Gateway to the American Dream: Jaime Harrison Interview

The Democratic Party won more votes but lost the opportunity to take back the Senate and lost the White House in 2016. Fresh primary wounds still sting between supporters who were behind the first female candidate of a major party for president, Secretary Hillary Clinton and supporters of her nearest opponent, Independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. While much of the Democratic Party voters have a positive view of both the nominee and her challenger, the activist and frequent observers of Democratic politics are still filling up social media with angry debate. To repair this damage, the Democratic National Committee will need to walk a tight rope. New DNC Chairman Tom Perez is touring the country with Bernie Sanders and the newly minted Associate Chair and Counselor of the DNC sat down to talk to the editor of #Majority60.

AJ: Outgoing South Carolina Democratic Party Chair, former director of floor operations and counsel for former House Majority Whip, and legendary Southern Democrat, Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), small town boy who grew up and graduated from Yale University. Your resume is quite impressive and my first question goes to origins of that career; your Ivy League education. How can the Democrats, in and out of power, help ensure that Americans in sparsely populated rural areas and over populated urban areas get the opportunities to follow in your footsteps?

JH: I believe higher education is the gateway to the American Dream. It was for me. My mom was 16 years old when she had me. She dropped out of high school and my grandparents, who also had kids very early-my grandfather finished 4th grade and I think my grandmother finished 8th grade, so I was the first in my family in a number of generations to actually go to college. And I’m blessed and fortunate that I was able to get into Yale university. I didn’t know anything of what an Ivy League was growing up in Orangeburg, SC because no one in my school had gone to an Ivy League school. I just so happened, because I did well on my SAT, to get a postcard that the Yale admissions department was coming down to South Carolina and they were going to have the Yale Russian Chorus, and I thought, Cool, I got something from Yale. And so I borrowed my grandfather’s 78 Ford LTD and drove up to Columbia (S.C.) with some friends and I heard the admissions spiel and I applied even though most people said I wasn’t going to get in and I got in. But the hard part for me was that once I got in, there was some scholarship money but there was still some money that we had to bring up in order for me to go. And if it wasn’t for a good Democrat in my home town, Earl Middleton, who was one of the first Blacks elected to the legislature after reconstruction…I needed a few thousand dollars and a computer and I needed a loan in order to pay my portion of the bill.

Nobody in my family could afford it and it was Mr. Earl who stepped up and, no relation to me, but stepped up and did it and provided that opportunity for me. And ever since that moment, I’ve understood that this party, so many in our party have made those types of sacrifices, have promoted legislation, have done all the things to kick down the door to make sure that more people, regardless of your ethnicity or your background, so low income people can enjoy college, enjoy the benefits of getting a higher education so that they can transform their own lives and the lives of the people they care about. And so that’s what this party has to continue to fight for. And I was proud of both Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton during the presidential election promoting the need to make it easier to for folks to get higher education. But also to make sure that the burden of getting that higher education is not overwhelming. I graduated from under-grad and law school with 160,000 in student loan debt, and here in South Carolina, 160,000 will get you a very nice house. So then I married a woman who had 90,000 in debt so 250,000 of student loan debt in our household and we’re still paying it off. And so many young people are saddled with that burden and that’s just not fair, that’s not right. We have to figure that out. And I’m proud that the Democratic Party is tying to push coming up with a solution for that.

“I believe higher education is the gateway to the American Dream.”

AJ: The 2016 Election is still fresh, Chairman Perez is on a unity tour with Independent Senator Bernie Sanders with no dates (so far) in Southern states. (They did make a stop in Miami) Incidentally, during the 2016 primary Senator Sanders and his campaign made several comments that were interpreted as dismissive (at best) and denigrating (at worse) about the Democrats voting in Southern states. Hard to ignore that Democratic voters in the South are predominately POC. What do you think the Democrats need to do to earn and energize the Black vote in the South?

J.H.: During the primary, I got some heat for this but I sort of helped to pen a letter in response to some of that feedback that we were hearing from Senator Sanders, and I’m not one who thinks that Senator Sanders wanted to dismiss the Black vote. I don’t think that was the intent. You sorta get into the heat of primaries and you want to diminish the wins of your opponent and promote your personal wins. And I understand that. The larger context of this is that we, as Democrats, have to understand that our words have power. And even when, even if it isn’t our intent, sometimes there are unintended consequences. And because Secretary Clinton did so well in the South and because in the South the Democratic voters are mostly minority voters, mostly African American voters. When you say things that are dismissive of that vote, then in essence the unintended consequences are that you’re shading the importance of the African American vote. I don’t think that was Senator Sanders’ intent but therefore you have to understand the context and why it’s so important to measure what you say in politics. And understand that feedback.

