Joe Cunningham's First Big Test in Congress Could Save America's Oceans

The freshman congressman has popular support on his side but faces powerful opposition.

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Forest Beach in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

On July 16, Congressman Joe Cunningham took meetings in his D.C. office with the television on, which he normally doesn’t like to do. The 37-year-old Democratic representative from South Carolina’s First District grew up without one and finds them distracting. When he’s in the office, he wants to really be there. But Nancy Pelosi has asked the House to vote on a resolution declaring the comments President Donald Trump directed at members of Congress as racist, and things were thrown into chaos.

“Another normal day here,” Cunningham tells me, one eye on the screen, which showed a scattered House floor. His Southern accent links back to his Kentucky upbringing — he grew up in rural Caldwell County; graduated in a class of 45 students in a public high school.

Later that day, he would join his party in a unanimous vote, passing the first House rebuke of a president in a century. (Four Republicans would cross party lines.)

In the future, this vote could be used as an example of a Congress divided. While Cunningham came to Washington, DC, to be a person who his constituents could trust to vote with his conscience, the resolution also embodies the sort of partisan politics that he actively avoids.

Also read: “Why I’m Fighting Like Hell to Stop Offshore Drilling,” by Joe Cunningham

Cunningham, a former construction lawyer and ocean engineer, became the first Democrat to win South Carolina’s First Congressional District in 40 years when he was elected in November 2018. The district encompasses what’s known as the Lowcountry, a coastal stretch of the state that’s peppered with marshes, Spanish moss, and voters who supported Trump in 2016.

The election wasn’t called until 2:30 in the morning, and in the evening, as most constituents settled in for the night, the polls only showed Cunningham with a nine percent chance of winning.

“I had friends who were going to bed at 11 p.m., telling me, ‘Hey, good race, but tough loss buddy,’” Cunningham says. “I kept saying, ‘Hold on a moment — we are not dead yet!’”

This campaign video from Cunningham mentions his background as an ocean engineer and shows him swimming in the Atlantic.

Cunningham ultimately won with a 1.4 percent lead over state Representative Katie Arrington, winning several suburban precincts that went for Trump in 2016.

He was also backed by coastal Republican mayors who were emboldened by his campaign promise to protect the state from offshore drilling. When Arrington said she supported Trump’s desire to lift the ban on offshore drilling — a ban caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010 — the lines in the sand were drawn.

“Katie Arrington’s support for offshore drilling is simply a deal-breaker for me,” Jimmy Carroll, the mayor of Isle Palms, announced in June 2018.

In this video posted to Facebook, Cunningham can be seen talking about why he's opposed to offshore drilling.

Now, Cunningham is working hard to keep that promise with H.R. 1941, a bill titled the Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act. It’s out of the Natural Resources Committee and will be voted on by the House when it returns from recess the week of September 9.

If passed, offshore drilling will be banned along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. It’s also co-sponsored by 51 additional representatives, including Francis Rooney, a Floridian Republican.

It’s Cunningham’s first major test as a member of congress: If it passes, his path to reelection becomes clearer, and if not, the district could flip back to the political status quo. Its passage would also mean the ocean near tourist-focused cities like Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach will remain quiet from the sound of seismic airgun blasting and the 24-hour-a-day search for oil and gas beneath the seabed.

In his efforts to get his bill passed, Cunningham hasn’t been afraid of a bit of a spectacle — although a different sort than the one that was pulled when Pelosi announced her resolution against Trump’s tweets. During the campaign, television ads showed him out in the ocean, treading water while explaining that “even a small leak can kill our economy and ruin our beaches.”

Skip to 4:20 to see Cunningham demonstrate the volume of an air horn in a House subcommittee.

In March, while explaining the “extremely disruptive and loud” nature of seismic airgun blasting to ocean life, Cunningham sounded an air horn at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing as a point of comparison for the pre-drilling procedure.

“Was that disruptive?” Cunningham asked National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official Chris Oliver, who claimed firing commercial air guns under water would not affect endangered animals.

“It was irritating, but I didn’t find it particularly disruptive,” Oliver replied.

“What about every 10 seconds, like seismic airgun blasting goes on for — for days, weeks, months?” Cunningham shot back.

“If I were that close to it, yeah, probably,” Oliver admitted after a pause.

Today, there are two air horns in Cunningham’s office. One is the air horn Cunningham used in the hearing, and the other is painted gold and mounted, an award from the Ocean Conservancy for “using clarity and creativity to sound the alarm on threats to our ocean and coasts.”‘

The air horn Cunningham used during that Natural Resources Committee hearing.
The Cannon House Office Building

His office is inside the ivory-colored Beaux-Arts style Cannon House, a 1908 structure that’s the capitol’s oldest congressional building.

