In 2020, Democrats will be competitive in the South Carolina Senate race for the first time since LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act. The most prominent candidate, Jaime Harrison, has deep roots in the state and close ties with the state Democratic Party. Over his career he’s been guided by political icons like James Clyburn and John Lewis. And he’s facing a weak incumbent Senator in Lindsey Graham who was once known as a statesman and for being closely tied to the late John McCain but who is now more widely known for debasing himself for Donald Trump. Graham is indeed a changed man.
In 2016, he said of Donald Trump, “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office.” But after spending some executive time on the Trump golf courses where Trump is funneling millions of tax dollars into his own pockets, Graham changed his mind about the kooky real estate investor, turned game show host, turned politician. His flip flop should earn him a place in the halls of Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum. “What concerns me about the American press,” he would tell CNN a year later, “is this endless, endless attempt to label [Trump] as some kind of kook not fit to be president.”
Harrison’s disappointment in Lindsey Graham is palpable. “There was one point where I actually had a lot of respect for Lindsey Graham,” Jaime Harrison told me when we spoke a short time ago over the phone. “Even though I disagreed with him on ninety-nine percent of everything, I thought that he conducted himself in a statesman like manner. I can’t say that any longer. This guy is a chameleon who has no core conviction. The only thing that is his driving force is trying to be relevant and being relevant does not mean TV interviews and TV cameras. Being relevant, to me, is addressing issues that impact the people you.”
I asked Harrison what Graham should be doing, and what he thought it meant to serve South Carolinians in the way they deserve. “They want somebody who’s going to fight for them, who is going to represent them, and who’s going to represent them even when it’s counter to their party or a president or somebody that they like,” Harrison explained. “And that’s what we all want. That’s what we all need. Someone who understands that you are representing the millions of folks in a given state. Right now, we have in Senator Lindsey Graham is someone who is not representing South Carolina but he’s representing himself.”
Harrison argues, “There are a lot of things in the state of South Carolina that aren’t right and there needs to be leadership and there are a lot of things that the Trump administration are doing that’s negatively impacting South Carolina. So we need someone who will just fight and focus on the people of South Carolina and the issues and the obstacles that they create on a day to day basis.”
I challenged Harrison on his close ties to the Democratic Party—he was the South Carolina Democratic Party Chair, he had an unsuccessful bid to run the national party and following Tom Perez’s ascent to DNC Chair, he became an associate chair for the national Democratic Party. There will be few candidates in 2020 that will have had a closer relationship to the Democratic Party apparatus than Harrison, but he’s ready when he’s asked if he’ll be able to stand up to his own party.
Reflecting on unofficial opposition research on himself, he said, “In every aspect of my life I’ve been the biggest proponent of South Carolina.” Inferring that his position has always reflected what’s best for the state and not what was necessarily best politically for the party. “I love my home state, and I know it has a lot of issues and has a lot of faults but there are a lot of good people here, a lot of hardworking people, and at the end it’s about what we’re doing to make sure that young kids who grew up like me get an opportunity to live the American dream. That’s what I want and that’s not relegated to a party, a color, a religion or sexual orientation or identity. That’s what it means to be American in this country. And I’m sad to say that there are many communities in South Carolina; some are majority white, some majority black, where that’s just no longer the reality. And we’ve got to fight to change that.”
Harrison has been critical of Lindsey Graham for shirking those duties in favor of becoming a regular on Fox News. “He’s too busy palling around with Donald Trump [even on a day the nation was waiting for its first summary of the Mueller report]. There’s so much to be done in South Carolina right now.” Harrison argues that Graham isn’t going on television to advocate for the things that will improve the lives of his constituents. “He’s just saying the same things over and over, carrying Donald Trump’s water and that’s not good enough.”
An animated Harrison lays into Graham for the consequences of the Senator’s preoccupation with Mr. Trump and how it impacts the state to have someone looking out for the man in the White House over his own constituents. “We have people whose water is as brown as the dirt outside. And instead of Lindsey writing and making sure that the EPA is down here in South Carolina to address that, what’s he doing? He’s complaining about how Roger Stone got arrested or golfing at Donald Trump’s golf course.” Harrison adds that the rural community dealing with brown water has also seen the closing of Regional Medical Center’s primary care practice. Senator Graham voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and has done nothing to solve the issue of ‘medical deserts’ in the state. Republicans in the state refused to expand Medicaid.
Harrison points to the farmers who consistently vote for Republican candidates only to receive policies that hurt them in return. “So one of the things that I do during this campaign is make sure that I’m going into these communities to talk to people make sure that they are educated and they understand who is fighting for them and who’s not. Right now they are not getting the best representation here in South Carolina.”