I remember sitting [with my grandfather], even though [he] didn’t have a lot of education, voting was very important to him because it wasn’t something that he and his father had for a lot of their lives. And he always said to me, “Jaime, don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t matter, that your voice is not important.” And that’s really something that’s lived with me for and continues to live with me and so, when I started hearing people dismiss, like one of Senator Sanders’ surrogates-actor Tim Robbins (Shawshank Redemption): he said in essence that the vote in South Carolina primary was as important to winning the presidency as a vote in Guam. I took great, great offense to that. Because, again, the vote in the Democratic primary was the majority African American vote.

The reason why South Carolina was added to the early primary window was because we, the DNC, Howard Dean, and Terry McAuliffe, wanted to put a state that had a sizable African American population in the early window because Iowa and New Hampshire don’t reflect the diversity of this country. And so to have him stand on that stage and equate South Carolina’s importance, the Democratic Party’s vote in that primary to that of a territory was just not something I could sit back and allow to happen. Any Democrat, I don’t care if it was Senator Sanders, or anyone else, if they would have said that or supported that type of thing, I’m going to stand up and speak out about it because it’s not right. And that is not who we are as Democrats. And that’s not what our party needs to reflect. So, it wasn’t anything personal. It was about defending the honor of millions of folks who have that right and the millions of people who put themselves on the line to ensure that we had the right. And so I’m not taking a backseat to anyone on that.

AJ: Do you expect that Senator Sanders should respond to the people who were largely offended by that. Do you want to hear from him on that?

J.H.: No, I think he did already. It’s all water under the bridge. I knew that Senator Sanders, I’ve had conversations with him since, and I know that was not the intended consequence of that. I think, again, it was the heat of the primary. But I think it’s important and incumbent of all of us when we see things that aren’t right, to make sure that people know that; take note of it. So they don’t repeat that issue ever again. And I don’t think that will happen ever again.

AJ: With the Democratic Party out of power, how do Democrats fight to restore the Voting Right Act?

J.H.: The really important thing that we need to do is [to win in 2018]. 2018 is extremely important to us. If we want to protect the Voting Rights Act and we want to go back and strengthen the Voting Rights Act again we need to take some seats in state legislatures. We need to win some governorships so that when these lines are redrawn again in 2020 that we have some Democrats in Congress who can push that ball up the hill. That’s going to be really important for the long term. On the short term, the DNC and Karen Carter Peterson (@TeamKCP) who is the new vice-chair whose portfolio includes voter protection and protecting voting rights. She is moving to build a department, with the blessing of Chairman Perez, that is working with states, not only to be on the defensive, fighting back against these efforts [of disenfranchising voters] but also to come up with some offensive measures in order to expand the right to vote to Americans: to make it easier for Americans to vote. That’s what we need to do.

We can’t always be on the defensive, reacting to Republican attempts. There are Democratic States, there are Blue states, in which we control state houses and the governorships and we should try to create models for what voting should look like in this country so that in that moment when Democrats regain the White House and regain control of Congress then we actually have an agenda to push forward, something that is tested, something that we know will work and to move forward. I really hate, and it’s one of those things that is one of my great regrets that when we had control of the White House, 60 votes in the Senate and control of the House of Representatives, we didn’t push forward one of the most progressive agenda on protecting and expanding voting rights in the history of this country. But we can’t allow that to ever happen again. If we are ever that fortunate to have that happen again, that has to be one of the first things on our priority list. (Brief Interjection) It was important to note that we had a couple of independents and several very conservative Democrats to convince, a few of them who are barely Democrats. To which Mr. Harrison acknowledged the obstacle.

“There are Blue States, in which we control state houses and governorships and we should try to create models for what voting should look like in the country…”

AJ: Back in 2015, Rachel Maddow discussed a tragically effective political program run by the Republican State Leadership Committee, called Project Red Map. Between Red Map and other investors, Republican groups funneled large sums of money to overwhelm Democratic candidates up and down the ballot to turn the country Red. How will the DNC coordinate with the other players on the board; DCCC, individual efforts, PAC efforts, to combat this kind of effort on behalf of the Republican Party?

