.

One viewer writes, "You acknowledge you wore blackface and never acknowledged that even if it wasn't directly your intention, it was a racist display."

Another person says, "Running a campaign on wearing blackface, failed marriages and failure to control your temper; good luck my guy."

Stivender admits to other mistakes in his campaign video promising transparency, like losing his temper at work and getting a traffic ticket.

"I am an honest candidate. They are not going to be able to go back and find or dig up a bunch of dirt on me."

He says the law enforcement Halloween party in question was held at the home of the current sheriff up for reelection. The picture, he adds, was posted on Facebook.

Stivender hopes whatever fallout from his admission will pass, so he can focus on what he calls the county's problems of drugs, crime and school violence. Colleton County is home to 37,000 people. More than half are white. Nearly 40% are African American.

Copyright 2019 South Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit South Carolina Public Radio.

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