For years, the Democrats in Iowa made the same argument to Iowa voters about Senator Chuck Grassley. The argument to hold onto Grassley was his powerful positions in the Senate. I asked Harrison how he’ll answer that argument with Lindsey Graham being a member of the “gang of 8” and his position as chair of the judiciary committee. “Do we lose Lindsay getting on TV every Sunday? Do we lose him hanging out with Sean Hannity? Do we lose him going to go golfing with [Donald Trump]?” Harrison asks rhetorically. “All at the same time in which our hospitals are closing, the infrastructure in the state is falling apart. The tariffs are killing our farmers and small businesses. So the question is what in the world are we getting?”
Harrison explains the upside to trading Graham, “What you’re getting in exchange is somebody who is not focused on a TV interview or chumming it up with [Trump]. You’re going to get someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard each and every day, every minute, on behalf of the people of South Carolina. I think that’s a much better deal. Lindsey Graham has failed in terms of representation of South Carolina.”
Being one of 100 members of the Senate can be difficult. I asked Harrison how his priorities would differ from Graham’s and how he’d reach his goals. “I have a few priorities. One of them is tackling this issue of student loan debt. It is an upcoming crisis for this next generation of young people coming of age.” He explained, “I think my generation may have been the first inflicted with the enormity of student loan debt. I graduated from law school with $160,000 in student loan debt. Here in South Carolina that will get you a nice little house in my home town. But there are students today who are graduating with 200 and 300 and even as much as 400 thousand dollars of debt. That’s something you’ll never pay off. I mean think about a house you could probably get in Kentucky or in South Carolina with that. We have to figure this out,” Harrison argued, “because it will cripple our economy and it will cripple the chances and opportunity for these young people.”
Hearing Harrison talk about his next priority harkens back to old school Democratic Party principles. Harrison wants to invest in financial literacy to help Americans make better choices. “The issues associated with the legacy of poverty in this country. So many poor communities, black, white, in Appalachia, these bastions of hopelessness…I want to figure out ways that we can work with our corporate partners and corporate communities and citizens across the country to figure out how we tackle poverty in the country. There’s so much that we can do.”
Harrison is determined to target specific issues that will make a difference in people’s lives. “I was just recently in a hospital,” he told me. “My wife had sprained her ankle so we had to go to the emergency room and we sat down and right next door was a young man who basically told his doctor that he had a toothache. He said he hadn’t been to a doctor in 17 years. And I just shook my head. So many folks understand that your dental health and your vision have a huge impact on how prosperous you can be in our society and on your overall health. And so I want to boost our healthcare efforts and make sure that we’re not just talking about healthcare but we’re also talking about dental and vision health as well.”
In the 2018 mid-terms, Democrats rode a blue wave to take over governorships and the House of Representatives as well as hundreds of so-called down ballot races by running on healthcare. I asked Harrison about the road forward and he took a deep breath. He knows that over the last two years since the Republicans have been in power—short of repealing the law—they’ve done everything they can to destroy the ACA. Is the next step for Democrats Medicare-for-all, or something else?
“The reality is that we still have some semblance of the ACA so in the short term we do all we can to shore that up. But in the long term, I think that we have to look at all of our options. You know, we were not able to get a public option in the last round of health care reform and I think we should look at that. You know, a number of folks are supporting Medicare-for-all and I think that’s a great option in order to have a public option for healthcare. But I think people should also have the flexibility and the freedom to keep their employee based insurance if that’s what they want. I think we should build a system that is robust and flexible, that has a safety net so that we catch those folks who aren’t employed, but at the same time allow people flexibility to have that competition to make sure that you can go out in the market place and get the best health care.”
To get to the point where real solutions can be implemented, Democrats have two options: overwhelm, or find ways to work with some portion of the Republican Party. Harrison believes that cooperation is still possible. “Even as the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, I struck up a great friendship with my GOP counterpart and we worked on a number of issues together. We’re still working on issues together. We’re tackling the issue of gerrymandering. We looked at prison reform. We actually visited prisons together. We worked on changing aspects of the South Carolina state constitution. I just recently published a book called Climbing the Hill: How to Build a Career in Politics and Make a Difference with a Republican friend of mine, who when I was working at the majority whip’s office he worked for Roy Blunt in the minority whip’s office.”
Harrison emphasizes building relationships as the way forward. “I understand that many of us, regardless of whether we have a “D” or an “R” next to our name, have different journeys but the destination is the same: How can we make this the best country it can be? There are a lot of people of good will on the Republican side that I would love to work with on reforms and making things better. But at the same time, when I see that people are being mistreated or favoring one group over another in a disproportionate way, then I’m going to step up and be that voice. Dr. King taught us that good people of good will need to stand up and not be silent. And that’s really important to me and that’s the core of who I am.”
Jaime Harrison is practicing what he preaches. He’s raising his voice and competing in deep red South Carolina where he will have an uphill battle and will need all the help he can get. Join his campaign by visiting jaimeharrison.com Follow him on Twitter @HarrisonJaime