Butler Derrick, a 10-term South Carolina Democrat who won election to the U.S. House as a “Watergate baby” from the Class of 1974, worked to preserve his state’s fraying textile industry and made a surprise decision to support gun-control laws, died Monday at his home in Easley, S.C. He was 77.
The cause was cancer, said John Gregory, a former congressional aide.
Derrick was among the many Democrats swept into office after the Watergate political scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
Derrick became the senior House Democrat from South Carolina by the time he declined to seek re-election in 1994. He was the last Democrat to date to represent the 3rd District — a western swath that included communities such as Aiken and Anderson.
Amid the Republican resurgence of 1994, Lindsey Graham, now a U.S. senator, won Derrick’s House seat.
During his tenure in Congress, Derrick seldom frequented public affairs shows. But he rose steadily through the ranks to become, by the early 1990s, a chief deputy whip of his party and a ranking member on the House Rules Committee. He also served many years on the Budget Committee.
As chairman of the Congressional Textile Caucus, he worked effectively on a bill to impose quotas on cheap imports competing with the major but increasingly beleaguered textile industry in the South.
He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in 1994. Derrick said the agreement would threaten the remaining textile and apparel jobs in his district.
Derrick often voted with Democrats on environmental and nuclear energy policy because his district was home to several nuclear facilities.
He also sided with Democrats on defense and military-spending issues as well as on abortion rights. Aware of his district’s growing conservative constituency, however, he supported the death penalty.
Derrick, a longtime National Rifle Association supporter, broke with the organization in the early 1990s to support gun-control legislation.
He voted to pass the “Brady bill” — named after former presidential press secretary James Brady, who was seriously injured in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
The bill, which called for background checks and waiting periods to buy handguns from federally licensed dealers, was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Derrick said reports of widespread handgun violence motivated his decision to support the legislation.
“Just like every American, I pick up the papers every morning and see the mayhem,” Derrick said in 1991. “I don’t know how you can argue with a check to find out if somebody has a criminal record or is mentally unstable before you sell them a handgun.”
Facing no serious challenger, Derrick said he felt confident he could have kept his House seat in 1994.
“I wanted to find out what life was like outside of Congress,” he said at the time. “It’s not a frustration with Congress. It’s not a frustration with anything.”
He helped open the Washington office of the South Carolina-based law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and spent many years with its government relations practice before retiring in 2012.
Butler Carson Derrick Jr. was born Sept. 30, 1936, in Springfield, Mass., and grew up mostly in Florence, S.C. He attended the University of South Carolina and was a 1965 graduate of the University of Georgia law school.
He served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1969 until winning election to the U.S. House. He succeeded Rep. William Jennings Bryan Dorn, a 13-term Democratic congressman who left the House and made a failed run for governor.
Derrick’s first marriage, to the former Suzanne Mims, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 26 years, Beverly Grantham Derrick of Easley; two children from his first marriage; two stepchildren; a brother; two sisters; and nine grandchildren.