J.H.: One of the things, when you look back to the height of the party in recent years, the start of which was in between 2006 and 2008. If you remember, in 2006, we came out of the wilderness. Howard Dean had his 50 state strategy, worked with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi on a whole agenda on draining the swamp…and in that year, we took back the House of Representatives. And we took back seats in the Senate and state legislatures. And then in 08, we added to that by winning the White House and at that moment when President Barack Obama placed his hand on the Bible to take the oath of office, we had the majority across the board; majority of governorships, state houses, attorneys general, control of Congress and that quickly slipped away because we abandoned the 50 state strategy that Howard Dean created.

The 50 state strategy for many folks, and we’ve heard it a lot during the DNC Chair campaign but I know first hand about it because, at the time when Howard Dean created it, my then-boss (Congressman) Jim Clyburn, was one of the only members of Democratic leadership who was supportive of Governor Dean’s effort. It was about building capacity on the ground in every state in the country regardless of whether you were a Red state or a Blue state. And we were able to win in areas, in seats and districts that were ruby Red districts. We won in Kansas. We won a House seat Nancy Boyda (Congresswoman in Kansas 2nd District 2008-2010). We won in all kinds of places that weren’t on Rahm Emanuel’s (President Obama’s first Chief of Staff and the embattled mayor of Chicago) priority list or what have you. And that’s because we had people on the ground working to build a grass roots organization, talking to voters 365 days a year. Well, after 2008 we stopped that. The program we had at the DNC was not funded at the level Howard Dean did. And it is incumbent upon us, and I know that Chairman Tom Perez is committed to rebuilding and re-instituting that 50 state strategy but also bringing it up into the 21st Century because there’s been so many innovations in technology that allow us to do things, to talk to voters, that we need to spruce it up and make gains.

What happened is, when we abandoned that strategy, the Republicans picked it up. They started investing in their state parties and investing in technology and then they had all these groups, the Koch Brothers and all these other big funders who in essence invested in programs like the GOP Red Map where they focused on a few states, focused on how they could take back House seats, and flip legislatures so that then they could redraw the lines. I’m encouraged to see President Barack Obama and AG Holder working on this redistricting project but what we really need to focus on is how we can all coordinate together, within the law (There are election laws that prevent certain types of political groups from working with the candidates). But what I am concerned about is, you can sometimes have too many groups and organizations out there that are duplicating efforts and therefore wasting resources that could be poured into some of these communities in order to really build capacity, recruit new talent, and then drive out our vote, educate and drive out our vote on election day. And so, I know the chairman is going to pull together a national coordinated table where we’re meeting with the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), the DSCC (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee), of the world to come together on message, to come together on strategy but we’re also going to be talking to those third party groups and encouraging them to do what they do best and encouraging the others not to duplicate the efforts of some of those groups.

AJ: It’s become evident that outside foreign powers are interfering in our democratic system. And other actors, not necessarily colluding with the Russians are continuously exploiting those divisions. What do you prescribe to bring the battle scarred activists and passionate supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders together to fight these battles?

J.H.: It’s a very big problem. As chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party it’s something I’ve been trying to tussle with myself, overseeing a state party. The divisions of 2016 are still there. It was my hope…I had been on the front lines of the 2008 race and I remembered that it was a very divisive atmosphere between the Obama supporters and the Clinton supporters at that point in time. But it was magical at how we all came back together and maybe it was the salve of winning which actually did that, right? But not being able to pull this across the line for this election probably just opened up the wound even more instead of allowing it to heal. But we gotta figure it out. Listen, I tip my hat to Tom Perez in extending his hand: he was for Secretary Clinton, Keith Ellison was for Senator Sanders but, for his first action as chair, to bring Keith Ellison on as the deputy chair. And then to reach out to Senator Sanders and say, let’s go on this type of tour. And I can understand that the feelings are still raw on both sides. But I think what everybody has to realize is this isn’t about Bernie Sanders and it ain’t about Tom Perez and it’s not about Hillary Clinton or about Barack Obama.