Eight months after the election, his office doesn’t quite have that lived-in feel yet, but it’s slowly being molded to represent what Cunningham would like to project externally. There’s the regal blue couch his wife, Amanda, recently picked out and photos on the wall opposite the office’s window of their wedding in 2014. Art created by South Carolinians like John Duckworth fill the space, a mixture of paintings and photographs showing seascapes and grassy fields. There’s a University of South Carolina Beaufort stuffed shark on the entryway table.

The office of South Carolina congressman Joe Cunningham.
The office of South Carolina congressman Joe Cunningham.

Also on a wall is a photograph of Cunningham and his 17-month-old son, Boone, at the beach. He brings Boone up a lot, stopping to show me a video of his smiling son attempting life’s first steps. The Cunninghams announced they were pregnant while on the campaign trail, telling folks that they were “expanding their campaign team.”

In a loose tie and shoes kicked off showing his blue socks, Cunningham makes the case for why he’s been called one of the most independent members of Congress. The issues that he’s dedicated himself to most, protecting natural resources and Veterans Affairs, are areas where he’s been able to garner bipartisan support.

“During the election, I think the people of the First District spoke and said they were tired of the partisan games. They wanted someone who would come up here and won’t be beholden to a specific party — and will only be beholden to the Lowcountry.”

Now when he goes home, it’s often that people will come up to him and reveal that he’s the only Democrat they’ve ever voted for. That’s something that concerns the Republican Party: National GOP groups courted state representative and Trump’s 2016 South Carolina Coalitions Director Nancy Mace, and now she’s officially announced her campaign to take Cunningham’s seat in November 2020. Her campaign leans heavily on increasing border security, and she supports Trump’s plans to build a wall.

“I think that the National Republican Party is a little bit disgruntled that a seat that had been Republican for nearly four decades was turned over,” Cunningham says. As for the border, he’s open to the idea of “permanent structures where they make sense, increased manpower, and 21st century technology like drones.”

“We don’t need to settle on a medieval solution for a 21st century problem,” he says.

Edisto Beach, South Carolina

In June, he voted to pass the $4.5 billion emergency border aid bill, breaking with some members of his party who felt it didn’t do enough to protect migrant children. Cunningham is proud of the bill but believes that the way children are being held in detention centers “runs counter to who we are as a nation.”

And while progressive advocates in South Carolina were expected to speak out against his decision to support increased funding for border security, they have conceded that if they had to support someone more liberal than Cunningham, they won’t win the next election.

The Golden Air Horn Award, made for Cunningham by the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in DC.
The Golden Air Horn Award, made for Cunningham by the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in DC.

“If we had someone run to the left of Joe, they wouldn’t stand a chance,” said Katie Preston, co-chair of Indivisible Charleston, to McClatchy. “I just hope to God that we get him a second term because the Republicans who are running against him are so far-right and scary.”

Cunningham maintains that, just like the first go-around, his next campaign won’t accept any money from political action committees. (“Every single dollar we receive has a face and a name attached to it because that is who we want to serve.”) He entered the world of politics after processing how toxic he felt things had become — how divisive and how contrary to serving the people’s interests.

“I think we all have to answer to somebody or something, either in this life or the next, and [before the election] I started to think about my children and what I would tell them I did during this pivotal moment in our country’s history,” Cunningham says. “I wanted to say that I stood up for something that I believed in, and that I at least tried.”

“I’m the youngest of five boys, and I’m not one to stand on the sidelines or not get involved. I just thought, well, the hell with it, I’m going to get into the arena.”

When Cunningham eventually leaves the arena, he hopes his legacy is leaving South Carolina’s waters safer than they were when he took on this responsibility.

He is as distinctly aware of the Lowcountry’s vulnerabilities to climate change and oil drilling as he is aware of his purpose in all of this: to respect the needs of the people who sent him up north, and protect the coast that drives their way of life. While no fan of Trump — he unfollowed him on Twitter in July — Cunningham is less interested in spending his time responding to the antics of the president than he is fulfilling what he sees as the requirements of the job.

“We’re working on issues that bring people together,” Cunningham says, leaning forward with his hands open. “I want to make sure veterans have the healthcare they deserve. I want to protect our natural resources.”

So he’ll continue to be accessible, showing up at coffee shops, restaurants, and breweries, telling people that he wants to shout about what’s important to them. And he’ll continue to be at the beach.

“A few weekends ago, I went with my mom to the beach while she was in town, and people kept smiling and saying hello,” Cunningham recalls. “She made the comment that no one is ever angry when they’re out there on the beach. We are all out there together.”

South Carolina Congressman Joe Cunningham is a member of the Inverse Future 50.
South Carolina Congressman Joe Cunningham is a member of the Inverse Future 50.

Also read: “Why I’m Fighting Like Hell to Stop Offshore Drilling,” by Joe Cunningham

Joe Cunningham is a member of the Inverse Future 50.