This is about the American people and who is going to stand up, which party is going to stand up and fight for them. And so people need to, and I know this is callous for me to say this but honestly, we all had to go through it, but we all got to get over 2016. Because at the end of the day, regardless of whether you were for Senator Sanders or Secretary Clinton, both of them did not win. And we now have Donald Trump. So the question is, we can continue to fight a primary battle in 2016 but ultimately what it means is that we, as a party and as a nation ultimately lose the war. Because Donald Trump will continue to appoint more Supreme Court appointees, more appointees on the lower branches of the judiciary, he will continue to push this knuckle-headed strategy overseas. He will continue to try to pull apart everything that Barack Obama achieved over 8 years if we continue to fight 2016. I am sick and tired of hearing about 2016. I really am because right now I’m focused on 2018 and how we can pick up House seats, how we can pick up state legislative seats, how we can win governorships.

For me, this is not about Bernie Sanders is the greatest or Hillary Clinton’s the greatest or Barack Obama’s the greatest, it’s about my son and the world that I am building and leaving to him. I couldn’t care less about the personalities. We have got to start thinking about what we are building as a party, what we’re building as a community, what we’re building as a nation. That has to be our primary concern. So right now what I am focused on is how can we pick up these special elections? How can we help Jon Ossoff in Georgia? How can we pick up the special election seat here in South Carolina? What can we do better in Montana? Because if we can put more Democrats in the House, it makes it even more difficult for Paul Ryan to ram rod this crazy right-wing agenda through the House of Representatives.

AJ: Have you endorsed a candidate in the special election in South Carolina?

J.H.: I have not and I probably won’t as chair, you know, we’re in a primary and I tend not to get involved in the primary. But just encouraging the best person to win. They’re good candidates and they’re fighting hard and I appreciate that. But at the end of the day it’s going to be important that we all get together and pull for the nominee.

“I strongly believe that we should protect a woman’s right to choose, and that is a core conviction and value of our party.”

AJ: Your new job is going to be “Associate Chairman and Counselor of the Democratic National Committee.” You said in your announcement to South Carolina that you would be working on a “57 state and territories plan” to spread the message of those values. What are those values?

J.H.: I think there are some fundamental things, there are Democrats across the country of all stripes: Democrats in California can be very different from Democrats in West Virginia who may be very different from New York Democrats who are definitely-probably different from South Carolina Democrats. But there are some fundamental things that I think we hold dear and that make us all Democrats. We believe, that regardless of your race, your ethnicity, your sexual orientation, your gender identity, and any other descriptor that you can come up with, that you have a God given right to fight and live the American Dream. We fundamentally believe that.

That there should be opportunity for all and that we should eliminate any barriers that exist for that. So regardless if you’re looking at education, or if you’re looking at health care, or you’re looking at jobs, those are the things we fight for each and every day. I remember being on the floor of the House of Representatives with Jim Clyburn and all of the bills that would come up on the floor and it was always about, how are we…if we can do the best that we can for the least of these, then it helps all of us. And that is why I believe in this party. It is only the Democratic Party that fights for opportunity for all, equality for all, that you have someone, like me who grew up in a rural community in South Carolina, majority African American, to a teenage mom, who went on to college, was able to go to law school, take care of his parents and now is one of the leaders in the Democratic Party. That doesn’t happen in any other place on this planet. I remember going to Australia once and talking to my counterparts when I was on Capital Hill. They had heard my background and they said, are you sure you didn’t know anybody or didn’t have any, you know, your family connections…or this and that. Your story doesn’t happen, couldn’t happen here. But it does happen in America.

It’s the Democratic Party that is fighting so that can continue to happen, that it is not just a unique opportunity, some unique story out there. But that’s what we fight for for each and every day. So we can go into a lot of different issues in terms of values. Like we believe that Climate Change is a thing, and that it is actually taking place and we need to, as stewards of our world and our environment need to figure out how do we slow that process down, how do we end that so that we can pass on this great planet to generations after us. So that’s important. We believe that men and women who do the same work should be valued the same in the workplace and paid the same and given the same benefits and given the same opportunity. We also believe that you shouldn’t discriminate against anybody because of the A through Z types of categories that they may live in or be a part of. Those are all things that are so important and sort of define us, define who we are as Democrats. Now there are other things where there are shades of gray throughout the Democratic Party. And what we can’t do is get caught up in those things and allow those slight differences to derail us off the focus on what we’re trying to do.

AJ: As a top aide for Representative James Clyburn, recipient of numerous honors based on your Capital Hill experience, how will you explain the process of passing legislation for radical (in a good way) change like tuition free college and Medicare for all? Most Democrats are in favor of some form of these two lifts but are unaware of what 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate; the insulation from public opinion built in to the 6 year term of Senators…how do you keep people inspired by small wins on the way to victory. Sanders and his supporters are calling for sweeping change. What do you tell them?

J.H.: It is important to have a grand vision and I applaud Senator Sanders and Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, all of our leaders who’ve run recently for having a grand vision for how that want to see our society. And we had a grand vision and that is where the goal post is and we have to fight to get there. We have to fight to get across that goal line. But in the process of all that is that we understand that once you give that vision to Congress or you give it to a legislature to create and to pass [into law], that what you gave them might not be what you initially gave them may not be what you ultimately get back. Because of the legislative process. Had we been in a parliamentary system where you have a majority government and the majority government can do what it wants to do and, sort of, pass its vision then with little tweaks here and there, it’d be very different. But we don’t live in that type of environment. We don’t have that type of government. We have a much more deliberative, a much more structured process in which people have inputs throughout the process and therefore can modify it and change things as a result.

So, yes we should push for what we want, we should push for the values we believe and hold dear. But at the same time we need to be mindful and pragmatic and realistic that what ultimately we get may not always be exactly what we started off with. And so I try to give that sense to students all the time because I talk about the legislative process. I talk about the whipping process and how that comes about and the give and take that goes along in creating a bill, passing a bill and eventually getting one to the president’s desk. One of the things I’ve realized based on the 2016 race but where we’ve all fallen down and I think there’s Republican agreement on this, is that we have to go back and start teaching people, increasing the understanding of civics. It is a lost art in this country. People just don’t understand, really how [the system] works; not only with our government but within our parties. It’s important to understand the history behind things and the consequences, some intended and some unintended when we modify and change things.

A perfect example is people talking about the “super delegates” and why that was created. Listen, I’m fine with whatever we decide to do with them but we need to understand that there are consequences when you make a change. I remember talking when I was running for DNC chair, there was a group of Sanders supporters and they said, Jaime, we need to get rid of super delegates because it’s unfair. And I said, I can understand that perspective but let me give you some of the history behind why some of these people have been separated out, and then what the consequences of that is. So if you get rid of the super delegates status, or the unpledged delegates status, that means now you have a congressman and a governor and senators who are now running for convention delegate slots against grass roots activists. My question is, who wins? Odds are, 9 times out of 10, it’s going to be the congressman, the senator and the governor and not the grass roots activists. So now you will have conventions where the majority of the people there are elected officials instead of the grass roots activists. So that was part of the reason why that unpledged delegate status was created in order to move [elected officials] out of the delegate status so that they don’t have to compete against their constituents, one, and at the same time, their constituent

s don’t have to compete against their congressman and their governor and their senator because odds are, they won’t win. And so that is an unintended consequence so if you make a modification, if you make a change, you have to figure out, then how do you make sure it doesn’t negatively impact the various communities within the party. And so that’s something that I’m constantly telling people and talking to people about but one of the things I encourage elected officials, make sure you don’t just have these blanket statements that sound good in the news and you don’t explain it to people. Give people the context so they understand why we’re doing it and what’s the rationale behind it. It doesn’t mean that we have to keep it that way, but give people the full 360 degree picture of it so that they can make an informed and educated decision to how to move forward.

AJ: Because of recent reporting, I had a follow up question. I sent this message to Mr. Harrison through an aide: (lightly edited) A story just broke that Senator Sanders, while on his tour with Chairman Perez, said that Democrats should be open to embracing anti-choice candidates. This figuratively blew up my Twitter feed. You’ve been more than generous with your time but I would be derelict if I didn’t ask for a response to this. I’d really encourage Mr. Perez to speak out forcefully on this issue. After the Republicans stole a SCOTUS seat this year, people are very concerned that the Constitutional protections provided under Roe v. Wade could be overturned. Anything that I could add to the interview on this subject would be greatly appreciated.

Statement from Jaime Harrison: “I strongly believe that we should protect a woman’s right to choose, and that is a core conviction and value of our party.”